By: S. C. Stephens

Matt wasn’t dissuaded by Griffin’s thought-provoking comeback. Instead of minding his own business, like Griffin had implied, Matt countered with, “And why would Kellan want your seconds anyway? He could catch something. They make after-school specials about crap like that, you know?”

Fire lit up Griffin’s light eyes. “I have to get his seconds all the goddamn time. Why shouldn’t he get mine every once in a while? Seems fair to me.”

Evan started laughing so hard he had to swipe a finger under his eye. Seeing him start to lose it made me laugh too. Matt tried to keep a straight face while he answered Griffin’s inane question, but he struggled. Voice choppy with chuckles, Matt told him, “Kell’s got options. You don’t, cuz. You have to take whatever you can get.”

Not amused, Griffin eyed each one of us in turn. “Fuck you, and you, and you.” With that, he stormed off, the front door banging closed behind him.

Matt sighed as the last of his laughter left him. “I suppose I should go pacify him. We do need his van for the gig tonight.” I thumped his shoulder as he walked by. Good luck.

Two weeks later, I was still living alone in my parents’ empty house when the phone in my kitchen rang.

“Hello?” I asked, picking it up. Leaning back on the counter, I played with a section of the cord while I waited for a response. It was quick in coming.

“Hey, Kellan?”

My lips broadened into a wide smile as recognition hit me. I knew the accent on the other end of the line. I’d know it anywhere. “Denny?”

Just hearing his voice again made me feel lighter, like my worries were already fading. Denny Harris had been one of the brightest spots of my childhood, perhaps the only one. In order to look like freaking saints to their friends, my parents had decided to participate in hosting a sixteen-year-old exchange student when I was fourteen. They hadn’t asked my opinion, of course, but I’d been fine with the arrangement. I’d always wanted a brother, and the idea of having a friend at home for an entire year had sounded amazing.

I’d counted down the days until his arrival, and when the time finally came, I’d bounded down the stairs to meet him.

When I’d rushed into the entryway, a tan, dark-haired teen had been standing between my parents, looking around our home with interested eyes. A polite smile was on his lips as he raised his hand in greeting; his eyes were just as dark as his close-cropped hair. I’d returned his gesture with a crooked grin. I had been the only family member smiling.

Mom’s lips had been pursed in disapproval. Dad had been scowling, but that was nothing new. Dad had always scowled at me.

In a prudish voice, Mom had said, “It’s rude to keep your guests waiting, Kellan. You should have been waiting at the door, or met us at the car so you could help unload the bags.”

Dad barked, “What the hell took you so long?”

I’d wanted to say that I should have been waiting at the airport with them, but that was an argument I couldn’t win, so I hadn’t bothered bringing it up. I’d asked to go, but they’d made me stay home. Mom had said I would just “get in the way,” like I was a toddler and still underfoot or something. Dad had simply said, “No. Stay here.”

I’d been upstairs playing my guitar when I’d heard the front door open. It had taken me all of thirty seconds to set it down and run out there. But, knowing nothing I said would have mattered, I’d merely widened my smile and given them an answer that I knew they would, at the very least, agree with. “I’m just slow, I guess.”

Impatience and irritation had been brimming in Dad’s eyes, also nothing new. “Isn’t that the truth,” he’d murmured. His eyes narrowed as he examined me. He’d wanted me to dress nicely for the new arrival, and I think he’d been expecting a suit and tie. Fat chance. I’d been wearing frayed jeans, sneakers, and a T-shirt from a local bar.

Catching me off guard, Dad had reached up and snatched a handful of my hair. He fisted his hand close to my scalp, stinging me with pinpricks of pain. Knowing any movement was going to make it even more unpleasant, I’d held very still. Yanking on my hair, Dad had jerked my head back and snarled, “I told you to cut this crap off. You look like a no-good degenerate. I’m going to buzz you in your sleep one day.” Mom and Dad had always hated my shaggy, unkempt style. Maybe that was why I’d kept it for so long.