All in Pieces
My life is none of their business.
I don’t want to be up here, don’t want to explain my reasons, but I can’t afford to miss another assignment.
I smooth my crumpled piece of notebook paper on the top of the podium. There’s a cough in the back of the quiet classroom, and even my teacher looks bored as he sits in the faux leather chair he brought over from his last school—a school that could afford fake leather chairs, apparently. Mr. Jimenez is definitely slumming with us.
“My brother has an intellectual disability,” I read, pausing once the words are out. I feel judged, exposed, and I look up at the class, anticipating a reaction. “He’s not stupid,” I add defensively. “He just learns differently.” One guy curls his lip like he has no idea why I’m talking about this. A girl in the back pops her gum. The gravity of my confession is lost on them and it pisses me off. Pricks of anger crawl up my arms; anger at whom, I’m not sure. All of them, I guess.
I grow flustered and lose my place on my page, the already smudged ink going blurry. I look up accusingly. “And if any of you even think of making a joke about him, I swear I’ll—”
“What are you gonna do, Savvy?” Gris calls from the front row. He’s leaned back in his seat with his long legs stretched under the desk, his immaculate Timberlands begging to be stomped on. “You gonna stab me like you did your boyfriend?”
I put my elbows on the top of the podium and lean forward, narrowing my eyes. “Give me your pencil, and we’ll find out,” I say.
Gris smiles, and the scar on his cheek is shiny under the fluorescent lights of the room. I sneer and rest back on my heels. Aaron Griswold is an alcoholic loser, and I’ll tell him so the minute I’m finished. Just because we’re both stuck in Brooks Academy doesn’t mean we’re friends. He isn’t shit to me. But still, when he blows me a kiss a moment later, I nearly laugh.
“Enough,” Mr. Jimenez calls from behind his desk. “Knock it off or I’ll see you both after class. Savannah,” he says to me, pushing his wire-rimmed glasses up on his nose. “Can you please continue?”
I’m not sure I want to—this is such an incredible waste of time. But I need this class to graduate, so I swipe a tangle of red hair behind my ear and begin again.
“Because of my brother’s condition”—I lower my voice—“I picked a special-education teacher for my career project. The pay is terrible but the hours aren’t bad. I think I’d be good at it. And I wouldn’t be one of those condescending ones either. I’d be cool. I’d help the kids feel cool.” I look out at the room of blank faces and sigh. “So, yeah. The end.”
There’s a halfhearted attempt at applause before Mr. Jimenez comes to stand next to me, barely two inches taller. He smells like copy machine ink and cough drops, and he’s generally tolerant of our disinterest in learning.
“Thank you, Savannah,” he mumbles, picking up the class roster.
I shrug and walk back to my seat, flipping off Gris before dropping down in my chair. As the heat begins to fade from my cheeks, I chip the clear polish off my fingernails.
“Nice speech, Sutton,” Cameron says. He’s in the desk next to mine, staring straight ahead and not looking at me. He never looks at me.
I wish he never talked to me either. Things here at Brooks Academy are usually pretty simple. We show up and listen to the druggies, the criminals, and the anger management cases—like me—give speeches (or whatever pointless project is assigned), then we go home.
This is where the district sends the students they’ve expelled, keeping their funding by continuing our education. Yep. Glorified GED classes equal an education around here. But it’s fine. I came to class and minded my own business.
Then Cameron Ramsey showed up, all sexy and quiet. None of us even know why he’s in here. He definitely doesn’t fit. I mean, the kid drives a BMW.
He’s a distraction. And for some reason, I’m the only one privy to his one-liners. Nice speech? What the hell is that about?
“Cameron?” Mr. Jimenez calls from the front. “Would you like to participate?”
Cameron closes his notebook and shakes his head no. I wonder if he didn’t do the assignment or if he just hates people. I understand either way. When the teacher moves on, Cameron takes out his phone and begins playing a game under his desk.
Mr. Jimenez leans on the podium, clearly exhausted. “Well, unless anyone else has something to add, I guess we’re done for the day . . .” He leaves his offer open, but if he thinks any one of the twelve of us is going to prolong class, he’s obviously having an acid flashback.
“Good-bye,” Mr. Jimenez announces loudly and turns away. I feel sort of bad for the guy. He’s youngish—young enough to still think he can make a difference in our lives. But he’s our third savior this year. I wonder how many times a day he wishes he went into business management instead.
I stand and swipe my notebook into my bag, relieved the day is over. I turn just as Cameron shoves his phone into his pocket. Without looking at me, he smiles.
“I’ll see you around, Sutton,” he says.
“Uh . . . yeah,” I respond. “Tomorrow. Here.”
He laughs and starts walking away. “Right,” he says. “That’s what I meant.”
I watch after him, confused, maybe blushing a little. Man. I don’t know what it is about him. Okay, not true. I’ll admit that part of it is his looks: chin-length blond hair, dark brown eyes, T-shirts that are tight enough to show off his muscles, but not the sort of tight that makes him look like a douchebag. But mostly it’s because he talks to me. The fact that it’s only me.
“Goddamn,” Retha says, sliding up next to me. “Is Cameron getting hotter?” she asks seriously. “I think he is.”
“He definitely is.” We both stare toward the doorway, even though he’s already gone. I glance sideways at Retha. “He talked to me again,” I tell her, smiling.
“Of course he did. What did he say?”
“He told me ‘nice speech.’”
She’s impressed. I can see it in her eyes even through her gobs of black liner. “That’s because he wants you,” she says. “Now, can you please screw him and find out why he’s here? I need to know.”
“Sure. I’ll get right on that for you.” I swing my bag over my shoulder and survey the room. Travis is still asleep in the corner, his head down on his folded arms. “Grab your boyfriend,” I tell Retha, motioning toward him. “I have to get home. Evan will be there in fifteen.”
“Hey!” Retha yells toward Travis, making him jump awake. “Let’s take off. Savvy’s got her brother today.”
Travis stares at us for a second, blinking heavily as if trying to figure out where he is. He straightens and brushes his long, black hair away from his face. “Okay,” he says, sounding groggy. “But you drive, Retha. I think I’m still hungover.”
“Well,” I say as Travis strolls out the door with us, his skinny shoulders sharp under his thin, long-sleeved T-shirt. “That’s what happens when you drink in the parking lot of a 7-Eleven until four in the morning.”
“Hey.” He smiles. “You could have been there too.”
“Ah.” I raise my finger at him. “But I don’t drink. So I would just be tired. Not smelly and hungover.”
His expression falters, and he lifts his arm to sniff.
“Gross, Travis,” I say, pushing him hard enough to make him stumble. “That is seriously filthy.”
Retha agrees and starts cussing at him in Spanish, making me laugh. I’m not bilingual, but thanks to her, I know every swear word. Hell, she even makes a few up as she goes.
“Relax, woman,” Travis tells Retha, ready to play at fighting. But suddenly his expression hardens as he catches sight of something behind us in the hall. “Hey, I’ll meet you guys at the car. I’ve got business to take care of.” He touches Retha’s arm as he moves past her.
I turn and see Gris leaving the classroom, hiking up his low-hanging jeans. Clueless as always.
“Travis,” I say as he follows Gris down the hallway. Guess he hadn’t been asleep the entire class after all.
“Let it go,” Retha tells me, sounding bored. “Gris shouldn’t have messed with you. He deserves the ass kicking.”
She’s probably right. Punches sometimes help—at least they help us. It’s not like Travis is going to get in trouble. Gris knows better than to report it.
“Fine,” I say, and start toward the parking lot with Retha. “But if I’m late getting home because of Gris, I will come back and stab him.”
* * *
Hungover or not, Travis would never let anyone else drive his car. His Impala is old, and not in an “I’m restoring it” kind of way. It’s rusted and the carpet smells lightly of mildew, but he keeps it clean like he’s proud of it. Always swiping dust off the dashboard or sneaking into one of those do-it-yourself car washes when a person leaves before their time is up. So we’re proud of it too.
We pull up in front of my house at the same time as my little brother’s bus, and I know I’m too late. I grab my bag off the seat, yanking on the door handle. “I’ll call you after,” I tell Retha.
She raises her hand in a wave and leans over to adjust the radio volume. I slap Travis in the back of the head on my way out. He yells, but I’m already running toward the bus, my heart pounding. Evan is going to lose it.
I toss my bag onto the dirt of my front yard and stop outside the bus doors, panting as I wait for them to open. I can hear Evan crying through the open window. He likes to see me out here before the bus pulls up—he won’t get off otherwise. Because if I’m not here, he’ll think I left him. But I’m not Mom. And I’m not going to disappear like she did.
The doors screech open, and I climb up the steep stairs, nodding at the driver. She huffs out a hello, looking haggard. Exhausted.
I make my way down the aisle, and another little boy points to a seat across from him. I stop when I find Evan slouched down with his hands over his face. My heart breaks.
“Hey, buddy,” I say. My seven-year-old brother hitches in a breath, still crying—but softer now that I’m here.
“You’re late,” he croaks in a small voice from behind his hands.
I swallow hard. “I know. Sorry.”
Evan sniffles, still not showing his face. I hate myself.
“Let’s go,” I say, grabbing his backpack from the floor. “These other kids have to get home.”
He’s quiet and then mutters, “No.”
“Evan,” I warn, not wanting to get into it here. I wish I could just grab his arm and drag him off; it would be easier. But I don’t put my hands on him like that. “Look,” I say in a softer voice. “I’m sorry, okay? I fucked up. But if you come with me now, I’ll make us dogs ’n’ cheese. I promise.”
“Really?” he asks quietly.
My lips flinch with a smile. “Yeah. But you’ll have to help. You know how much I hate doing the dishes.”
Evan finally drops his hands and looks up at me. His pale blond hair is wet where it’s grown long near his eyes, and peanut butter from his school-provided lunch has crusted in the corners of his mouth.
He deserves better than me.
“Okay,” he says. “I’ll help you.”
“We can even color,” I tell him, taking his hand. I keep my voice light, trying to make it sound like there’s something fun waiting for him inside our crappy house. There isn’t. But I think he forgets that. It’s like every day he starts new.
I wish I could do that.
* * *
It’s too early for dinner, but I make Evan hot dogs mixed with mac ’n’ cheese anyway. I don’t ask him to help with the dishes, but he dries the plates. When we’re done, we go into the living room and I give him his crayons and the backside of an assignment sheet I got at school.
Evan lies on his stomach across the worn carpet and spreads out his crayons in front of him. He draws a picture, occasionally looking up to make sure I’m still here. For a moment it’s peaceful. Normal.
The front door opens, and my heart pounds faster.
My father’s heavy boots clop through the hall until I feel his presence in the doorway behind me.
“Is there dinner?” he asks, his raspy voice shattering the contentment in the room.
“Yeah,” I respond. “It’s on the stove.” I don’t turn, hoping he’ll get it for himself. Evan colors the sky purple.
“Come on, Savannah,” my father says. “Can’t you go plate it up for me? I just got home from work.”
And I’ve gone to school, cooked dinner, and washed the dishes already, but I don’t remind him of that. I lean closer to Evan and tap his paper. “Hey, buddy,” I whisper. “Paint the house pink.”
He looks up at me wide-eyed, as if a pink house is the most absurd thing he’s ever heard. He laughs.
“No,” he says. “The house is white.”
“Yeah, but I want mine pink.” I ruffle his hair and stand up. Evan reaches for the pink crayon.
My father stomps into the kitchen and pulls out his chair, scraping it along the scuffed linoleum floor. He exhales loudly, sounding tired. I understand the feeling.
I go to the stove and use the wooden spoon with the broken handle to stir the now-stiff macaroni before slapping a glob of it on a freshly washed plate. I set it on the table in front of my father.
He stares at the mac ’n’ cheese with bits of hot dogs in it for a long moment before poking through it with his fork, looking disgusted. “Again?” he asks me.
I lean my hip against the sink and meet his eyes. “It’s his favorite.”
I’d tell him that he’s an adult and perfectly capable of fixing his own dinner, but I don’t want to argue tonight. Not when Evan will be leaving soon. I look away, biting my lip.
We weren’t always like this. When my mother was around, my dad would help her in the kitchen—hell, he’d even cook sometimes. He was never father of the year, but at least he wasn’t useless. Now he can’t make his own, let alone hold down a job.
There’s a loud clank as he drops the fork on his plate. I turn and see him rub roughly at his face. “Grab me a beer, will you?” he asks.
“No. It’s barely five.”
He glances at me, looking sorry for a second. But he gets up and walks across the room to snatch a beer from the nearly empty fridge. He pops the top on his Bud Light the moment he sits back down at the table.
“Daddy,” Evan yells, running into the kitchen. “Look what I made!”
Our father eyes him, taking a loud sip of his beer before answering. “Let’s see what you’ve got there,” he says quietly, holding out his hand.
Evan’s jumping up and down, his energy out of place in this small, miserable kitchen.
“A pink house,” our father says. I appreciate his attempt to sound interested.
“Uh-huh.” Evan turns around to show it to me. “Savvy wanted hers pink.”
I press my lips together and reach out to push his shoulder. “And see how good it looks?”
“Yeah.” Evan laughs.
I look at our father and find him watching Evan with the same expression he always has when he’s around him lately. A face of guilt, regret, resentment maybe—I’m not sure. But at least he knows enough to try to keep it to himself. He takes a long drink like he wishes he could drown himself in it.
“What color house do you want, Daddy?” Evan asks, stepping toward him.
“Doesn’t matter,” our father says. There’s a pain in my gut when I see Evan’s lower lip jut out.
“Make it a blue one,” I answer quickly. “Daddy’s favorite color is blue.” I have no idea what my father’s favorite color is, and I honestly don’t give a shit. But I know Evan likes blue.
“Mine too!” my brother yells, flailing out his arms. He accidentally knocks into the can of beer and topples it over.
“Damn it!” our father snaps, pushing back in his seat as beer trickles off the table and onto his jeans. “What the hell, Savannah?” he screams at me, making Evan jump. “You’re supposed to watch him!”
I ball my hands into fists.
“Come here, Evan,” I say quickly, pulling my brother toward me. But it’s too late. He’s already begun to cry. Hard. He hates loud noises, especially when they come from our dad.
“Oh great,” our father says, raising his hands in the air, his lips pulled into a sneer. “Another fantastic night.”
“Shut up,” I say, hugging Evan to me. But my brother starts struggling, crumpling his picture into a ball and throwing it to the floor. “Stop,” I whisper. But Evan digs his fingernails into my skin, and when I wince, he yanks free and runs toward the living room.
I swear and lift up the edge of my shirt to see the deep scratches along my side. They hurt, but I guess they’ll go nicely with the bruise on my back from last week’s tantrum.
The kitchen is quiet except for the sound of beer running off the table in a steady stream. I look over at my father and find him red-faced with anger.
“We can’t keep doing this,” he says.
“You’re not doing anything,” I answer. “I am.”
“If your mother was here—”
“She’s not. She left, remember?”
He narrows his eyes. “I remember, Savannah. I remember pretty goddamn clearly.”
Does he? Does he remember what it was like the morning she left? Because I do. I was the one who called around looking for her. I was the one who had to miss school to babysit Evan. And I was the one who had to tell him that she wasn’t coming back.
Evan was destroyed. I sure as hell remember that.
“This isn’t working,” my father says, motioning the way my brother had gone. “And it’s not going to work.” But there’s a crack in his voice, maybe the last bit of his conscience wearing away.
“It’s getting better,” I say, knowing it’s not true, but desperate to believe it.
My father blinks a few times as if clearing tears, and slowly moves to grab the dishrag hanging near the stove. “Just keep Evan out of my face tonight, Savannah,” he whispers.
So I do. I walk into the living room and find my brother curled into a ball on the couch, most of his crayons broken on the carpet. He’d just gotten them back, too.
I close my eyes for a second, hating the moment. Hating my life. But then I straighten up, brush my hair away from my face, and get down on the floor to shove the crayons back into their box. Broken.