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"How was the matinee?" I ask as we walk down the hallway.

"Did you talk to your mom?" He ignores my question.

"Jeez. Deflect much?"

"Did you talk to her? Please don't tell me you spent the entire day cleaning." He enters the kitchen and pulls two glasses out of the cabinet.

"No. Not the entire day. We talked."

"And?"

"And…she has cancer," I reply frankly.

He looks at me and scowls. I roll my eyes at him and put my elbows on the table, gripping my forehead with my hands. My fingers brush against the towel that's on my head. I bend away from the bar and pull the towel off and flip my head forward, brushing the tangled strands with my fingers to smooth them out.

After I remove all the tangles, I raise my head back up just as Will darts his eyes away from me and to the cup that's now overflowing in his hand with milk. I pretend not to notice the spill and continue to mess with my hair as he wipes up the milk with a rag.

He pulls something out of the cabinet and gets a spoon out of the drawer. He's making me chocolate milk.

"Will she be okay?" he asks.

I sigh. He's relentless.

"No. Probably not."

"But she's getting treatment?"

I've been able to go the entire day without thinking about it. I've been comfortably numb since I woke up from my nap. I know this is his house, but I'm beginning to wish he would leave again.

"She's dying, Will. Dying. She'll probably be dead within the year, maybe less than that. They're just doing chemo to keep her comfortable. While she dies. 'Cause she'll be dead. Because she's dying. There. Is that what you wanted to hear?"

His expression softens as he sets the milk in front of me. He grabs a handful of ice out of the refrigerator and drops it into my cup.

"On the rocks," he says.

He's good at deflecting, and even better at ignoring my snide remarks. "Thanks," I say. I drink my chocolate milk and shut up. It feels like he somehow just won our fight.

***

The Avett Brothers are still strumming away in the background when I finish my chocolate milk. I walk to the living room and put the song on repeat. I lie on the floor and stare up at the ceiling with my hands stretched out above my head. It's relaxing.

"Turn the lights off," I tell him. "I just want to listen for a while."

He turns the lights off and I sense him lie down beside me on the floor. A dancing green glow from the sound waves on the stereo illuminate the walls as The Avett Brothers put on a color show.

My thoughts drift with the music as we lay there motionless. After the song ends and loops around again, I tell him what's really on my mind.

“She doesn’t want me to raise Kel. She wants to give him to Brenda.”

It’s the only thing spoken during the hour that we lay in the floor. He finds my hand in the dark and holds it. He holds it; and I let him just be my friend.

***

The lights flick on and I immediately cover my eyes. We’re still lying in the middle of the floor. I sit up and see Will next to me, sound asleep.

"Hey," Eddie whispers. "I knocked, nobody answered.” She walks through the front door and sits on the couch. She watches Will as he snores, sprawled out in the living room floor.

“It's Saturday night," she says as she rolls her eyes. "Told you he was a bore.”

I laugh. “What are you doing here?”

“Checking on you. You haven’t answered your phone or texted me back at all today. Your mom has cancer so you decide to swear off technology? Doesn’t make sense.”

“I don’t know where my phone is.”

We both stare at Will for a moment. He's snoring really loud. The boys must have worn him out today.

“So, I assume things didn’t go well with your mom? Since you’re here, sleeping in the damn floor.” She looks annoyed that we weren’t doing anything more than just sleeping.

“No, we talked.”

“And?”

I get up and stretch before I sit on the sofa beside her. She’s already got her boots off. I guess going so long without a permanent home makes you feel like you’re at home anywhere you go. I pull my feet up and lay back on the arm of the couch, facing her.

“Last week in the courtyard when you were telling me about your mom and what happened when you were nine-"

“What about it?”

“Well, I was grateful. I was so grateful that nothing like that would ever happen to Kel. I was grateful that he was able to live a normal nine-year-old life. But now-it's like God has it out for us. Why both of them? Wasn't my dad enough? It’s like death came and punched us square in the face.”

Eddie turns her gaze away from Will and looks at me.

“It wasn’t death that punched you, Layken. It was life. Life happens. Shit happens. And it happens a lot. To a lot of people."

I don’t even bother with the worst of the details. I’m too embarrassed to admit to her that my own mother doesn’t even want me raising her child.

Will rustles in the floor.

Eddie leans over and gives me a squeeze and grabs her boots. “Teacher's waking up, I better get outta here. I just wanted to check on you. Oh, and go find your phone,” she says as she walks toward the door.

I watch her as she leaves. She’s in a room for three minutes and her energy is infectious. I turn back around to see Will sitting up in the floor. He’s looking at me like he’s about to give me detention.

“What the hell was she doing here?”

He can be really intimidating when he wants to be.

“Visiting,” I mutter. “Checking on me.” If I don’t make it sound like a big deal, maybe he won’t either.

“Dammit, Layken!”

Nope. He thinks it’s a big deal.

He pushes himself up off the floor and throws his hands up in the air. “Are you trying to get me fired? Are you that selfish that you don’t give a crap about anyone else’s problems? Do you know what would happen if she let it get out that you spent the night here?” A light bulb goes off in his head and he takes a step toward me. “Does she know you spent the night here?”

I press my lips into a tight, thin line and look down at my lap, avoiding his eyes.

"Layken, what does she know?" he says, his voice getting lower. He can see by my body language that I've told her everything.

“Christ, Layken. Go home.”

***

My mother is already in bed. Kel and Caulder are sitting on the couch watching TV.

“Caulder, your brother wants you to go home. Kel and I have plans tomorrow, so we won't be home all day.”

Caulder grabs his jacket and heads toward the front door.

"See ya, Kel!" He slips his shoes on and leaves.

I walk to the living room and throw myself into the seat beside Kel. I grab the remote and start flipping through channels, attempting to put the fact that I just pissed Will off out of my mind.

“Where were you?” Kel asks.

“With Eddie.”

"What were y'all doing?"

"Driving around."

“Why were you at Caulder’s house when we got home from the movies?”

“Will paid me to clean his house.”

“Why is Mom sad?”

“Because. She doesn’t have enough money to pay me to clean her house.”

“Why? Our house isn’t dirty.”

“Do you want to go ice skating tomorrow?”

"Yes!"

“Then stop asking so many questions.”

I press the power button on the remote and send Kel to bed.

When I climb into my own bed, I set the alarm for six o’clock. I want to be out of this house before my mother wakes up.

Kel and I spend the entire day Sunday blowing every cent of my savings account. I took him to breakfast where we ordered two meals each off of the menu. We went ice skating and we both sucked at it so we didn't stay long. I took him to lunch at a concession stand inside an arcade where we stayed for four hours. After the arcade, I took him to an afternoon movie where we had dinner that consisted of even more concession stand food. I would have taken him for dessert, but he's now complaining that his stomach hurts.

My mother is at work by the time we get home. My timing isn’t accidental by any means. I take a shower, pick out our clothes for school and put away a load of laundry. I’m so tired that I’m able to fall asleep, without confronting anything at all.

13.

”Shooting off vicious

collections of words

The losers make facts

by the things they have heard

And I find myself

trying hard to defend them."

-The Avett Brothers, All my mistakes

Chapter Thirteen

“Got another one for ya,” Nick says as he takes his seat Monday morning.

If I have to hear another Chuck Norris joke, I’m literally going to explode. “Not today, my head hurts,” I reply.

“You know what Chuck Norris does to a headache?”

“Nick, I’m serious. Shut up!”

Nick withdraws and turns to the unfortunate student to his right.

Will’s not here. The class waits a few minutes, not really knowing what to do. Apparently this is uncharacteristic of him.

Javi stands up and gets his books. “Five minute rule,” he says as he walks out the door. He walks right back in though, followed by Will.

Will shuts the door behind him and goes to his desk and sets a stack of papers down. He's on edge today, and it's obvious to everyone. He hands the first student of each row a smaller stack of the papers to pass back, including me. I look down at my paper and there are about ten sheets stapled together. I start flipping through them and recognize one page is Eddie's poem about the pink balloon. They must all be poems written by students. I don't recognize any of the others.

“Some of you in here have performed at the slam this semester. I appreciate it. I know it takes a lot of courage." He holds up his own copy of the collection of poems.

"These are your poems. Some were written by students in my other classes, some by students in here. I want you to read them. Once you’ve read them, I want you to score them. Write a number between zero and ten, ten being the best. Be honest. If you don't like it, give it a low score. We're trying to find the best and worst. Write the score in the bottom right of each page. Go ahead.” He sits at his desk and watches the class.

I don't like this assignment. It doesn't seem fair. I'm raising my hand. Why am I raising my hand? He looks at me and nods.

"What's the point of this assignment?" I ask.

His eyes slowly make their way around the classroom. "Layken, ask that question again after everyone's finished."

He's acting strange.

I start reading the first poem when Will grabs two slips of paper off of his desk and walks past me. I glance back just as he lays a slip on Eddie’s desk. She picks it up and frowns. He walks back to the front, dropping the other slip on my desk. I pick it up and look it over. It's a detention slip.

I glance back at Eddie and she just shrugs her shoulders. I wad my slip into a ball and throw it across the room to the trashcan by the door. I make it.

Over the next half hour, students begin to finish their scoring. Will is taking the stacks as they are finished and he's adding up the totals with his calculator. Once the last of the points have been added up, Will writes the totals on a sheet of paper and walks to the front of his desk and sits.

***

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