For once in his life, James was thrilled for routine. He was desperate for something to stick. James tried to get into the rut of things that needed to be done. School had finals, he had to deal with the reappearance of Marcus, and he had to keep a steady job. At first it was a comfort. With so many things needed to be done and constantly taken care of, he didn’t have time to think about anything. He had no time for parties, even if Zack begged him to go because if he didn’t go then Ori wouldn’t go and Zack wanted them to meet Mrs. Perfect, whoever the hell she was.
James hadn’t seen much of Ori since the party. Sometimes she came into work to talk to both him and Chloe, and he saw her in class, but that wasn’t hanging out. It was just seeing each other. He told himself over and over again it was fine, it was okay for him not to see much of his friends. It meant less time thinking, less time he had to face the knowledge that he did something wrong. And it meant less chances for him to make another mistake and tell somebody else. Chloe had said before it wasn’t her right to tell someone, that he needed to be the one. James didn’t want to be the one. And, surprisingly, Ori hadn’t told anyone. For the first few weeks she had threatened to go to the police but as time went by she stopped. James assumed she just forgot about it. She had stopped talking to him about it. So had Chloe. He tried to make himself feel better, forcing himself to believe that yes, they forgot, yes, they had known, but it was for the best.
The less people that know, the better he can just forget it.
The Christmas season was in full force at Kroger. Every single one of the employees had helped put up hundreds of different decorations, like big plastic stickers of candelabrum plastered on the windows, several light-up reindeer in the deli isle, a snowman helper in the frozen goods, a Kwanzaa banner hanging in the balloon gate, and a life size Coke bottle Santa in the drink isle that lasted a whole four hours before some kid knocked it down. James knew this because when he arrived at work the first thing he had to do was restack them. The display was right near the freezer isle, so he had to put on a heavy layer of scarves and jackets just so he could stack the cans. A template was laid out on the ground so he could see where to put the correct colored cans.
Today was one of the last days before school let out for Christmas vacation. If teachers could hold students and force them to make up all the work and redo finals like they did in summer, James would bet that nobody would be celebrating Christmas. His grades had dropped, all from low A’s and high B’s to just low B’s and C’s. It wasn’t that bad – he still qualified for his credits. No summer school yet. Mom hardly noticed, she was too busy reconnecting with Marcus and trying to juggle her jobs to be a good mother.
James kicked himself. It almost sent Santa over to the South Pole.
Screw that, she was a good mother. Who else would take on three jobs to sustain both of them all year round?
He almost slipped on the template sheet. Already angry, he just crumpled it up and tossed it behind the deli counter. Whoever was on cleanup duty could get it. He didn’t care.
But they wouldn’t need to do that if Marcus hadn’t walked out. And now he was trying to be “Perfect Father” all of a sudden? He clenched his fist, almost crushing a can. Mom was falling into his trap again. James didn’t need him. They didn’t need him. He lost the title of dad when he left and never came back.
Jesus, what gave him that right? To just show up out of nowhere? And what did expect, that they would all just welcome him with open arms? That note doesn’t mean shit. Marcus was a coward. If he wanted to say something, he should say it to James. Not on a fucking note.
He shoved a can into Santa’s eye. It knocked another can sideways – and Santa toppled. Several cans exploded on impact and drenched James in sticky Cola. He gritted his teeth, sinking his nails into his palms.
James arrived home close to midnight. His clothes were still wet and his skin felt like he was covered in bubble gum. He stripped off his clothes and took a shower. The warm water tickled, but it felt good. As he scrubbed the dried soda, he noticed the pinkish blobs on his hips. The bruises had healed, but he could still see the thin scratch scars from her nails. He tensed as the soap bubbled over them. They didn’t hurt.
When James was out of the shower and drying his hair, he noticed a note taped to his door. He read it without pulling it off:
James, tomorrow you need to clean your room and help downstairs. Your dad is coming over for dinner.
He scoffed, tearing the paper off and ripping it in two. He didn’t bother picking it up from the floor.
It was one of the few nights where James didn’t dream of red or green or Sangria. It was a blessing to him, but he still had nothing to recall when he woke up that morning. He laid in bed, buried under what seemed like thousands of blankets.
It was a Saturday, thank god, he didn’t have work, and he counted down the days until he was out of school for the winter break. Usually his mom and he didn’t celebrate Christmas – well, not like normal families do. On Christmas Eve, they almost always had dinner at some gas station (it was cheap) came home and watched a re-run of some Christmas special (it was almost always Charlie Brown) and made chocolate milk with bits of candy left over from Halloween. The next day they exchanged cards, DIY shirts, bags, shoes, pencil holders, whatever they could afford or find the instructions on how to make it online.
When he finally coaxed himself to get up, he smelled pancakes. Not burnt pancakes or the smell of rotten milk hanging in the room, but the smell of actual, real pancakes.
And it was actual, real pancakes.
James stood at the edge of the stairs, staring into the kitchen. Mom had actually set up festive decorations everywhere – wasn’t the snowman enough? – had makeup on, frizzy hair tied in with bells, and dressed in a 3D rainbow sweater. It was a tacky overload. She hummed, pouring a pancake mixture into an owl shaped pan over the stove. A fresh stack simmered with butter and syrup on a plate. Mom noticed James, and smiled wide. She nodded to the pancakes.
“Remember those? I even put in the blueberries for eyes.” She shoved a plate to him. He held it, staring down at it. She was right. He poked two blueberries drowning in syrup. They did have eyes. He skeptically stabbed the pancake. No undercooked gooey mess.
“Well? What are you waiting for? Eat up.” Mom urged. James took a bite. It tasted amazing.
“Jeez, Mom, this is amazing.” He shoveled most of it into his mouth. Mom’s grin grew wider, and she flipped the pancake on the stove.
“Thank you – hurry up and eat most of these. I don’t know if we can save most of them since we might have leftovers from tonight’s dinner.”
James stopped. A queasy feeling erupted in him, and he had to spit out the pancake in his mouth. Mom didn’t notice as he balled it up into a napkin and threw it away.
He set the plate down.
“Are you sure you want to go through with this?” He asked. Mom slid more mix into the pan. She gave him a confused look.
“What do you mean? Haven’t you and Marcus been bonding lately?”
James played with his fork. A blueberry was stuck to one of the prongs. Reddish juice from it trickled down the metal. A flash of hair whipped across his eyes and he breathed in again. His stomach turned sour.
“Yeah, I mean, no, no, not really. I haven’t seen him since the lunch a few months ago.” He said. His Mom put down the measuring cup with the mix. She stood near the stove, hand on her hip. To James, she looked like a regular mom.
“Well, I know how you’re feeling, James.”
Again with the ‘I know’. James was sick of hearing that.
“No, no you don’t know. Mom, we both handled Marcus leaving us differently.” He said. Mom’s brow wrinkled.
“Of course we did, but why does that have anything to do with-“
“It looks like you’re more willing to forgive him for ruining our lives!”
James blurted. Mom’s mouth dropped open. For a second, the only sound was the quiet sizzling of the pan. Mom didn’t bother to check when it started to smoke.
“He didn’t ruin our lives, James.” She took a step towards him. He refused to move.
“How can you say that? Of course he did. Look – before when he was out of the picture we struggled every day. I had to take on a job when I was twelve because there wasn’t enough money to pay for all of the bills and the food and everything.” He chucked his fork into the sink.
“You know I tried to do what I could for you when he left. For both of us. I know we haven’t had a high class life-“
“- or any class at all-“
“But can’t you give him a chance when he wants to come back?”
“No. He left us with bills for all the stupid shit he bought, he made you into a workaholic mess, he made me not trust a single male figure because, heyo, apparently everyone leaves at some point.”
“This is unfair, James. I did my best to try and raise you so you had an education and you at least had food on the table every day.”
“Mom, do you even hear yourself? He put us in that position, don’t you see? He ruined our lives, and he’ll fucking do it again!”
James stopped, panting. Mom stood ridged, glaring at the stack of pancakes. Tears were building in both of their eyes. The smoke had gotten thicker around the pan so she took the now black pancake and tossed it into the trashcan. James knew she was furious. When she spoke, her voice came out quiet and slow.
“It seems like you don’t appreciate the way I’ve done things these past few years.”
James snapped his head to her. She didn’t look at him, but calmly poured in more mix. Rather than try to argue with her or apologize, he left his half-eaten breakfast at the table, and stomped up the stairs. He was afraid if he said anything else he would screw it up. And he really didn’t want that to happen.
His mom left later in the morning to go run some errands. James found another note next to the stack of now cold pancakes on the counter when he came downstairs to grab lunch. He crumpled it up, but didn’t throw it into the trash. He ate the cold pancakes. They didn’t taste as great when the syrup had cooled and soaked into it. Then he went back upstairs and tried to ignore the now deflated hand of the front yard snowman.
Mom didn’t talk to him when she back from the store, even when she struggled with the groceries.
He fucked up. He knew it. He fucked up bad. There were only so many times when Mom was angry enough to not even talk to him. But, in his own mind, he was right. Marcus had ruined their lives. And it was Marcus who had uprooted their current lives so he could intrude without even saying anything. And it was still Marcus who thought he could come in and wreak havoc. James had enough to worry about. He didn’t need someone to pretend to be his dad after nine long years.
Angry again, he trampled down the stairs and prepared for another fight with his mother. When he reached halfway he could hear laughing, and the crumpling sound of the grocery bags being unpacked. Mom had a friend over? He glanced around the corner.
There was Marcus. He was eating a cold owl pancake still soaked with syrup from this morning. Blueberry eyes rolled off his plate, and Mom laughed as they chased them around the kitchen. James stopped in his tracks.
She looked so happy. James hadn’t seen her like that in ages. Marcus straightened and held the berry in between his fingers with a triumphant smile. Mom leaned over and pecked his cheek.
James almost fainted.
“What are you doing?”
Mom and Marcus jumped back, watching as James descended the stairs. Mom didn’t look the least bit guilty. She should have. She cleared her throat.
“You mean Marcus.” It wasn’t even a question. In his mind, it was a correction. Mom’s eyes narrowed.
“Your dad has come by early, to help me with dinner.”
He eyed the blueberry in Marcus’ hands.
“It doesn’t look like he’s helping.”
“Well, he is.”
James looked to Marcus. He didn’t back away from his sharp glare but didn’t meet his eyes. James grit his teeth.
“Why are you really here? Do you just want to screw Mom over again?”
Mom’s mouth flew open.
Marcus held a hand up to her. She fumed but didn’t say anything else. That made James even angrier. Marcus didn’t have the right to do that. Nobody had the right to do that. He clenched his fists as Marcus stepped forward.
“James, I know you’re angry-“
Oh Jesus Christ, not this.
“No, stop, okay? I really fucking hate it when you people say that shit, No, you don’t know how I feel.”
Mom looked over at him in surprise.
“James, there is no need for that kind of language, why would you even use that?”
“Because it’s how I fucking feel.”
“Now, James, son-“
That word hit home. His nails cut into his skin.
“DON’T CALL ME YOUR SON. I AM NOT YOUR SON!” He yelled. Marcus didn’t flinch, but there was a soft light in his eyes as tears built up in James’.
“James, please, listen. “ He said quietly. James didn’t want to. He wanted to scream and shout and throw a tantrum but his he noticed his Mom hide slightly behind Marcus.
Like he was the villain.
He shut up. Marcus continued.
“What I did to you guys before was inexcusable-“
“-but I know now that I can’t just throw you guys away. You’re my family, and I have a responsibility to make sure you are safe and loved.”
James chuckled dryly, “it’s a little late for that. And we aren’t your family-“ he stabbed a finger at Marcus, “and we will never be your family.”
Mom’s hand reached out, cupping James’. Her skin felt so rough.
“James,” she murmured. He didn’t take his eyes off Marcus.
“James look at me.”
A few second went by. Slowly, he tore away his gaze to look at his mother. She looked completely different than she did just a few minutes ago.
Was that because of him?
“We are his family….” She took a deep breath. They shared a glance James did not like.
“James, we’ve been talking for about a year now, so, no, he did not show up suddenly,” now she looked guilty as he looked to the floor, “I invited him to come pick you up from school.”
And he stared.
He couldn’t breathe.
The clock in the living room ticked.
He silently thanked God for not letting his voice break. Mom had to clear her throat again. Marcus didn’t look up to him.
“I invited him to come get you. I thought…I thought you wouldn’t fight badly but I didn’t think-“
“No, stop,” he held a hand up. They always said that the truth hurt. But this couldn’t have been the truth. He didn’t want to believe it. He shook his head, “that’s the problem. You didn’t think. You didn’t think about how this guy treated us when I was younger. You didn’t think about the times when he came home drunk. You didn’t think about the time when he left us.”
Marcus took a deep breath.
“Look, Lily and I-“
James almost exploded. He whipped around to Marcus again and almost had to physically restrain himself so he didn’t punch Marcus in the face.
“NO!” He screamed, “NO, YOU DON’T GET TO CALL HER LILY! YOU DON’T GET TO CALL ME SON!”
Marcus looked as if his bearings had just snapped as well. His face swelled with rage.
“Listen to me, you are being very rude and very disrespectful-“
“Oh, so NOW you’re going to try to be a dad? Whoop-de-FUCKING-doo!”
“Why are you being like this? Do you not have any respect?”
“Respect? RESPECT? I’m never going to respect you! Do you think you have ANY claim to my respect?”
“I am your father-“
“You are not my father! You will never be my father! GET THE HELL OUT OF MY LIFE!”
His eyes threatened to spill with tears. Before they could, he ran back up to his room, slamming the door as hard as he could. He grabbed his hair, sobbing, hyperventilating. He hurled his foot against the wall until he could see a dent in it. Pain ricocheted across his ankle and leg.
Fucking Anna. Marcus. Mom.
Was the entire fucking world against HIM-
God, fuck, this was MARCUS’ fault. If he just stayed away-
-but Mom looked so happy-
-fuck what Mom looked like, that’s not what she truly felt, is it-
-why did he have to appear now-
-why didn’t just stay away-
-why did he ever leave-
James covered his face with his hands.
And he cried.
He knew they ate dinner without him.