Finding Home Chapter 1

Chapter 1

“I’m looking to see where you are, since we haven’t done much practice yet, so answer the prompt in short-essay format. Try to be as descriptive as possible.” Mrs. Ainsley was saying as she passed out the writing prompts to my senior English class.

I received mine and passed the rest of the stack behind me, then read the prompt. It was a simple reader-response to a 10-line poem. It wasn’t even an analysis or asking for any deep concepts. Just responding to the poem. I rolled my eyes. That seemed way too simple for senior-level English—it sounded like it belonged in a sixth-grade classroom, not a high school. Plus I hated poetry. I should have signed up for the advanced class. But the assignment was set, so I picked up my pen, twirling it idly in my hands as I skimmed the poem in front of me. I heard the classroom door open behind me, and an office aide approached Mrs. Ainsley in the front of the classroom, handing her a white slip that would excuse someone from class. I mostly ignored it, but couldn’t help wondering who the lucky one was. I hoped it was me, so I could get out of such a stupid assignment. But knowing my luck, it was probably By—

“Jon Mills?” Mrs. Ainsley called, her voice soft so as not to disturb the few people who were actually writing. My eyes widened and my jaw dropped. Byron gave me a jealous look. I smirked at my best friend and put my pen down, then went up to the desk to take the paper from the teacher. I glanced at it, saw my name and a checkmark next to the box that said “front office”. It also said “leaving.” Curious, but not about to pass up an opportunity to miss class, I packed up my stuff and left the classroom. I returned the jealous looks I got from some of my classmates with a grin.

I headed toward the office, backpack slung over one shoulder. Near the cafeteria, I spotted my female clone—aka, my twin sister Carmandy. Her coppery hair was coming out of its messy bun, falling into her face, and she was dressed in the gym uniform: a hawk insignia and black block letters spelling out Kenmare High Hawks on a grey t-shirt and the basketball shorts. Carmandy also carried her backpack, and I realized she hadn’t bothered to change. She merely looked curious, as I was, but upon spotting me, her expression and mine changed to mirror images of each other, eyebrows creasing to reflect confusion and worry. And suddenly I recalled the uneasy feeling I’d had that morning:

I woke late, having forgotten to turn my alarm back on the night before. I had to rush to get ready. I only had time for a quick bowl of cereal, and almost missed the fact that Dad was leaving early for work. But I caught him before he left, wanting to say goodbye—because, for some inexplicable reason, I felt uneasy, had since waking, and hoped he could set my mind at rest. So, I walked with him out to his car, but couldn’t quite find the right words.

“Something on your mind, Jon?” Dad asked me as he put his bag into the car.

I shrugged. “I just have this bad feeling,” I answered, not shy about sharing it because I’d always confided everything in Dad, and he knew when I was lying or skirting the truth. “I don’t know what it means, but…I’m a little anxious,” I admitted.

Dad gripped my shoulder, smiling. “I’m sure everything will be fine. But if it makes you feel better, do you have any last words?” he teased, lightening the mood if only slightly. I smiled back.

“Don’t do anything stupid. Don’t ignore your gut feelings. And I love you,” I said, still smirking as I echoed the words that Dad had often repeated as general advice to me, so often it was practically my life’s motto now.

Dad smiled. “Exactly. And I love you,” he told me, ruffling my hair.

“You got called out, too?” my twin asked me, pulling me out of my thoughts. I nodded, falling into step beside her. I playfully nudged her shoulder, making her stumble. She gave me a glare, then we both turned serious again.

“I hope nothing unfortunate has happened to Mom or Dad,” I responded. “That’s the only reason I can think of that would warrant both of us being summoned.” She nodded in agreement though raised an eyebrow when I said “warrant”. I ignored her. It was hardly my fault I grew up having complicated words bounced off me by Mom when she was brainstorming for her latest manuscript, often without a computer in front of her (she was a novelist). I tended to use those uncommon words when I was stressed, worried, or upset. It was a quirk that had gotten me teased a bit in elementary school. As I got older, though, it impressed people more often than not. It also diverted their attention from whatever had been bugging me at the moment, which was the whole point.

Moments later I pushed open the office door, letting my sister go first. I followed, letting the door close behind me. And got a surprise—Mom was standing in front of the receptionist’s desk, looking stressed. When the door closed, she turned abruptly, and I was surprised at the worry and distress that showed on her face.

“Mom? What’s going on?” Carmandy asked, her eyes widening upon taking in Mom’s appearance.

“I’ll tell you in a moment. Come on,” Mom answered, a little briskly, and she beckoned for us to follow her out of the office. Exchanging a glance, my sister and I followed.

Mom led us into the parking lot and to the ’06 Ford Explorer she and Dad traded off days driving. When Carmandy asked about the car we’d driven to school, Mom said we could get it later. It wasn’t until we were all settled in the car that Mom finally told us what was going on.

“Matt Carmichael, one of Dad’s coworkers, called me earlier this morning. He got Dad to the hospital after he had a heart attack. The hospital called me about twenty minutes ago to tell me, and they said he’s stable—for now. We’re going to see him.” Mom’s voice was dull and emotionless—and it scared me. I’d never known Mom to be so…apathetic. She’d always been open with her emotions. I didn’t know what to make of this change. My sister and I gave a murmured acknowledgement, then the three of us lapsed into a tense silence.

The 20-minute drive to the hospital seemed to take a lifetime. I had no idea of Dad’s condition other than that it was “stable,” and it may not have even been that any longer. I didn’t even know if he was still alive. When we finally arrived, I wanted to sprint to Dad’s ward to see how he was. I knew that sometimes heart attack victims recovered, but I also knew that most people had died because of it. And, frankly, I was scared. But I restrained myself, simply because I didn’t know where to go. When we got out of the car, Carmandy latched onto my arm, as though afraid I would disappear if she wasn’t holding on to me. My throat tightening unexplainably, I gently squeezed my sister’s hand for reassurance as Mom led the way into the building.

Mom headed straight to the reception desk in the lobby, asking after Kenneth Mills, checked in by one Matthew Carmichael. The woman at the desk gave us directions to room 237. With a nod of thanks, Mom led the way, walking briskly. We took the elevator up from the ground floor, and we were the only ones inside. As soon as the doors closed, Carmandy’s grip on my arm tightened, and her left hand joined her right on my upper arm. I glanced sideways at my twin sister. Her expression was determined, her jaw set. But I could see the fear and anxiety in her eyes. I briefly laid my hand over hers, then dropped my hand. It was difficult for me to draw breath, and all I could think that every second we were delayed was another second Dad didn’t have. The elevator chimed and the floor lurched, then it came to a complete stop and the doors opened. Mom headed left her pace quick but measured. Me and Carmandy, who had dropped her hands, followed her. Again I had to restrain myself from rushing past Mom to reach the room faster.

A moment’s walk later, we stopped outside room 237. Seeing the room number, my heart started pounding uncomfortably in my throat, and I noticed that Mom’s hand was shaking as she turned the handle. We were greeted by a doctor, whose name I didn’t bother to learn. He gave us a brief run-down of Dad’s condition. Apparently it was completely spontaneous and unexpected, and rather major, which made it even more mysterious. They didn’t know what had caused it. He was unconscious, stable but weak.

Carmandy had silent tears running down her cheeks as the doctor concluded, and Mom seemed to have shut down—her face was an expressionless mask. I had no idea what my face showed, but my heart was pounding in fright, a thousand what-ifs running through my mind. After a moment the three of us gravitated toward where Dad lay on a hospital bed. I couldn’t make myself look at Dad’s motionless body, so I watched the heart monitor that stood slightly left of the bed. The irregular beeps filled my ears, and I found myself holding my breath for each successive blip on the screen. I heard a rustle of cloth to my right that suggested my sister had approached and taken Dad’s hand. I sensed her gaze on me, but I didn’t dare turn. I was afraid of what my face might show, however hard I tried to keep it impassive. A moment later, I felt Carmandy’s arm fall around my shoulders, squeezing gently, and I realized I was shaking, however slightly. I squeezed my eyes shut, struggling to stay in control.

I sensed my twin about to say something, but then the beeps I’d attuned my ears to suddenly increased. I heard a sharp gasp, then Dad’s voice whispering Mom’s name. It was raspy, hoarse, and quiet, but firmly there. I let out a breath I hadn’t known I’d been holding, feeling my limbs relax. I turned, dislodging my sister’s arm, and met Dad’s eyes. Moving on autopilot, I took two steps toward the bed and grasped Dad’s hand in both of mine, needing to reassure myself that I wasn’t dreaming—that he was really awake, and generally all right.

Dad offered me a strained smile, then he turned toward Mom. He said something, but I didn’t listen—my brain was too busy struggling to comprehend everything. My eyes were locked on Dad’s face, my ears still tuned to the heart monitor. I expected it to go silent at any moment. I didn’t realize how tightly I was holding his hand until I saw him wince slightly, and Carmandy’s hand suddenly covered mine, coaxing me to loosen my grip. I did so, letting out a breath and trying to stay calm. Dad then turned toward us, and whispered my sister’s name. This time he was too quiet for me to catch what he said, especially since Carmandy had to lean closer to hear. Instead, the frantic pounding of my heart filled my ears.

A moment later Carmandy straightened, but her hand stayed wrapped around mine, and Dad’s. Though her face was mostly blank, I saw she was holding back tears. The breaks between the beeps were getting more erratic, and even without leaning closer I heard Dad’s irregular breathing. I begged silently for the monitor not to stop, for it to even out. Then Dad whispered my name.

“Jon…” His voice was strained and barely audible. I had to lean closer to be able to hear clearly.

“I’m here, Dad,” I said quietly, unnecessarily as my grip on his hand tightened at the same time and he could see me.

“Jon. I know I don’t have much time left,” he began, and cut off my protest by squeezing my hand—I was alarmed at how weak his grip was. “Your sister and mother will need you now more than ever. Don’t—” Dad cut himself off with a wince of pain, and my heart was suddenly in my throat, making it even harder to breathe. The monitor was beeping even more erratically, and I sensed the doctor approaching. “Don’t let the grief take over. Don’t be afraid of who you are. Be—” Dad winced again, his face twisting in agony. Out of the corner of my eye I saw the doctor come even closer, as though assessing the situation, but he let us have our space for a moment longer. “Be strong, my son. I love you,” Dad finished, his voice even softer so that I scarcely heard it.

“I promise, Dad,” I whispered, my voice choked with tears I refused to shed.

Dad smiled, then, as loud as he could manage, he said, “I love you all.” Then he seized up, the heart monitor going wild. A flurry of activity followed, and I heard the phrases “cardiac arrest” and “shock therapy.” The doctor quite roughly shooed us all out so they could treat Dad. As the door closed, I heard the heart monitor spike, sputter, and flat-line. It was a long, unbroken, piercing, constant “beeeeeeeeeeep.” My heart clenched, feeling as though someone had just plunged a rusty blade through my chest. And yet it kept beating, when Dad’s no longer would. The door was closed, then, cutting off the sound of the doctors’ attempts at resuscitation.

Almost immediately I started pacing, my heart thudding loudly in my ears. I glanced at the door with every pass, wishing fiercely that I could see through it and know what was going on, because I was unable to bear my ignorance. Out of the corner of my eye I saw my sister wringing her hands, anxiously glancing toward the door every few seconds. Mom stood stoically off to the side, which was somehow worse than the anguish in Carmandy’s expression. I wanted to take her by the shoulders and shake her, demanding to know if she even cared because I didn’t see the evidence.

Finally, after five agonizing minutes of waiting, the door opened. All three of us looked up instantly. The same expression resided on each face, asking for the news. With a solemn expression, the nurse who had opened the door shook her head and beckoned us inside. Upon seeing Dad’s still body, Mom gave a strangled sob, echoed a second later by my sister. My twin latched onto me as if I was the only thing keeping her upright, while my knees threatened to give way. The silence seemed to suffocate me—even the heart monitor was silent. I had nothing to ground myself with. It was like my brain had completely shut down, performing only the necessary functions. It left me unable to comprehend why I felt as if I had been impaled when I couldn’t see the blade protruding from my chest, or why I could scarcely remain standing when my leg muscles were working fine. After a while, my mind started working again, my common sense kicking in. I realized it was pointless to continue to stand there. So I took a deep, slow breath, gently dislodged my sister, and turned around, approaching the doctor who still lingered, watching us.

“What happens next?” I asked, my voice unconsciously soft to fit the atmosphere. The doctor appeared surprised at my composure—well, relative composure—but he answered.

“We’ll take the body to the morgue, where it will stay until your family arranges the funeral,” he said simply.

I nodded, glancing toward Mom. She had heard me speak to the doctor, and was now regaining control of her emotions. A moment later, she approached the doctor and they discussed logistics—cost of the visit, more specifics for the next course of action, etc. Carmandy’s hand closed around my wrist at almost the same moment. I didn’t react, just let her have the reassurance the physical contact could offer. A short time later, Mom nodded her thanks to the doctor and came up between my sister and I. She put an arm around each of our shoulders and led the way out of the hospital. I noticed Carmandy was as close to Mom as possible without tripping them both. I just walked normally, barely reacting to anything around me. My brain was still only functioning at the simplest level, not enough for me to even begin to wonder what would happen next for me.

We got into the car and Mom asked if we wanted to pick up our car from the school right then or wait. We decided to do it then, so Mom drove back to the high school. My sister and I had a minor argument over who would drive home. I wanted to drive by myself, so she could keep Mom company, but she wanted to stay close to me. I wasn’t sure if it was for her benefit or mine, though. Eventually I conceded to her request, and after saying goodbye to Mom, Carmandy and I got in the old Camry and drove home. Though she managed to stay in all the proper lanes and obey all the laws, Mom’s hands were shaking on the wheel. Once or twice I saw a reflection on her face in the rearview that might have been a teardrop.

About ten minutes later I pulled into our driveway, cutting the engine, and got out. I glanced at Carmandy as I did, and saw that she seemed all right on her own. Neither of us showed it often, at least outside the family, but we were best friends as well as twins, and I made sure to always be there for her, no matter what she needed. And right now, I wanted to make sure she would be okay without my physical support. It seemed she was—either that or she was anxious to get inside, because she went ahead of me toward the house. Shrugging to myself, I followed her inside. Carmandy vanished upstairs, and I heard her bedroom door close a bit harder than necessary.

I glanced up the stairs, and couldn’t summon the will to ascend just yet. I slumped against the wall near the back door, my brain finally kicking in properly and leaving me feeling overwhelmed and a bit lost. However, I still couldn’t wrap my head around the idea of Dad no longer being in my life. It was a while before I realized I was crying. But it seemed to be a response to stimulus, what I was expected to do regardless of being alone, rather than real emotional pain. I still felt the sharp ache in my chest, but it felt like a sore muscle, something I could ignore, rather than the stabbing pain I would have expected. Without a thought, I dried the tears, then finally headed upstairs. However, all I did was drop my backpack on the floor and then change into a pair of basketball shorts. Then, barefoot, I went back downstairs, left a note on the table for my mom and Carmandy, and left again, heading for the beach.

I went to the edge of the waterline, then I turned toward the left and just started walking. I had no idea where I was hoping to go, and I barely even registered where I was. My legs moved automatically, my mind strangely blank. I had no idea how long I was gone, but finally I recognized why the sun was directly in my eyes where before it was just a minor discomfort, and I glanced at my watch. I was fairly certain we’d returned from the hospital around three-thirty, and now the numbers read five o’clock. Knowing it would take just as long to get home as it had to get out—wherever I was, I turned around and started back at a light jog.

I got back around six, winded but satisfied with the burn in my muscles. I headed upstairs to change as I’d worked up a sweat, then came back downstairs to find a few boxes of pizza on the table, the kitchen deserted. It seemed Mom hadn’t been in the mood to cook. I couldn’t help but remember the usual banter that filled the room as we prepared and ate dinner as a family. Like last weekend, after Dad and I had finished our usual chess game:

Mom and Dad were working together to wash the dishes to clear space for dinner preparation, talking, laughing, and—to my dismay—flirting. I pretended to protest, but really I liked knowing they weren’t afraid to show their love for one another. I just shook my head slightly, grinning at the display, then I got a damp cloth and started wiping down the countertops, joining in the banter that served as conversation. Another hour or so later, the kitchen was clean and dinner was ready. I helped my sister set the table while Mom and Dad put the food on it, then we all sat down.

“So, how many games did you lose this time, Jon?” Carmandy asked me, smirking as she reached for the potatoes.

“None, but the last one was close. Why? Do you think you could beat me?” I responded, taking the spoon from the bowl of potatoes she had just set down by her plate and dishing them up for myself. She scowled at me, but I just grinned back.

“Of course I could. I can read your mind, remember?” she replied.

“You only wish,” I said, spooning a few scoops of mashed potatoes onto her plate before passing the bowl on to Mom. “So who won the flour fight?” I asked next, grinning as Carmandy smirked and Mom looked a little sheepish though she was smiling. Dad then turned to her, an expression of mock horror on his face.

“You not only allowed, but participated in wasting food?” he asked, askance. I rolled my eyes and continued serving myself from the dishes within my reach.

“Not only that—she started it,” my sister stated plainly, her face blank though I saw a smile tugging at the corners of her mouth. “But I won,” she said after a moment. “Mom got tired of the bread not getting done.”

“Well, I’m glad, because it smells delicious,” Dad said, reaching for the basket of fresh-baked bread that was still warm. I beat him to it, though, snatching the same piece he was reaching for and immediately biting into it. I sensed more than saw my sister roll her eyes, and just grinned.

“Boys. Always thinking with their stomachs,” Carmandy said. Mom nodded in wholehearted agreement.

Without that camaraderie among us, the room felt cold and empty. There were several pizza slices missing, which suggested that Mom and/or Carmandy had already eaten. Without me, which was another discrepancy that sent a pang through my chest. My note had been moved, so I assumed it was Mom. I got out a paper plate and put three pieces on it—in spite of everything, I was starving. I couldn’t even recall if I’d eaten lunch or not.

I was just about to leave when Mom entered the kitchen, a dirty plate in her hand. She didn’t say anything as she went to put it in the sink and then turn around to leave again. I was a bit surprised at how distant Mom seemed. Her eyes were red-rimmed and almost vacant, in a stark contrast to the carefree, playful person she’d been just that morning, flirting with Dad before he left for work. Such a change, and all in the space of less than twelve hours. I couldn’t wait to get out of the kitchen. The oppressive atmosphere was almost more than I could take. The unnatural silence pressed in on me, and I couldn’t even bring myself to make a comment to lighten the mood like I usually did when faced with uncomfortable silence. Before either of us left, though, Mom finally broke the silence. She must have read my confusion and concern on my face.

“The funeral will be Thursday at noon. You’re allowed to skip school tomorrow.” Her voice was dull, hoarse, where usually I could always hear a smile in it. Even when she was scolding me, she never raised her voice and I always heard an undertone of amusement there. “Please let your sister know,” Mom added, then she turned to leave. Before she could, though, I found myself on autopilot again. It didn’t matter that it was weird; Byron would say unnatural. But I approached Mom and gave her a brief hug. As Mom’s arms went around me in response and in gratitude, I found my own comfort even though it hadn’t yet sunk in that I needed it. I even took it one step further.

“I love you, Mom. I miss him, too.” I was trying to let her know she wasn’t alone, even though I still didn’t really feel the absence. But I really meant the first part.

“Thank you, Jon,” Mom answered me softly, kissing my forehead before I pulled away. “I love you, too.”

I nodded, giving her a small smile, and touched Mom’s shoulder before I left to return to my room. It wasn’t particularly late in the evening, but I had nothing to do, so I got ready for bed, taking an unnecessarily long shower just to pass the time. Then I just laid on my bed staring at the ceiling, my mind blank but my chest aching.

About nine, as I was debating whether I should go to sleep or not, there was a knock on my door. “Come in,” I called, and the door opened to reveal Carmandy, dressed for bed in a tank top and soccer shorts, clutching something against her chest with one hand. I sat up and motioned her over, and after closing the door she came to sit beside me on my bed. I flipped my bedside lamp on as she’d turned off my bedroom light. Only once she was closer did I notice how close to tears she was. But I tried to be casual and ignore it for now. “What’s that?” I asked gently, indicating the object she held. She seemed reluctant to let go of it, so I teasingly pried her fingers apart—pretending that it took great strength and earning a small smile for my efforts—to reveal a gold locket shaped like a heart about a half-inch wide laying in her palm.

I reached for it, and when she didn’t stop me, I took it from her and opened it, to reveal a picture in both windows. One was our most recent family picture, taken during the summer with the beach as the backdrop. Dad had an arm around Mom’s waist, his hand on my shoulder. My arm was casually draped around my sister, and Mom’s hand rested on her shoulder. I shifted my gaze to look at the other picture, ignoring the way my throat constricted at seeing Dad’s smile. The second was one of just Carmandy and Dad that I had taken over the summer. Both of them were laughing over the remains of a sand castle that had been washed away by the waves. For the first time I was conscious of the tears that stung my eyes. I clicked the locket shut, handing it back to Carmandy, and turned away. Again I recalled the feeling of uneasiness I’d had that morning and now wished I’d done something about it. Or seen it coming. Or something. A moment later, my sister spoke into the darkness.

“He gave me the locket for my birthday. I thought it was silly at first—why would I need something to remember him when he’d always be around?” Of course, I knew that—she’d complained to me about it, if playfully. I’d gotten something similar, and just viewed it as his own weird way of showing his love for us. I’d mostly forgotten about it, as he’d given me a rugby ball as well, which was so much more interesting than a pendant. But my sister continued. “But now he’s not, and…” she trailed off and raised her head. I turned to see tears glistening in her eyes. “I miss him. It’s not even been a day, but I miss him so much,” Carmandy’s voice caught and I saw her tears spill over. She didn’t even try to hide them. Forcing back the lump in my throat, I took the locket from her again and fastened it around her neck.

“It’ll be all right,” I said softly, hoping to reassure her, but my own voice caught. I averted my gaze, feeling my sister’s eyes on me, then I felt her hand on my shoulder. Telling me that I wasn’t the only one hurting, that she was there and she understood. So I swallowed my pride and turned back, letting my sister throw her arms around my neck as she tried not to fall apart.

Some minutes passed while both of us struggled for control, my sister more than me, but finally she pulled away. Carmandy raised her head, but not her eyes, and after a moment she spoke. “C-can I stay? I-I don’t want to be alone,” she said softly, a vulnerability in her voice that I’d not heard since we were children, when she would take refuge in my room during thunderstorms or cling to me during the infrequent earthquakes that occurred, seeing as we lived in California. It scared me to see her so vulnerable at seventeen. But I realized that I didn’t really want to be alone, either.

“Of course,” I answered my twin, my voice soft. “I’m here for you, whenever you need me,” I told her, kissing the top of her head for additional reassurance. It was a rare gesture, especially for me, but we were close enough that it wasn’t awkward or strange. It was just the way I’d always showed her I cared, even as children. She raised her gaze and managed a small smile of gratitude. With a smile, I brushed the moisture off her face with my knuckles. Then I laid down, turning off my lamp as I did, and felt her curl up against my back. It wasn’t long, though, before I felt her trembling with silent sobs. Her hands twisted in the fabric of my t-shirt. My throat constricting, I rolled onto my back and put one arm over her shoulders, eventually drifting into an uneasy sleep myself.

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