Halloween was particularly cold this year. Light snow blanketed the busy city streets—the first snowfall of the year. I’d long since stopped trick-or-treating, but the kids who still had hope for the world ran about, asking fro candy with their adorable enthusiasm. Teenagers such as myself more often than not weren’t cute enough to get more than a stale carrot.
With reddened hands stuck in my pockets, I trudged down the sidewalk, avoiding as many costumed children as I could. Icy wind nipped at my face. I buried my face into my warm jacket, grateful for the brief reprieve from the cold. Thankfully my mom bought me a new one this year. My old coat was barely more than a couple scraps of cotton held together by a zipper and a few threads. Although this one wasn’t quite fit for winter, but I supposed it was better than nothing.
Yellow light bathed the ground in front of me as I turned down my street. Comfortable quiet greeted me here, the rare kind of quiet the city offered every once in a while. I lingered in it for a moment before heading up to my apartment. I could barely feel the key in my cracked, frozen hands, so it took a minute to unlock the door.
Delightful aromas wafted beneath my nose when I entered. Mom was in the kitchen, slaving away at a home-cooked meal. I shrugged off my jacket and hung it up.
“You’re home,” I said, unable to mask the surprise in my voice.
Mom turned and smiled at me, a smile that crinkled the corners of her friendly earthen eyes. It wasn’t often that she smiled anymore, not since my dad left her with a string of hateful words six years ago. He used to send me birthday cards, but after so long, even those stopped coming.
“Well, I think I earned a night off!” A wisp of her dark hair escaped the colorful bandana that kept it back from her face. She brushed it away.
I beamed. “You got the promotion! Mom, that’s amazing. You totally deserve it.”
“Thanks, Taran. And work for you?”
I shrugged. “Boring.” I placed a handful of cash into the mason jar on the counter next to the telephone. Several crumpled bills were squished into the small container, labelled culinary school, most of them the tips I made from my part-time barista job. I hoped it eased Mom’s anxiety to have help with her school loans.
Mom stirred the alfredo sauce. “Did you get anything for your brother?”
I dipped my finger into the sauce, trying to ignore the tightness in my chest. “I might have eaten it.”
She turned and looked at me, her mouth stern, but her eyes laughing. “Then I suppose you don’t need any supper.”
I rolled my eyes and licked the sauce from my finger. From my jeans, I pulled a broken candy bar that I really had thought about eating a couple times on the way home. “Kidding.”
With a smile on my face, I trotted down the hallway to the bedroom my brother and I shared. Clothes and candy wrappers littered my side, but there was hardly a speck of dust on his. The unofficial line separating us was more and more visible by the day.
Owen, my little brother, sat on his bed, a book propped up on his knees and his glasses slipping off his nose. His curly dark brown hair cascaded into his pale brown eyes that spared my presence nothing more than a fleeting glance. He look just like our mom, but I had the great misfortune of my dad’s limp blond hair and ghastly gray eyes.
I tossed the crumbling chocolate bar at him, landing it directly on his book. He looked up at me with a prim eyebrow raised. “Is it really so hard for you to walk over and hand it to me?”
My lumpy bed caught me as I fell backwards. “Be happy I got you one at all. I almost ate it.”
“Congratulations on having self control.”
Owen returned to his book, rolling over onto his other side, his back facing me. Two could play at that game. I lay on my side, staring at the wall, waiting for mom to finish cooking. As I waited, my eyes grew heavier and my brain played imaginary scenes on the blank wall. I saw myself and mom, just the two of us sitting in a lavish dining room, eating a meal that she didn’t have to cook. It was a pleasant daydream, but I was beckoned back to reality by my mom’s calls.
Reluctantly, I shook away the images and trotted into the kitchen. A bowl of chicken alfredo sat in the center of the small kitchen table with four sets of dinnerware. Wait, four?
“Why’s there an extra place?” I asked.
“John is coming for dinner,” Mom explained, shoving a wooden serving spoon into the bowl. “So please, behave yourselves.”
I plopped down in my seat. “When do I not behave?”
Owen snorted, but didn’t say anything. I glared at him.
Mom chuckled. “Seriously, Taran. I need you on your best behavior. I really like this guy.”
“Yeah, and you really liked the last one too. Remember how that turned out?” I muttered, scooping some noodles onto my plate
She pursed her lips. I knew that I’d opened a bit of a deep wound. First boyfriend since Dad left, and he was a worthless nothing. It took her a long time to see it, at the expense of her self-esteem. I hated to see her tear herself down for those who didn’t deserve her affection.
I sipped some milk to wash down my bite of the delicious pasta. Owen neatly piled some on his own plate, while simultaneously reading a book about celestial bodies.
“Why can’t you just let Mom be happy?” He said, not even glancing up.
“Mom is happy. With us. And maybe some day with the right guy. But this guy isn’t the right guy.”
“How do you know that? You haven’t even met him yet,” Owen countered.
“I just know.”
With a sigh, Mom sat down at the end of the table, me and Owen on either side of her. Exhaustion cracked through that mask of joy she wore around us. It made her look more weary than ever. “Taran, please.”
I surrendered, and mock saluted though I knew it was in poor taste. “Okay, fine. I’ll be on my best behavior.”
“Like you have any,” Owen muttered. I wasn’t sure if he meant me to hear.
“At least I have a life. You might if you actually put down a book.”
“And perhaps if you picked one up, you wouldn’t be failing English.” He smirked and flipped the page. Heat rose in my face.
Mom turned to me. “You’re failing English?”
“And biology,” Owen added, taking a bite of his bread roll.
The buzzing sound of the intercom saved me from that conversation. “That’s probably John.”
Mom narrowed her eyes at me, but not in a serious way. More like in a you think you’re saved but there’s no escape from this talk, kind of way. In any case, she slid out of her chair and went to buzz John up.
I turned my attention to the thirteen year old nuisance that sat across from me. “How did you know I was failing?”
He shrugged. “Computers are not hard to hack.”
“Yes, well that’s because you are rather incompetent, isn’t it?”
My fingers curled into fists as I tried to contain my irritation. His shows of perfectionism were getting bolder every year. Even though I was a solid four years older, he never let me forget how much smarter he was than me, how much better he was at everything.
At least I was the one who actually did something to help Mom. To be honest, I wasn’t sure why she didn’t just send Owen to live with Dad, seeing as he held out this pitiful hope that he’d come back and make our family right again.
Years of incessant pestering and intentional annoyance had finally built up. Exasperation coursed through my veins, taking hold of my mind. Without thinking, I picked up a handful of the noodles and threw it at my brother. The sauce splattered across his glass, stained his book, trickled down the side of his face in thick, creamy globs.
He yelped and pushed away from the table. “Taran!” He threw a bread roll at me in retaliation, but without his glasses, he missed abysmally.
I smirked. “Maybe I’m incompetent in school but I can aim much better than you.”
Hastily, he reached for the napkins, probably to wipe down his glasses or his book, but I snatched them first. His eyes burned with rage, brimmed with tears. Both of us were on our feet, staring each other down.
“You’re such a jerk!” He screamed, his voice wobbling.
A retort sat on the tip of my tongue, one that probably would have sent him bawling, but Mom came in just then, and I swallowed it.. She had a fire in her eyes, one that didn’t appear often but always terrified me. Both Owen and I turned to her, defenses ready on our lips. Before either of us could throw blame, she held up a finger. We shut up.
Mom strutted over to the jar of bills and dumped some change out. Money in hand, she marched over to me. “Take your brother out. You two have not been getting along for months now and I can’t have this the first time I bring my boyfriend home.”
I protested, “Stop calling him your boyfriend!”
“Taran.” She sighed, but it wasn’t angry. It was weary. “I know you’re just trying to protect me. You always have. But this guy is everything I’m looking for. I don’t need you to look out for me anymore. Your brother does.”
I scowled. I glanced over my shoulder and met Owen’s scalding hot glare as he cleaned off his glasses. “He’s fine.”
“You’re going to take him out to do something fun and you’re going to figure out how to get along.”
Reluctantly, I agreed. She gave me a reassuring smile and watched as I dragged my brother out the door. He pulled on his shoes and old leather jacket, the last thing our dad gave him. I hated that he wore it. How could he not see that it was a symbol for everything broken with our family?
Once we were both decked out in coats and boots, I dropped the money in my pocket and opened the door. Standing there was a tired man, thin and blond. The resemblance to my dad was unsettling.
“John?” I asked, bitterness lining my voice.
He nodded. “You must be Taran. Your mother speaks very highly of you. And Owen, right? Hey sport.”
We exchanged an annoyed glance. Neither of us responded.
Like a ghost, my mom appeared behind me. “John! The boys were just on their way out.”
“Elaine.” John beamed. “You look lovely.”
I glanced at my mom who went beet red. Flattery was her weak point. That was how all the scumbags got her, with their compliments and fake chivalry. I doubted this guy was any different.
Rolling my eyes, I shoved past John, Owen close in tow. I heard mom telling me to stay safe, shrugged, and kept walking. Neither of us made an effort to exchange words. For the longest time, we just wandered through the dark streets. I hadn’t the faintest clue where to go, so I just aimlessly led him through the city for nearly an hour.
When I finally pulled myself out of my mind, I found my feet had stopped moving. I looked up and saw why; before us was the old arcade our parents used to take us to on our birthdays. Melancholy filled the atmosphere around us, clinging to my nose, threatening to suffocate me. Tears sprung in my eyes of their own accord as I stared, unable to tear my gaze from the blinking neon sign that hung over the doorway.
Memories flooded my mind, crashing over me like a tidal wave of bittersweet nostalgia. An eternity passed as I stood frozen, unable to escape the somber prison of my own making.
Owen slipped his hand into mine. The warmth of his touch was enough to thaw my mind, rigid with desolation. I cleared my throat, wiped my tears.
“One more time?” He asked, voice soft and coddling.
I nodded. Together, we entered the arcade. Warm air wrapped around us like an inviting, incorporeal hug. The familiar scents of arcade pizza and popcorn wafted under my nose. Our stomachs grumbled in unison. I pulled the crumpled bills from my jacket pocket and bought us each a slice of pepperoni pizza. Owen’s eyes lit up with joy as he took a bite. I beamed wide.
With our bellies full, we took up spots at the race-car game. It was the one we always played, the one that blurred minutes into hours. It had been years since we last raced, so it was no wonder my high score was gone.
“Ready?” I asked, grinning ear to ear.
“Ready,” he replied, solemn dedication casting over his face. I laughed, which only set his jaw further. “This is serious, Taran. I’m going to kick your butt.”
“Ha! Yeah right.”
He did. My competitive spirit reared up in response, but for the first time in a long time, it burned away rather quickly. Seeing Owen smile with a grin that wide was more than I knew I needed.
New memories replaced the old as we played games all night long. Colors sharpened as my heartiness swelled. The haze of sorrow smothering my mind dissipated. I wrapped Owen in a bear hug when he finally won the unwinnable claw machine. I messed up his hair, and his glasses were askew, but he didn’t seem to care. He hugged back, beaming with pride.
Tonight was a memory I would hold onto forever. Every bump in the road that inevitably would come our way would not break us down, not anymore. Our bond was stronger than either of us would admit. We didn’t need spoken apologies for everything that happened, for all the bad blood between us. All that mattered was making each other smile, tonight, tomorrow, every moment possible. For me, that was enough.
Who needed trick-or-treating when I had the best brother to spend the night with?