The Sense of Me

The plastic squelched in his hand, dribbling a bead of cool water down a line of bruises. A layer of the ice gave way and settled over his hand as he leaned back in the cheap plastic of his seat. The freezing sensation over his left fist was almost as painful as the black and blue knuckles. He moved the ice cubes around, needing to understand that it had really happened. He recalled the shrill ring of the afternoon bell and a stampede of students out into the main commons. He’d been jumped while cutting class and suddenly had an audience of over three hundred faces as he took a swing at the other person. He let himself get boxed in as the crowed ringed around them both. He had no choice but to keep swinging. An ache in his back brought him to the back to the present. That’s right. Campus security had broken up the tussle and he’d been wrestled to the floor, the knee of a 195-pound officer jammed into his back to keep the peace.

Sore ribs and bruised knuckles would be the least of his problems with the way the principal’s secretary glanced at him. He was sure she was typing the immediate incident report for Principal Wells. Every click of the keyboard in the quiet office was surely dredging up the dark secrets of his so called permanent record. He shifted in his seat again, crossing and uncrossing his legs. He sunk a little lower when the secretary, an older woman with pinched lips and eyes the same color of stale coffee, scooted back from her desk. The wheels of her chair snagged on the speckled carpet as she slid back to a row of filing cabinets. Fake nails fished through a manila maze until she freed her prize. The folder was thin, but sticky-noted to high heaven. It had to be his rap sheet. He half expected her to start reading it aloud to him. First name: Caleb, Last name: Evans, Age: 15; every single scrap of information one would expect in a school file. “If only they could see him now,” he fully expected her to say.

She didn’t read it out loud though. She flipped it open instead and kept typing on her desktop. Caleb huffed out a breath, not sure if he should feel relieved or annoyed she didn’t say anything. There were just two doors to the office he sat in, both opposite his peripherals. The door to the main commons was always propped open by the same heap of plastic lining the walls where he sat. The angle was just perfect so that nearly every student that passed by would see who was next on the chopping block. The ice pack sagged in his lap, surely melting with how long the door to the principal’s actual office had been closed. It was quiet enough with the afternoon rush of students going home now long over. Definitely quiet enough to hear the muffled and irate voice from the mother of the teenager Caleb had fought. Her voice rose in pitch, but he couldn’t understand what she was saying. Another storm of words cracked the door to the office and the distraught woman wasn’t far behind. Caleb sucked in a breath, spreading a hand across his face in a vain attempt to hide.

“You!” she exclaimed, pointing a finger as her purse nearly slid from her shoulder. “If you ever come near my son again, I’ll have you arrested.”

“Ms. Powell, the situation is being handled with the upmost care. I can promise you that, but I do not need you harassing and making things worse,” Principal Wells intervened, slipping between Caleb and woman who’d gone red in the face.

“He attacked my boy in front of the entire school and I’m harassing him?”

“The fight is over now, and I’d like to keep the peace. I can assure you the consequences will not be light. Violence on my campus will not be tolerated.”

Caleb kept his eyes fixed to the floor, knowing that at least three sets of eyes were boring into him. The condolences the principal offered made Caleb’s face heat up in anger. Not a single word came to his defense as the woman continued to wave threats. One voice was silent in the aftermath of the fight and Caleb couldn’t bring himself to look up. A burning seemed to crawl up his throat, and his hand twitched out of reflex to the lining in his jacket. The material was frayed enough to create a faux pocket, and it was brilliant for smuggling his cell phone and food into class. He could feel the outline of a box about as large as his palm tucked away in the fabric. The urge was aggravating, but Caleb tugged his hand away. No need to add wood to his pyre just yet. Hugging arms to his chest, he tried to let his face go blank, but the nagging urge in his brain coupled with the hard stare of his older brother made his skin crawl.

He felt crowded suddenly with the principal and the woman standing just beyond him. His brother was stuck in the doorway and couldn’t reach out when Caleb stood abruptly. It clacked the plastic chair against drywall, enough of an alarm to deafen the entire verbal battle. Rubbing at his throat, he let the ice pack pool into the dip in his seat. He scraped up his backpack in one fluid motion and fled out the door, baffling everyone in the room. He walked like the world was on fire for the front exit, but opted to detour instead. He wouldn’t let them find him, not until he had himself sorted. The back hallways of his school were all cement and linoleum, multiple passages leading to the locker rooms and the kitchens. He fumbled in the dim light, shaking out the pack of cigarettes from his jacket. He clenched one between his lips, snapping off a match as he walked.

Caleb stood just before a set of double doors leading out to the football field. A curl of smoke wafted upwards as he took a long and slow drag on his cigarette. The sensation tickled his throat until he exhaled. He liked to think of the smoke as a curtain, something to pull in front of the world so he could focus. Another drag had his shaken nerves finally taking a breath. He leaned against the door, closing his eyes for just a moment to think. A slight breeze whistled through the gap in the doors, whispering of the waning afternoon and last trails of day. Caleb figured he should just walk home and spare Parker the embarrassment of having to haul him out the front door. He frowned, pulling the cigarette to his lips again. Parker had stared at him in such disappointment. Caleb inhaled once more in the vain hope to wash the sensation away.

A sudden flare of light in the dim hall was almost blinding, Caleb dropping the cigarette in surprise as his hands flew up to block out the steady beam. It jerked as heavy footfalls descended upon him and a sick feeling grappled in his stomach. A gruff hand, campus security issue, wrapped around his upper arm and pulled him from the doors. The curtain of smoke he’d so carefully created was pulled apart like cobweb. Caleb felt the lecture more so than heard it as he was manhandled back down the hall to the main office. He hadn’t made a clean getaway after all when he ran roughshod from the principal and his brother. Finishing a fight and then lighting up in the back halls of Westbank High School, that had to be a new record for him at least. Getting busted for one thing was always worse when he got busted for two. Caleb saw the office coming into view and acted on instinct, digging his heels into the carpet. He could just barely see Parker and Principal Wells talking. The mother of the other teen was gone at least. Their voices got louder and Caleb stopped walking altogether when he caught Parker’s voice interrupting the principal.

“I have to go after him,” his older brother gestured, sound almost a little erratic.

“We have things we need to discuss here, Mr. Evans,” the principal returned. “Your brother is in very serious trouble. Fighting on school grounds is not something I can let slide. Especially since it’s his third incident this year.”

“I understand that. I really do, but Caleb’s well-being has to be my top priority right now.”

“Are you even considering what could happen to him now that he’s back in my office? He punched out another student. That is grounds enough for an expulsion.”

“Expulsion? You’re not seriously considering that…”

“I am, Mr. Evans.”

Caleb heard Parker grow silent in his defense, face hidden while his back was turned through the glass. The moment was numbing to Caleb when the security guard finally got him walking again. Forced through the main entrance, the burning need to run had Caleb turning around in the officer’s hands. The guard’s burly stature kept him from slipping back out and he found himself cornered once more. Gripped by the shoulders, he was made to turn around, facing both the principal and his only sibling. A mixture of something appeared in Parker’s eyes, and for a moment he almost looked like their father. A sharp twinge was brought on by the thought and Caleb dropped his head again to hide the burning in his face.

“Is it alright if I take him home now?” Parker spoke up suddenly. “He’s been through a lot today.”

“And what of his actions here?” the principal answered.

“That’s why I’d like to schedule a more formal meeting for us to discuss that. I think we all need to catch our breath.”

“I know you’re no liar, Parker. Considering you were one of my best students, I’ll allow it. I understand that it’s not easy raising a teenager on your own.”

Caleb bit his tongue at the principal’s last remark, knowing he meant nothing by it, but it burned nonetheless. He shook off the guard’s hand, staring back in contempt when Parker collected him instead. He shrugged his backpack on, following after his brother as they headed out for the parking lot. Most of the cars were already gone, save for most in the faculty parking. Guest parking held just a bare minimum of vehicles, including Parker’s used pickup. Rusted around the back tire well and dented along the front fender, it had seen Parker through the majority of high school and college. It fit right in now that his older brother was back at home. Shoving his backpack into the floorboards, he pulled himself inside, settling into the cracked leather. He ran his fingers along an edge he always picked at, imagining it like a river he had fished alongside his dad when he was twelve.

The driver side door opened, shaking the cab of the truck when Parker sat back on the edge of the seat. The door hung open, and his legs stretched out on their heels into the parking lot. Caleb knew what his brother was thinking from the way his shoulders sagged to the way he kept running a hand through his hair. Still nothing was said between the two when the truck finally did start and they pulled out onto the main road. The neighborhoods stretched out, houses buried in the long shadows of afternoon. He thought he recognized someone drifting along the sidewalk on a bike, but a blinking turn to the left interrupted his thoughts. A temptation to fill the silence weighed heavily in his thoughts, a hand reaching out to the radio. A sidelong glance from Parker, brows pulled down at his little brother had Caleb retracting his hand almost immediately. That burning need returned full force, reminding him of his remaining cigarettes. He rolled the window down a crack, plucking one from the crumpled cardboard. He didn’t even have time to pull a match free when it was yanked from his mouth.

“Are you kidding me right now?” Parker exclaimed, fist closing and crushing the roll. “And right now of all times? You’ve got balls, Caleb. I’ll give you that.”

“Those aren’t cheap you know,” Caleb muttered, crossing his arms to stare out the window.

“I can’t believe you. Do you even care that you might be expelled?”

“Why should I?”

“You punched another student. You literally beat him.”

He jumped me. It was self-defense!”

Caleb swallowed around the lump in his throat, fists white-knuckled atop his jeans. The quiet rumble of the engine remained the only thing he could focus on when Parker didn’t respond. He looked to the worn door handle, wanting to yank the passenger side open to get away. The moving world around him kept him locked in their suspended moment, and Caleb found himself wishing that Parker would speak up. He wanted to hear yelling, a scolding, or anything, but an uncomfortable silence. Parker did nothing though, just guiding the truck where it had to go to get home. His hair was a mess and a slight shadow sat beneath his eyes. His eyelids drooped before he fluttered them back open, face pinching and concentrating on the road. Caleb vaguely recalled seeing Parker awake, working on his laptop when he’d gone out the night before with some friends. It must have been roughly two, maybe three in the morning.

The truck rumbled to a stop shortly after, finding its home in a short one car driveway. The small two-story house it stretched from was a sun-bleached white with navy blue shutters and black shingles. A pot of flowers sat on the edge of the first step to the front door. His mother always insisted on guests having a little color added to their day when they visited. She always kept it filled with marigolds or mums. The welcome mat was gone, so weather worn that no one could walk over it without tripping up and down the stairs. The grass was getting a little high, sprouting tall in certain patches. Caleb sighed, glancing to the shed in their equally un-mowed backyard. Maybe if he spruced up the yard, Parker could worry less. The truck shut off with a grunt, keys jangling in Parker’s hand. He kept one hand on the wheel, face still turned forward and focused on the chain link fence that ran the span of the property.

“I have to go to class in twenty minutes, and I won’t be home until nine,” he said offhandedly, undoing his seatbelt in the same sentence. “I left enough money on the corner if you want to get takeout from Chen’s. Other than that, stay at home. Please.”

“What about…?”

“We’ll talk about it later.”

“I didn’t start that fight.”

“I know.”

Caleb’s head snapped up in surprise, wondering if he’d heard his brother correctly. The disappointment in his eyes was gone, painted over by an expression too old for a twenty-four year-old. He opened his mouth, voice cracking as he tried to find something to say. The words locked in his throat, jumbling into something he couldn’t understand. He managed a nod at least, feeling rotten when he stepped out of the truck. He kept idling though, leaning on the open door wanting to actually say something to Parker. His brother had his head cocked to the side, confused and waiting. Caleb glanced around the truck’s interior to avoid what he was really thinking and mumbled a quiet “be safe” to Parker before letting the door shut. He knew the weight of those words and looked through the glass to the other’s widened eyes. The shock slipped into a knowing smile, Parker nodding without a word to him.

The house was quiet as he kicked his shoes off by the couch. He let his backpack fall next to them and he padded towards the kitchen. A twenty-dollar bill was exactly where Parker said it would be. He shoved it into his pocket, trying to decide what he wanted to do next. The clock on the wall said 3:45 p.m. and Caleb realized just how long he’d been trapped in the principal’s office. He lifted his hand, knuckles black and blue still. He grimaced when he ran a finger over them and decided more ice might be the best idea. Wrapping ice cubes in a rag, he kept it over his hand as he wandered to the second floor. Three bedrooms and a bathroom spread out down the single hallway. Caleb headed straight for his room, keeping his eyes from wandering to the dark brown oak for the very first door on the right. He was rooted though when he noticed its brass knob turned and the door ajar. The crack let a faint ray of sunlight through.

“Mom?” Caleb muttered in a cold sweat.

He reached forward, a tremble to his hand and pushed against the door. The heavy material creaked inwards, letting more sunlight escape. He could only see the closet from his angle and beating tremor made it hard to move around the corner. Caleb exhaled and made himself move forward, eyes starting to sting when he found the room empty. The only bed in the room was made up with a downy soft comforter, pillows fluffed and arranged. The dresser top was empty save for a few photo frames and a closed book. The sight was completely normal to Caleb except for one thing. Sunlight streamed in from the wide bay window, spilling across floorboards. The curtains were drawn aside. They were never drawn aside. Never. Caleb held onto the doorframe, unwilling to disturb the picture when he knew at least Parker had the nerve to.

His shoulders dropped in a shuddering heave when he pried himself from the doorway. His temper flared suddenly and he slammed the door. There was enough force in the slam for Caleb to hear something drop on the other side and shatter. He yanked it back open as quickly as he could, the door pushing pieces of glass and wood. The broken frame was laying facedown when he freed the bent photo from underneath it. The edge was torn and bits of glass still stuck to it from the fall. A familiar sting came to his eyes again as he looked over the picture of his family. He had a copy just like it sitting in an album under his bed. A beach shot of everyone on their last trip up north. He recognized the lakeshore framed in the background. His parents were seated on one of the many benches posted along the shoreline, just before the sand and grass met. Parker stood behind them, looking frazzled after scrambling back to get into the photo before the timer went off. Caleb saw himself as well, sitting cross-legged on the ground in front of his dad’s legs.

Something warm ran down his cheek, startling him from the little piece of time. The photo fluttered from his grasp when he realized what is was. His breath came back to him short and ragged as he backed away. He lingered for a moment, trying to gather himself when he couldn’t take the feeling anymore. It was strangling to be back in that room, to be back in that moment. It was all a reminder, a constant and nagging voice that drove him back downstairs to the front door. He tugged on his shoes haphazardly and pulled his hood up. It was late afternoon at best as he took off across the lawn and across the street. He’d made it a block when he started to run. The afternoon breeze was starting to cool, gathering in the gaps of his hood. Rubber met cement as his feet pounded across blacktop and dirt. His lungs burned and it felt refreshing. He kept pushing himself to run. If he could run faster, maybe he could outrun the things he’d left at the house.

The muscles in his legs ached, carrying him past a car that honked as he ran across its path. He kept running until he couldn’t breathe and kept running past that. He came to a familiar corner and cursed out loud. He didn’t want to be here, anywhere but here. He looked about wildly, chest expanding fast when he tore right and kept running. He staggered as he came to a curb, burning his knee along concrete until he picked himself up to take another step. He managed one more desperate sprint before stumbling over the lip of a slab of sidewalk. He fell face first into the grass and weeds and found he didn’t have the strength to pick himself back up. Everything felt like it was on fire from his legs to his lungs to his eyes. Breathing hard, Caleb slung his arm over his face and bit into the thick sleeve. The sob hurt as it wracked his throat, but he kept his teeth clenched. The tears returned and blurred the paling sky overhead. He rubbed them away, but more fell as he tried to catch his breath. A fast vibration in his pants pocket made him suck in a shaky breath as he fumbled to get it. The phone continued to vibrate until he managed to hit answer.

“Parker?” he croaked, hating the rough pitch in his voice.

“Caleb, where the hell are you? I told you to stay at the house!”

“Y-you’re home?”

“I left my wallet on my nightstand when I had to rush out of bed to get you today. This was my only day off this week from work and then with night classes, I’m running on near empty right now. The least you can do is stay home, so I have one less thing to worry about!”

“I’m sorry…” Caleb hiccuped, trying to muffle the sound with his sleeve.

“Are you…what’s wrong?”

“I’m fine. Don’t worry about it.”

“Caleb, you’re crying. Where are you? Are you okay?”

“I’m…I think I’m on Clark Street.”

“Clark Street?” Something like a click of a lock filled the line before Parker continued. “Stay there. I’m coming to get you.”

“It’s my fault.”

“What are you talking about?”

“It’s. My. Fault.”

“Stay there.”

The line went silent as Caleb held the phone in the air. He let it slip from his grasp as he cradled his face with both hands. A harder sob worked itself. It felt like a lead weight had settled atop his chest. He could barely breathe and he didn’t know if it was from running or the overwhelming tide he found himself trapped in. His eyes stung as he rubbed at them, but the tears wouldn’t stop. A faint squeal of tires broke his daze for only a moment and he imagined seeing a gray car on the street. It looked like the one his parents drove. The illusion faded when he got to the street corner and his mouth quivered into a hard line. More tears streamed loose and he couldn’t bear to look anymore. Clouds, lazy and large, drifted overhead streaked in pink and orange like the flowers his mother always put on the steps.

The tires he’d overheard weren’t his imagination as the same rusted pickup turned onto his street and stopped at the curb. A heavy creak of metal and a slap of a door had Parker standing in the grass just feet away. Caleb didn’t move, still breathing hard. A thick and slow feeling of shame hit Caleb when his brother closed the gap and he couldn’t stop another sob. He found himself being pulled up by his arms, muscles feeling like jelly and ready to collapse back into the grass. Caleb barely protested when Parked wrapped him in his own arms. The close hug only made the weight on his chest worse and Caleb buried his face into Parker’s shoulder. The tears fell heavy and sluggish. A comforting hand patted his back and he found himself falling back into a pit he’d kept at bay for over a year.

“It’s my fault,” he sobbed, repeating the phrase while Parker held him tight.

“No, it’s not,” Parker protested, staring out across darkening evening.

“It is.”

“It was an accident. It…it can happen to anyone.”

“They were looking for me when it happened.”

“What do you mean?”

“I snuck out. They had to go look for me and now they’re dead!”

“Don’t say that stuff like that, Caleb. Their accident…it wasn’t your fault.”

Caleb didn’t have more to say as his eyes blurred over once again. He sobbed out another apology, gripping at Parker’s sleeve. His whole body shook with the effort it took to cry. Parker sighed, resting his cheek on Caleb’s head and kept a steady gaze upwards to the purpling sky and fading clouds. A hum of energy filled the air, streetlights beginning to waken and disturb the shadows. Evening closed around both the brothers, their own shadows disturbed by the halo of light cast over the rusted truck and concrete road.

Sarah Sullivan