In today’s blog post, I wanted to share a rough short story with you that I wrote not too long ago. Deric is one of my characters from my debut novel, Smoke and Mirrors, and everyone has been curious as to how he went from having a Mom and a home to creating his ragtag group of found family. Deric’s “origin story”, you could say, has been tugging at my heart strings since I wrote my debut, and this short story answers everything.
A couple things to take note of before you start reading it. First, it’s rough. Deric had a rough childhood, and that’s not shied away from in this short by any means. There is a little language and content hinted at, although nothing is incredibly explicit. Second, it doesn’t spoil anything in Smoke and Mirrors, if you haven’t read it yet. Instead, it just preludes its way in.
Hope you enjoy. For those of you that have read Smoke and Mirrors and know about Deric’s character, I’d love for you to share your thoughts in the comments. <3
The alarm clock next to my ear starts its obnoxious beeping, and I jolt upright. My head thumps against the wooden rungs of the upper bunk, and I groan, massaging my forehead where a new bump will be. The alarm continues to beep next to my pillow. I smack around with my free hand until I hit the button to shut it off.
A heavy silence follows where I take the time to rub the sleep from my eyes and attempt to smooth down my matted hair without a mirror. It’s getting too long, longer than I like it. I’ll need to ask Mom to cut it.
You mean cut it yourself.
The thought is unwelcome as I swallow hard and slide my legs off the bed. The clock reads 7:04. I’ll be due at school soon.
I stand up, barely able to turn around in the closet we turned into my room since my growth spurt over the summer. I climb up the ladder, my back hitting the wall three times, before flopping onto the top bunk. I rummage through the plastic bins, pulling out a pair of jeans and thick socks and whatever shirt is on top of the pile. Then I crawl back down, change, and slip through the closet door into the one room apartment.
Mom’s room-separating curtains are pulled back, her bed still made. My heart sinks in my chest as I glance around. She didn’t sleep. I know because she never makes the bed anymore, so I have to do it for her. Worse, she’s not here. The lamp in the corner is on to brighten the room, but that’s it.
I swallow and approach the kitchen counter, pressing a tarnished silver button. The minifridge rises up out of the counter, a chill forming goosebumps on my bare arms.
Nothing. Nothing but week-old, moldy milk.
My nose wrinkles as I press the button again. As the minifridge lowers itself back into the counter, I check the singular cabinet to my left. Also empty.
I inhale deeply through my nose and slowly exhale through my mouth.
It’s fine, Deric. Mom probably went to buy some food. Everything’s okay.
But my stomach growls in protest. We didn’t have anything for dinner last night either.
I worry at my lower lip, wondering how dignified it would be to beg. Could I steal, even? Would it be right?
I shake my head and scold myself. No, no stealing. Mom will be back soon with food. You’ll see.
The thought doesn’t make me feel any better, so I sit down on the ratty brown couch, picking my book up off the armrest. Ms. Sally, my homeschool teacher, is having me and my other classmates read A Gentle Night – a story about forbidden poetry and the men and women who dared to write it to enlighten the people. It’s supposed to be a classic, and I’ve found it interesting thus far.
Still, I can barely focus on the page I’m supposed to be reading. I tap my right foot on the floor, shaking my knee, as I glance up at the holographic wall clock every few seconds. I can’t wait too much longer, or I’ll be late for school. And I can’t be late for school. It’s the best thing I’ve got.
As if on cue, something slams against the outside of our door. I jump, dropping my book in my lap. “Mom?”
No one replies, but the doorknob fumbles a few times before the door flies open. Mom staggers into the room with a man I don’t know, her lips on his neck, one of his hands halfway down her old jeans.
My face burns. No groceries, no food, but the smell of Elixir coats the room with its stench. “Mom!”
Mom immediately pulls away from the man, wild, confused eyes landing on me. “Deric!” she chirps. “I didn’t think you’d be up.”
I swallow. “It’s seven thirty.”
Mom squints at the holographic clock, and I try to ignore the man’s hand still down her pants. “So it is.”
“We’re out of food, Mom. I thought you’d be out getting groceries, not…” The man smirks at me, and I lower my gaze to my lap, gritting my teeth.
“I’m sorry, pumpkin. Can you go pick some up? I should have some money around here somewhere.” She swats the man’s hand away with a sly smile and then reaches into her pockets, searching. But I already know she won’t find anything. She spent it all on Elixir and cheap entertainment and men.
Mom pulls empty hands from her pockets. “I seem to have misplaced it.”
“Don’t you have somewhere you can run along to, boy? Your Mom and I have some…unfinished business,” the man cuts in. He pulls Mom back to him by her waist, and she laughs.
“Okay,” I grunt, standing and snapping my book closed. “I’m going to be late for school anyways.”
“You don’t have school, pumpkin,” Mom coos. I ignore her as I slide on my tattered sneakers next to the door, thinking she’s being delusional from the drink. I’ve been going to school since I was six years old. She knows that.
I think she’s being delusional, until she adds, “I couldn’t make your payment this month. Money’s been tight, pumpkin, surely you can understand.”
I stand very, very still, heart stuttering in my chest. My book trembles in my hands. ‘Money’s been tight’? Which meant she spent it all…spent it all on Elixir and one-night stands.
“Mom,” I croak. “We don’t have any food and now you’re taking me out of school?”
“Run along, now,” the man’s voice holds a hint of irritation.
“Go on, Deric,” Mom titters. “There will be food tonight.”
Lump in my throat and teeth gritted, I wrench open the front door and slam it behind me.
And I walk. I walk until I’m only half-sure of where I am. I walk until the tears have dried on my cheeks. I walk until I don’t feel like chucking my book into an alley in frustration; it’s the only book I’ll have for a while, maybe even ever.
Mom’s been this way since I was little. I’m a product of one of her one-night stands – even she never knew who my Dad was. But this is the worst I’ve ever seen her.
I sink down onto a dirty staircase and crack open my book, immersing myself in the story world to block out my own.
I read until the bustle of people walking home startles me. It’s late afternoon. I’ve been sitting here for too long. I swallow, close my book, and make my way into the crowd. No one needs to be out after dark, especially kids.
It takes me a good half hour to get home, and I stand out in the hall, dreading knocking on the apartment door. I hope the man has left. I hope Mom is somewhat coherent. I hope I can talk some sense into her.
I take a deep breath and knock once on the door. “Come in!” chirps Mom’s voice, and I steel myself and push open the door.
Mom is at least more coherent than earlier, and she’s dressed, cooking something on the flat top. I glance around and thankfully Mom’s friend is nowhere to be seen.
“There you are, pumpkin!” Mom presents me with a brilliant smile. “I was wondering where you got off to. Kevin gave me some money to get some food, so we have meals for a couple days until I get my paycheck.”
I hover in the doorway, stomach growling fiercely. I don’t ask what she had to do to earn the money. I don’t know whether a couple of meals will help me forgive her for taking me out of school.
“Come in and shut the door now. You’re letting in a draft.”
I obey, being sure to lock it, kick off my sneakers, and trudge to the couch. I stare at the floor until Mom comes over with two paper plates full of mac and cheese. I take my plate from her and try not to scarf down my food, knowing there won’t be seconds.
“Mom,” I finally broach the topic around a mouthful of noodles, “can we figure out a way for me to go back to school?”
Mom frowns. “We can try, but money is tight.” She sets her plate in her lap, and I notice she’s barely touched her food. “Be a dear and get me the Elixir from the fridge? Don’t worry, it’s only a small bottle.”
My stomach clenches but I obey, depositing my licked-clean paper plate in the trash. I turn the bottle of iridescent liquid over and over again in my hands as I shuffle back to the couch.
My heart pounds irregularly in my throat as I steal a glance up at Mom’s frowning face. “I don’t like this,” I burst out before I can lose my courage. I swallow hard. “I don’t like you drinking all the time and bringing men home. You’re going to get hurt, Mom. Maybe you’re hurting now. I don’t like it.”
A silence stretches between us, and I plead for her to understand, to snap out of her fog. I need her to snap out of it.
But Mom only sighs. “Give me my drink, kid.”
I wince at the name that makes me feel less than nothing and hand her the bottle.
Later that night, she brings a new friend home. I shut myself in my closet room, struggling to focus on my book even though they’re being so, so loud. When at last everything is quiet and I’ve made no more progress in my book, I consider shutting off my light and trying to sleep.
And then I hear it. Mom’s crying.
I swing out of bed and tiptoe to my door, opening it a crack. Sweat glistens my palms and I hold my breath, listening hard. If that guy has hurt her…
“…don’t know what to do with him,” whimpers Mom’s voice. “I never wanted children. I’d be free to live my own damn life if I didn’t have him.”
“Then kick him out,” the new guy soothes. “Or send him to the Jun. They’re always looking for more recruits, and they’d take care of him.”
My heart misses a beat, and I look unseeingly at the wall. She’s talking about me. They’re talking about me. My head feels floaty, like I’m not in my own body.
Mom sniffs. “Would that make me a horrible person?”
“Ssh, not at all. Think about it this way – he joins the Jun and he’ll never have to worry about food, clothes, or friends ever again. It’d be better for the both of you. Don’t cry, Amy. Let me make it better.”
I slip back into my room, my door clicking shut as Mom’s sniffling turns into a moan. Tears blur my eyes while anger and hurt claw my throat to shreds. She doesn’t want me. She never wanted me. She’s going to send me away.
I swipe at my eyes as fierce resolve fills my stomach, courses through my veins. I won’t go to the Jun, I won’t.
By the time Mom is up the next morning, I’m gone, my backpack slung across my shoulders and A Gentle Night clutched in my hands.