I rolled out of the bed and sat down on the edge as the bathroom door shut. The clock on the night stand said it was after midnight. Dad was going to have a royal freak out when I got home. I rubbed a hand over my face. I’d deal with him when I had to, I guess. The bathroom door opened again.
I had something else to deal with now.
“Oh, man, it’s late,” Brittney giggled. “My parents will be home soon.”
I got up and pulled my clothes back on. “Yeah, I’ve got to get going anyway.”
She walked over and laid one on me. “I had a fun night, Josh.” She giggled and kissed me again. “I always do when you come around.”
I pasted on a smile. “Me too, Brittney.” I escaped and walked out into the cool night. I sat down on a bench some distance from the house to wait for my cab. I didn’t feel relaxed or satisfied or like raiding the fridge. None of that cliché movie stuff. I just felt…hollow.
When the taxi came, I sat in the back and rubbed the heels of my hands hard against my eyes. I’d made such a catastrophic mess out of everything.
I walked up the steps to the front door. Before I could even get my key inside, the doors swung open and my father glared down at me.
“Where the hell have you been? It’s after one in the morning!”
I shouldered past him and went into the house. “I was just out. I’m eighteen, I can go out if I want to.”
Houston grabbed my arm. “Listen here, Joshua, if you’re going to live in this house, you’re going to abide by my rules. You’re not grown yet. You’re going to abide by your curfew.”
I shrugged him off. “Or you’ll send me back to Mom’s. Blah blah blah. You’ve said it before and you’re not going to do it.”
“You’re right, I’m not. You can’t just bounce between houses because you feel like it. I’m your father, and I make the rules in this house. If you don’t follow them, you’re getting grounded.”
That pulled a harsh laugh out of me. “If you wanted me to listen to you, maybe you should’ve acted like a father from the beginning. You know, leading by example and all that.”
“Damn it, Josh. How many times are we going rehash this? I’m not perfect, okay? I never said I was. I couldn’t be the husband your mother needed. But I have always tried to be a good father to you and Nora.”
“You think I can’t remember?” I paced around the foyer. “I remember how it used to be when I was a kid. Things were great. We all did stuff as a family. You’d get home from work and help me with my homework. And you’d sit upstairs and watch Mom paint.” My voice started getting tight, forcing me to shut up. I swallowed thickly before finishing, “You ruined everything.”
Houston looked over at me, a helpless look on his face. “I remember it, too, Josh. I regret what happened with your mother and I, but we’re both better off apart. She’s happy with Carter, and I’m happy with Monica. I can only tell you I’m sorry so many times, Josh. Tell me what you need to forgive me, and I’ll do it. I want us to be a family.”
My shoulders sagged. I stared up the stairs, thinking of the three sleeping kids up there. “I don’t know,” I said quietly. “I’m just – I’m so angry, Dad. I’m angry all the time. And I don’t know how to stop it.”
Houston reached out and squeezed my shoulder. He guided me into the living room and sat down on the couch with me. “Okay, son. Let’s talk.”
I looked up at the house. I could see Mom in the kitchen. Nora was probably reading in her room. Carter had probably taken Nathan and Theresa to the park. Those two loved the park. I hadn’t seen either of them since I moved out. Nora I’d seen at school and on the weekends when she came to Dad’s. She was pissed at me in a major way. She was right to be.
I took a deep breath and walked up the stairs. At the door, I hesitated. Did I just walk in? Was I supposed to knock? I didn’t live here anymore, but this was home, wasn’t it? You didn’t have to knock when you were home. As a sort of compromise, I decided to knock and then open the door.
She came out of the kitchen, eyes open wide in surprise. “Josh?”
“Hey, Mom.” I didn’t even know how to begin to apologize to her for what an enormous dick I’d been. “I wanted to come by and…” I cleared my throat. “I’m sorry. For being a jerk.”
She pressed her lips together and sniffed. It didn’t take a big leap to figure out she was holding back tears. “Apology accepted.” She grabbed me and pulled me into a hug tight enough to bruise. When we finally pulled apart, she beamed at me. “How about lunch? I was just making something for Nora. The twins are at the park with – “ She hesitated, looking at me.
“With Carter. I figured.” I went into the kitchen. “Lunch would be great, Mom.”
She smiled and went back to cooking. “How have you been, Josh?”
“Good.” Not really, but I was doing better now, I thought. “I was dating a girl for a while.”
She turned to look at me, her brows arched. “Really? Who?”
“Just a girl from school. We broke up.” I didn’t care about Brittney. I never had. We’d been using each other. She’d liked to say she was my girlfriend because I was attractive and on the baseball team. And I’d used her to try to forget Alison. It was over now; I’d broken it off yesterday at school. “It wasn’t a smart decision.”
She studied me for a minute before putting a plate of sandwiches down on the table. “I’m glad you’re doing well, though. I’ll be right back; I’m going to get Nora.”
I leaned back in my chair, listening to the sounds of the house. This was so awkward, but I was glad I was doing it. I was relieved that Carter wasn’t here. That’d be too much all at once for someone who’s so new at this whole apology thing.
Nora came into the kitchen with Mom and grabbed a plate. “Mom said you were here, but I didn’t believe it.”
I got my own BLT. “I had to make sure you were getting out of the house sometimes. You’re going to start looking like liquid paper if you keep in your room all the time.”
She rolled her eyes. “I go out. I like reading in the park.”
Mom smiled. “Now that you’re back, you can take your sister out sometimes.”
I looked up at her. “I’m not back.” Crap. Shit. I should’ve been clearer when I got here.
“What? Of course you are. You and Carter can talk when he gets home. Everything will be fine now.”
I shook my head. “I’m going to stay at Dad’s. I think it’s where I need to be right now.” I was still trying to get to the point where I was okay with being just-friends with Alison. Until I was sure I was there, Dad and I thought it might be better if I didn’t live in the same house as Carter. “I’ll be around more, but I’m not ready to move back in.”
Mom looked crestfallen. “But, why, Josh?”
“Dad and I talked a couple of nights ago. I just think it’s better if I keep some distance. I need to get myself straight.” Dad and I were by no means cool, but…well, I’d started trying to let go of the past. I had started trying to let go of a lot. “I do mean it when I say I’ll be around more. Maybe on Saturdays I could take Nathan and Theresa to the park or something.”
Mom looked like she wanted to say something else, but she stayed quiet for a while. Finally, she said, “I want you back home, but if you feel it would be better for you to stay with Houston, I can respect that. I just want you to be happy, Josh.”
I smiled half-heartedly at her. “I wouldn’t mind that, too.”