A Novelette By Robert Swartwood

Chapter 1

Here’s how it starts: the phone rings and I answer.

“You’re grounded.”

I can tell by the static on my father’s end that he’s on his cell. Lying in bed, I glance at my alarm clock and see it’s almost 11:00 AM. Four extra hours of sleep on a Friday; thank God for whoever invented parent-teacher conferences.

I yawn. “Say what?”

“Goddamn it, Josh. I knew you weren’t doing well in school, but this … this just isn’t acceptable.”

I can hear Mom in the background, telling him to settle down, to watch his language. He mutters something to her, then says, “This is your senior year, Josh, and—and you might not graduate.”

Slowly I sit up in bed. My room’s a mess: papers all over my desk, clothes all over the floor. How many times have I been told to clean everything up? Way too many, that’s all I know. Dad even told me to clean it up this weekend, and I had nodded and said sure, I’ll try, but it’s all become a charade.

“Do you hear me?”

“Yes,” I say quietly.

“Then what’d I say?”

Seems like the only person you can never BS is your old man. I try to think of something smart to say, but I just woke up thirty second ago and I’m still pretty much dead to the world.

“God, Josh, would you listen to me? I said you’re ground. That means no friends allowed over. Not even Amanda. And don’t leave the house. Just … get your room cleaned.”

“Okay,” I mutter, because really, what else am I supposed to say?

“Okay what?” In the background, Mom tells him to ease off, to not be so hard. He tells her to stay out of it, that he knows what he’s doing. Then: “Are you there?”

“I’m here.”

“You better mind me, son. I’m very disappointed in you.”

“Sorry, Dad.”

And then he says it. No hesitation, no reluctance at all in his voice. He just comes out and says it. And truthfully, it doesn’t surprise me. Not one bit.

“God,” he says, “sometimes I wonder why we even—”

So I’m adopted. Big deal. The same goes for Tyler—only I look more like our parents. Ty’s Korean, has the tan skin and black hair. But he’s my brother, and I’ve known him nearly all ten years of his life, and I love the kid.

For one quick moment, I wonder if Dad would have said the same thing to Ty just now.

The phone starts beeping in my ear. Dad must have hung up. Pity, I think—I wanted to wish him and Mom a happy anniversary. Tell them to have a good ol’ time up in the Poconos for the weekend.

Yeah, right.

I hang up the phone and throw on a pair of shorts and undershirt from off the floor. Then I’m heading down the stairs and walking into the kitchen for something to drink, and it’s as I reach the fridge that I realize just how quiet the house is. The TV in the living room isn’t on; there’s no radio blaring music anywhere in the house. Ty probably went out to a friend’s or took Laddie for a walk. Either way, I’m alone.

Right now the last thing I want to think about is everything my father was bitching about, especially what he said before he hung up, but I can’t help it; it all keeps racing through my head.

I pull out a carton of orange juice and slam the fridge door, thinking maybe that will make everything better. It doesn’t. What it does, for some strange reason, is makes me think about Amanda, and what we’re planning on doing tomorrow.

Or at least what we were planning.

Remember: I’m grounded.

I go to grab a glass from the cabinet but then think screw it and drink straight from the carton. I stand there by the sink, staring out the window into the backyard.

I think about Dad again. I knew what my teachers were going to tell my parents even before they went to school today, but I hadn’t warned them. My hope was that maybe it wasn’t as bad as it seemed.

I keep staring out the window.

Amanda is stopping by later. We’re supposed to call and confirm tomorrow’s appointment, and she wants us to do it together. What am I going to tell her when she shows?

I keep staring out the window.

Maybe I’ll give Ralph a call. I’m sure he’ll know what to do. Sure, the guy’s almost seventy, but he knows me better than my parents. Hell, probably better than myself. Just our next-door neighbor, yes, but he’s pretty much been a part of the family since I was first brought home. He’s like our surrogate-grandfather.

I keep staring out the window, and this time I’m able to blink, to realize where I am and what I’m doing. Standing in the kitchen, tightly gripping the Tropicana carton, I’d been wrapped up in my thoughts, but I’d been conscious too, watching what was going on in the backyard.

Ty, my little brother, is out there with a shovel. He’s wearing his khaki shorts and one of his white T-shirts. Only now his shirt’s not so white. I can see the dirt even from where I stand.

It looks like he’s just finished digging something up. Or filling something in—I can’t tell.

He doesn’t notice me, which is probably best, because he’s crying. The sky is clear, the sun is shining, and I can see the tears as they streak down his small round face.

Then I notice something else.

The place where he’s standing, smoothing out the dirt, used to be nice and even with green grass. Now it’s completely torn up, like a dog was digging up a bone, and I suddenly realize just what it looks like, how long the dirt mound is, how narrow.

It looks like a grave.

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