Homesick | Emily Rogers

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His skull breaks the glass.

The crack spreads out in spindly threads, a spiderweb of hurt etched tangibly into the window of his former home. Blood drips sickly toward the windowsill, burgundy red, translucent where the light hits. It all collects in a fatal red rosary bead that bursts when it hits wood, pooling on the sill and cooling into a sticky, permanent stain in the white paint. He falls to his knees in the damp grass, head bowed and gasping for breath, blood dripping down the length of his neck and dyeing the collar of his dress shirt cranberry. He wears a black eye, a sleeve of tattoos on his right arm where the short sleeves don’t cover, and a new hole in the knee of his black jeans. This house has watched him in similar states of disrepair, but the tattoos cover years of life this place has never seen, memories he’s made and kept for himself that don’t pertain to the person who lived here, the one he used to be. He’d left that person here to rot, but it’s all coming back now. He can feel the decay grow roots in his chest.

His breath begins to even out, and he manages to bring a hand to the back of his head before a kick to the stomach sends him lurching forward, curling in on himself as he starts to retch, gasping inward breaths sounding like sobs between them, perpetual gut-wrenching sounds escaping him in painful bursts. Black spots invade his vision and everything starts to blur, but he refuses to cry. He refuses to fight. Maybe he deserves to die here.

He’s not sure why he came back, why he ever thought this could be a good idea, a healing moment or something. He just had this maddening, neverending itch to make things right, but he realizes now it may have just been a hankering for getting the shit kicked out of him. Like old times. He thinks he came here for some sort of forgiveness, but he’s never forgiven anyone here. It’s a one way street, and he’s standing in front of a truck going 70 miles per hour with no intention of stopping or slowing.

The next kick comes to his ribs, and he can feel more than bone splintering inside him. He’s in fetal position now, face half in the grass and dirt with no hope of catching his breath again. It doesn’t matter anymore. He won’t be the person his brother wants him to be. He won’t turn his hurt into bloodied knuckles this time.

The decay keeps spreading, upward through his lungs, his throat, up to his eye sockets where it starts to leak, tears forced out of him sliding down his swollen face, breaking the promise he made to himself. He’s never cried here. He’s never been allowed. He remembers holding it in, always holding the hurt inside until his chest threatened to burst, taking it with him into school bathrooms where he could finally sob until he gasped for breath, where he had hall pass privileges taken from him because of the days he held it in so long it took entire class periods to calm, to collect. He remembers the days without being the worst times, crying between classes inside stalls, balled up toilet paper disintegrating in the fist he hid inside of his pocket in all the classes afterward. He remembers the days the older kids would find him and call him crybaby, call him a girl, call him anything they could to try and hurt him. It couldn’t damage him more than he already was.

He moved past crying and onto fighting pretty quickly. Inflicting the pain felt like a relief, finally getting to hit back such a euphoria that he never cared if he lost or won, if he was suspended or spent weeks on end in detention. If he ended up on the blacktop in a pool of his own blood, at least he’d picked the fight. He’d come home and do it all again anyway, so what was the point in waiting, in trying to keep himself pristine for the ruining? There was freedom in the choice, and he’d take any ounce of freedom he could get.

This was his home, but he never knew quite what that meant. There was never an attachment, he held no nostalgia for the shell of a house that all his worst memories occurred in. Home was a locked cage, a noose just a little too low and loose to die from, a constricting rope around his neck that pulled tighter every time he said a word, every time he thought of fighting back, every time he did some invisible wrong thing. Yet he was drawn back here to relive the misery, to start it anew, because of some sick urge to see if anything at all had changed, and met with exactly what he should have expected.

He hadn’t made it past the door frame, but he imagines the inside is filled with ghosts lining the corners like cobwebs, his far-off screams lingering in the air like dust motes, rusty stains from his blood still spotting the floor, all tastefully pulled together with a heavy sense of dread. The past and present had never collided so forcefully before, and he feels like a mirror image of himself, reflected the wrong way around. This couldn’t be him, this couldn’t be his blood sinking into soil, he can’t have so directly tied himself to his worst nightmare. The rain can’t wash away what the roots in the front lawn have already drank, a blood pact that says he’ll never truly be free. His tattoos are distant hope, a future he can’t reconcile himself with when he’s bleeding out. That him doesn’t know this one. That him has never suffered, had buried his past six feet deep in a sealed urn where the ashes of it could never be spilled. That him is smart, and strong, and doesn’t give in to insistent urges that will only end in pain.

He’s twelve years old again with no hope. He’s twenty six and fists and steel-toed boots still speak louder than he ever could. He was right to leave, and he should’ve stayed away. He knew that all along, felt his heart trying to combust as he walked along the path to the front door with a high-pitched screech like a hospital flatline bouncing around his head, a warning signal for him to hear and ignore. Self preservation had never been his strong suit.

He was sixteen before he ever hit back. He never intended to try, but one day something split inside him. Something cracked and a monster crawled out, the missing piece that fit him into the family, slotted into place right where he belonged, violent and volatile, his anger torn from the inside out. He swung and hit, crushing cartilage under his knuckles. He broke his brother’s nose and sprinted out of the house before he noticed the blood running down his hand and wrist, slipping down the sleeve of his hoodie, trailing guilt behind it. Every day he got hit, and every day he bled and bruised, but he’d never noticed how much there was, how red it all could be. He thought it’d feel good, to see his brother hurt like he did, but he just felt hollow, like everything inside him had drained, all the good and bad seeping through the shallow scrapes on his knuckles, all his hurt culminating into this moment of emptiness, when he realized he was no

longer just the victim. He’d hit back, and he wasn’t sure if that made him a hero or a villain, if he was just as bad as them after all.

Everything is flooding back, a lifetime of conflicted feelings on parade, not so much nostalgia as a series of painful flashbacks twisting like knives inside him, the dull throb in the back of his head ever-present and debilitating. He’s powerless to stop it, the way he’s always been powerless. Nothing could have prepared him for this. He had his whole life to prepare for this. It’s a complicated duality, all his should-haves and what-ifs on display, realism and optimism caught in an eternal war. After all this time, he still wants to see the best in people, he always wants to hope for more, a wistfulness that has never once served him well.

He’d closed his eyes because he didn’t want to see the kicks, and if one came to his face he didn’t want to lose an eye — he’d long since learned the best ways to be beaten. He can almost breathe again, and he realizes it’s been a while since the last blow, which only serves to set him on edge. Maybe this pause is forgiveness, or maybe it’s a setup for something worse, twenty six years of lead up finally culminating in the kill. His tears have turned the dirt beneath his cheek into thick mud, and as he struggles to lift his head from the cold ground, he feels the mud lift with it, fused to skin like an ineffective graft, a makeshift bandaid. He doesn’t want to take any part of this place with him when he goes. If he goes. This place has its own gravitational pull, made in part by gravity pulling and holding him down when he’s wounded, so much stronger than he is. He keeps his eyes closed, holding on to this one last bit of hope. He escaped before, and he can escape again. He can lock this part of him away for good this time, he’ll take whatever new scars were made here and remember them when the itch for home finds him again.

It was never an itch for home, because he’s never had one. Maybe an urge to find one, to reevaluate and reexamine, maybe find something good that could’ve been, that he now realizes will never, ever be. Ten years hasn’t changed a single thing, and they think he deserves this. He plants a palm on the wet soil, makes his screaming muscles move him until he’s got both hands and knees grounded, however unsteadily. He feels blood rise in his throat and swallows it down, and his ribs feel like a hole in his side but the stabbing in his stomach is worse, and he can’t give into either if he doesn’t want to die here. He can’t die here. He won’t let them win.

He still hasn’t opened his eyes, but he can feel the world spinning around him, everything off-kilter and wrong, a fun house mirror inside him warping his guts into something foreign. It’s vomit coming up this time, and he can’t stop it; it erupts out of him and onto the pristinely green lawn and he doesn’t feel any better after. He pushes himself to his knees, and the head rush feels like he’s dying. He can’t forget the blood drying on his neck, wonders if his skull cracked as easily as the glass behind it. He was never very hard-headed, passive and weak, too fragile. The fragility was the problem and the solution, the barrier between he and them, the secret to keeping himself in tact while also breaking him irreparably, shattering him into millions of pieces he would spend the rest of his life trying to collect.

He was sick of the search, of the longing, of the thought that if things had been different he would be better off. Of the knowledge that things would never, ever change, that the past can’t be rewritten or smudged away, that the cracking of knuckles would forever set him on edge, that

the anxiety associated with the slamming of doors would always eat him alive, have him bracing for impact, leave him shaking. Ink covered all the scars except the ones in his heart and on his mind, and hope ripped them open again, optimism he still couldn’t shake, some misplaced, stupid hope that something had changed, that anyone could feel guilt for what they’d done or have the capacity to want to atone. All he wanted was for someone to be like him. All he got was what he deserved.

But the blows had stopped.

He still thinks it might be a game, that one of them is just waiting for him to watch as they kill him, waiting to hear his sigh of relief before they steal his breath again. He doesn’t give them the satisfaction, imagined or not. He can’t hear any breathing but his own, and it’s coming in tattered whispers of sound, it’s barely audible, it’s nothing like the labored breathing that comes with delivering a beating. He must be alone. But maybe it’s the hope telling him that, trying to kid himself, trying to make him feel safe in his final moments, give him some sort of peace before the end.

He readjusts, shifting his weight to plant one foot on the ground. It’s a slow process, every muscle in his body screaming for him to stop, to lay down and die like they’d always hoped he would. He won’t do it. He might die from the injuries, he might die running away, he might die scared and alone and limping, trailing blood behind him. But those’re his own terms. Those are endings he won’t let be taken away from him, his cowardice and courage coexisting to make him uniquely other than who he grew up hating. No matter how he dies, he wins if it isn’t here.

He doesn’t care that he’s probably going to die today.

He leans forward, pushing himself upward until his other foot is steady enough to hold him, dug into the dirt and desperately praying for purchase, that this ground can give him some sort of strength, hold him up one last time. It takes some time, but he shakily stands, straight for a second before another stabbing pain echoes in his stomach and doubles him over again. It’s not perfect — how could it be — but he’s upright, and that’s enough for now. He can start trying to put one foot in front of the other, he can drag himself home, to his real home, somehow.

All he has to do is make it to his car, but his blurry brain can’t remember where he parked. He thinks it was far away, just in case. He’d never had something so nice before, he couldn’t risk what they might do to it, if they’d ruin this one last thing for him too. His phone is out there with it; he only left himself open to be broken here today. He wonders if he’ll regret that decision, and his mind wanders to other endings. He doesn’t know that he could’ve brought himself to call 911, that his fingers could have dialed the keys. He can’t say why. Maybe some insane, twisted sense of family loyalty; maybe actual, pure, fear for his life, but he can’t imagine turning them in, can’t imagine telling the truth. Can’t imagine making up a lie that could explain the mess his body’s become. Maybe he doesn’t deserve that kind of justice. He thinks he knows the direction he needs to go at least, and starts to stumble that way. The gash in his head is dripping down his neck again. Every single step is agony, every single movement making him feel like he’s going to collapse.

He makes it to the end of the block before he does.

Cautiously optimistic.

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