2 – Darkness Carried Home James

As he ran a hand through his hair, James couldn’t deny Evie’s vanilla lavender scent still clinging to the tips of his fingers. He inhaled its remnants as the typical peace and calm filled him even as he walked away from the one girl he always could count on. He let his board drop to the pavement with a solid thunk, and he took off toward home, relishing the rhythmic ku-thunk, ku-thunk, ku-thunk of the sidewalk passing beneath him. 

He’d been having a fine day before her text. He’d slept in, took a long hot shower, avoided his mother like the plague, and ate an entire pack of bacon and six eggs. It was an amazing day already, but instantly became awesome when Evie’s text arrived. He’d been trying to figure out a way to connect with her again. It had been almost impossible with the army of people in and out helping her family through her brother’s cancer. 

And seeing her just now, it was . . . So good–great really. 

So why did he suddenly feel . . . He clenched his fist and kicked hard off the pavement. The hospital fell away behind him, and healthy trees and two-story homes rose up along the street. A turn later and he was approaching the cul-de-sac where he and his mom lived. He slowed, glancing at Evie’s home next door. He gave a half smile and a chuckle. It was pretty nice to live across from her. He could hear her playing the piano through his window all summer long. 

Everything happening to her family, to her, was awful. He wished something could be done, but wishes didn’t make things happen. He tipped his board into his hand and was on his porch in three bounding steps. 

No. Wishes didn’t get the job done, but he could do something nice for her. Surprise her with some kind of gift. Though, money had been tight lately. He clenched his jaw. It was awful how money held his family hostage. With his mom working two jobs, he hardly ever saw her, and when he did get time with her it was constantly with an irritating lecture leveled at him. 

Something akin to rage swelled inside of him. 

He shook it off. 

No. Money or not. Mom or not. He had to find a way to brighten Evie’s day. He could do that.

With determination, he tamped the emotions down and pushed through the front door, launching himself up the stairs. The door fell closed behind him with a loud clap. Stupid spring. 

“Don’t slam the door!” His mother’s shrill voice carried his nerves to their breaking point. 

“I didn’t!” He dropped his jacket. 

“For Heaven’s sake, peace and quiet goes out the door the instant you enter the house. For once, I wish you’d be more like–” 

James stopped at the top of the stairs. He wasn’t listening to her drone on. Why wasn’t his mom working today? Of course she had to be home this Saturday, of all days! Why couldn’t she be more like Evie’s mom. Now, that was an amazing woman, facing down cancer with a smile. A rock in the center of a storm. His mom was more like a tattered shirt flapping in the breeze, pinned up by her work, always nagging. 

He sighed. In his room, he kicked off his shoes and pulled off his shirt. His mom’s heavy footsteps thumped down the hall, toward him.  Of course, she wasn’t going to let the door thing just go. They were probably going to have the responsible adult conversation again.  

Out of breath, she leaned against the peeling paint of his bedroom’s door frame, refusing to acknowledge the paint she knocked off with her brusque touch. She placed a hand on her hip. “Where were you?”

James refused to respond. This woman was the bane of his existence. He didn’t care that she birthed him, as she constantly reminded him. Right now, he might hurt her if she wouldn’t leave him alone. His emotions were a spoiling riot inside of him, needling him, jeering for a fight. 

“I hope you were out looking for a job, but I know, I’m not that lucky.” His mom frowned, wiping sweat from her brow.

James clenched his jaw. “I’m changing my clothes.”

He undid the button of his jeans. 

She arched an eyebrow. “So, . . . no job?” 

He wasn’t looking at her, but he could feel her sneer prickling his shoulder. He ran his hand through his hair. “Ever since dad ran out on—”

“Don’t you bring up that sorry sack of . . .” She huffed out.

He spun to find her fists balled tightly at her sides. 

“You are old enough to do your part, and as long as you are under my roof, you will carry your weight. I don’t care where you work, but you are going to find a good, honest job and learn some work ethic so help me God.” She was no longer leaning on the door. Now, she was fully in his room, a finger wagging, her whole face drawing tight like the pointy tip of a dagger.

Oh they were going to have this fight, no matter what now. It was all the woman cared about anymore, him not turning into his dad. He had to spend every waking moment of his life proving her fears unfounded. He was sick of it. James strode toward her.

She just tilted her chin up at him, daring him to strike her and prove he was everything she’d said he was and more. 

Glancing out his window at the freedom just a few feet away and yet still completely out of reach, James growled, “I go to school, get good enough grades. I have work ethic.” 

This fight wasn’t about work. It was about him looking like his dad, his voice sounding like his dad. “I’m not him. But the truth is, when we lost him, I lost you too because you just work all the time and don’t care one bit about me.”

His mom gasped, cheeks puffing out, rage climbing her with its red-hot tinge. She shifted, spreading her stance like she was going to fight him. 

James straightened to his full height which just recently allowed him to tower over his mom. He willed  the full weight of his icy stare to burn into her. It filled him with a heady sense of power when she let her spine bow forward. She seemed so small now. 

He let his words come out glacier-cold and cutting like ice. “You keep treating me like I’m going to turn out like him, like I idolize this man I never knew. Stop throwing my dad’s past in my face. I never knew the jerk, and if I did, I’d tell him off.”

A tear slid down his mother’s pudgy jaw. She shook her head, eyes narrowing on him. 

There were a million mean things swarming James’s mind, so he took a deep breath and held it. 

“You haven’t lost me,” she whispered.

“Tell me, Mom. How is this the way to live? How is working yourself until you’re sick the right way to do life? I think both of you are bad examples.” He barely kept from spitting the last sentence at her. It was obvious his words had hurt her, but everything in him raged against the cage of this existence. None of it, not one single aspect of his life, was something he’d asked for. 

She clutched her faded t-shirt with its grease stain on the belly. It had seen better days, but that’s what a single mom did when they barely made enough. They did without. 

When she didn’t say anything, didn’t even move, he knew he had to fix things before they fell into one of their standoffs that lasted forever. “I don’t want to fight with you, Mom.” He blew out a breath and tried to unclench his fists she kept eyeing warily. “I just . . .” 

Some of the color faded from his mom’s cheeks, and she took a steadying breath too. That was a good sign. 

“I came from visiting Evie at the hospital. It’s already a tough day. Can we let today be a day we don’t fight?” There. That was good wasn’t it? He eyed her skeptically. She never did what he wished she’d do. But again, wishes didn’t make things happen.

“How are the Everheart’s doing?” A somberness filled his mom’s eyes with a new depth. 

It took all of his strength to not bite back—worse than we are. If he was going to end the fighting, he couldn’t keep on arguing. “I guess as well as can be expected. Evie didn’t think it would be this long for Tristen to get better. I can’t even think about what it’ll be like if they lose him.” James stepped back and sat on the edge of his bed. “ I want to do something for her.”

“There’s nothing we can do.” His mother shook her head, wringing her hands.

“Sure. We can’t cure cancer, but can’t we bake a cake or something?” He held out his hands and wished the two appendages knew how to do something useful. If only he could protect the people who he loved. He’d have helped his mom long ago. He huffed out a breath. “Everything is always so hard.”

“You got that right, kiddo.” She smoothed out the comforter’s crumpled covers and sat down next to him. 

She hardly ever touched him—not that he wanted to start hugging it all out—but it was nice to have her sit near. She wasn’t a bad mom, just someone who got hurt one too many times. People can break.

“I can’t stand this is all happening to Evie.” Would she break too?

His mom patted his leg. “I didn’t realize, with you two being out of touch and all, how much this was affecting you.” 

She bent over and picked up some dirty clothing he’d left on the floor. Rising to stand with his recently balled up t-shirt in her arms, she said,  “Look. I got a ton of work to do before the week gets started. If you want to bake a cake, you can do it, but I’ve got laundry, dishes, dinner to fix, and then I get to pay the bills, which you know always puts me in a good mood.”

James nodded with a frown. He didn’t know how to bake a cake. 

“I can give you today, but tomorrow, your butt better be out there finding a job.” She dropped his laundry into the basket and brushed her shirt down her lumpy belly. “And do your laundry. It stinks in here.”

Pain from all the stuff his dad did to her made her eat, eating made her fat, fat made her depressed and bitter, her feelings made her lash out at him, lashing out made her feel guilty, which then in turn made her eat. Did they do anything unique or original, or were their lives made up of a set of cycles that they just rotated through based on the cards they were dealt when they were born? 

She stood at the door, staring out the same window he’d been lost in earlier, probably wishing for the same freedom he’d just been hoping for too. “I don’t know what it’ll take, but you have to do better than your father and me. You gotta make something of yourself.”

With that, she turned on her heel and headed back downstairs. James flopped back on his bed and pulled out his phone. Why? Maybe to distract himself from the frustrated anger threatening to boil over. 

But it was right then when he discovered Max had texted him.

James groaned. Max was the most obnoxious lab partner on the planet—save for that one guy, Caleb who annoyed everyone. What did this guy want now? It was the kind of day he just needed to stay put and not go anywhere, like putting himself in time out for everyone else’s sake. But Max’s text reminded him of the massive project due Monday for Science. 

“Is it finished?” Max wasn’t one to use a ton of words.

He hadn’t done anything for their project. Max was going to be a problem. “Not yet.”

“Srsly! Failing is not an option!” Max’s text came back fast and furious.

James stood and grabbed his jacket. Man, if it wasn’t his mom riding his butt, it was someone else. When would he ever catch a break? He was working as hard and fast as he could. 

Well, that wasn’t entirely true, but still, who wanted to work every blinking moment they were awake! His mom did that, and it looked positively horrible. 

He believed work smarter not harder, and if it doesn’t result in an immediate painful death, don’t do it, find a way around whatever the thing is. The combo had gotten him this far in life. People worked entirely too hard for entirely too little reward. His mom was right. He needed to do things differently, starting with living his life his way.

Unfortunately, Science was one of those things that would result in immediate pain. So, he gritted his teeth as he texted Max. “I’m on my way.”

He needed to be home, figure out how to bake a cake—maybe Google it—NOT work on this inane project. 

How was it he could still smell vanilla and lavender? 

That girl made him feel when everything inside was mostly dead. He shook his head to try and make his brain focus again. He’d go work with Max, but they would have to finish before dark. He needed to bake a cake. He smiled.  

He let the door slam before he could think twice about it. Ignoring his mother’s raised voice, he kicked down the driveway on his board and let the wind take him away. It was him and the breeze and freedom. He kicked a few more times, really gaining speed, and closed his eyes. He imagined Evie was there on her bike riding with him like she used to when they were younger and the world was simpler. Her laugh echoed through his memories. 

He slammed into something warm and soft and went down with a grunt smothering a softer, more shrill cry of surprise and fear. The scent of dirt and earth filled his face as it hit the sod of his neighbor’s yard a little too hard. Something cold and dark shivered in the space between himself and the person beneath him.

“Get off me!” The distinctly-feminine and obviously angry voice commanded into his shirt.

For a second, he was all limbs and discombobulated, flashes of Evie flustering him more than he’d ever admit. Suddenly freezing cold, he rolled off of the girl who scrambled up to face him with furious fists on her hips. The petite, black-haired girl looked vaguely familiar as she narrowed her eyes on him. 

What was her name? Evie’s best friend was always around these days–part of the reason he never got a chance to hang out with Evie. This girl was such a pain in the—

“What the heck? Don’t you look where you’re going! You nearly killed me!” 

Her face was flushed and her breath came in pants, but none of that awoke his feelings inside. 

The girl shivered and wrapped her arms around herself as if she caught a sudden chill, but he could care less really. He felt lighter now, warmer, and his focus was firmly planted on Evie. It was strange how differently Evie could make his heart trip. Every other girl just reminded him of his mom. 

“Yeah. Didn’t mean to.” He righted his board and started to kick off. 

“You aren’t even going to apologize?” She poked him in his back. “What if it was Evie—or Tristen— he could have died from the impact? You’re so stupid! Carelessly riding around plowing into innocent people. What is wrong with you?”

In a dark voice, he tossed over his shoulder, “Next time, pay attention to the sidewalk. Maybe no one will plow into you then.” 

He kicked off, leaving Callie growling something in his wake. It didn’t matter. He had to get this stupid project done, Max off his back, and then figure out how to bake a cake.

Hints of Darkness
Copyright © 2023 by J. L. Burrows
Published by Faith Filled Fiction
Cover and Layout copyright © 2023 by Faith Filled Fiction Publishing
Cover design by German Creative

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