He had traveled this road so many times, on foot, on bike, in the car... So many times that he could navigate it with his eyes closed.
"Turn left at the big green house, then right at the next corner.", he said through a yawn, "It's the white house in the middle on the right." He was navigating with his eyes closed, fighting sleep while giving directions.
"Al, you all right?", the driver asked. What was his name again? He couldn't remember, just some guy he had talked into driving him home. He couldn't wait until he got his driver's license; it was still 5 months until his 16th birthday, but he was counting the days. Unlike many of the kids in his class he lived too close to the school to get an under-age permit. But that was ok, he already had his own car and didn't have to drive mama and daddy's like most of them did.
Like so many times before, Al had to find his own way home again. Not that he cared much, home wasn't really home anyway. The longer he could stay away from it the better. Finding a ride often meant side trips and extra stops, and that was just fine.
That was the main reason he went this time, to stay away from home. Was he really learning anything at church camp? No, not really, not any more. The first couple of times, were fun; he made good friends and even met a girl or two, but not this time. Now it wasn't about what he would learn, it wasn't about having that "been to the mountaintop" feeling, it was about escape.
The driver turned off of Main Street - or whatever it was called. Supposedly, all the streets had names now - yes, indeed, they put up the street signs along Main Street - sorry, "Washington Avenue" - while he was gone. Not that anyone would ever use them; in a small town you never had to. If you ever needed to give someone directions you always said things like "left at the Post Office, then straight on for two blocks, look for the big oak tree - can't miss it" or "you know where old man Hrovak lives? Right by there". The mail man didn't even worry about it, all the mail in town was delivered to boxes at the Post Office instead of house to house.
He let his eyes drift shut again. This time he'd gone without sleep for almost three days. Why? Why not? It was the only time he could get better acquainted with his latest "girlfriend" without the adults hassling him. Not that it was ever anything to brag about, at least not to the jocks and farmers at school. Girls you met at church camp seemed to think letting you kiss them was best saved for marriage, holding hands practically meant you were engaged. No, it was more about feeling wanted than anything physical. He had his hometown girl for that kind of stuff anyway.
He could tell by the bumps in the gravel road that they were almost at the corner. He knew he'd be home in less than a minute; the thought was like a punch in the gut. Who would be home at four on a Saturday afternoon? He hoped no one, being alone and lonely was preferable to the alternative. Even when his Mom and brother were home he spent all his time in his room so he could be alone and lonely. He didn't worry about his father, the man was never home - even when he was at the house.
Al opened his eyes just as the car came to a stop. Since it was right in front of his house, he was looking right at the big pink house next door. He couldn't help but look at it, bright pink didn't exactly blend into the neighborhood. In a flash the interior of that house toured through his mind. Of course he knew the inside of that house - he knew the inside of just about every house in town, having been inside each of them at one point or another over the last 11 years he'd lived in this middle-of-nowhere town, same as everyone else here in town. In fact, his first girlfriend had lived there. What was her name again? Didn't matter, she and her family had moved a long time ago.
Girlfriend. He'd have to call Kathy when he got in the house. At least Al thought of her as his girlfriend, while he was home anyway. She was two years behind him in school, with his brother in 7th grade, way too young to date, but so was he. That didn't stop them from doing things that older kids shouldn't be doing, things the church camp girls wouldn't do without a pre-nuptual agreement. Who could blame us, he thought, there wasn't anything else to do in this one-horse town.
He shook off another yawn as he climbed from the passenger seat to meet his driver by the trunk. While he waited, he glanced up the street at the water tower peeking over the tops of the trees, the last syllable of the town's name was barely visible from this side of town. Why did he hate it here so much? After all, this was really the only home he could remember. They had moved here shortly before he started kindergarten. His father had gotten a job at the dog food factory in the next town and his mother worked as a teachers assistant at the school. According to the sign at the edge of town 630 people lived here, though technically many of those lived on farms in the surrounding country side. Since sixth grade his class had been the largest this school had ever seen - twenty-five kids. The football team would never make it to state, not because there weren't any good player on the team, but because there wasn't a class for schools that small.
He found himself standing at the end of the sidewalk, his gym bag dangling in his right hand. When had his ride driven away? Did he say "thank you"? He shrugged. Didn't matter. Like so many others before, he was just a 10 minute friend, someone you make friends with only long enough to get what you need. He could have gotten the guy's address and promised to write, but he knew he wouldn't. He only wrote to the girls, and only then so he could string them along; hoping he would get more than sweaty palms the next time he saw them if he wrote them love-letters. He didn't really care to have any guy friends anyway, girls were easier to hang around with and talk to.
He looked to his left, his Mom's car was in the driveway, his brother's bike was gone. Well, one out of two, he thought. John had probably gone to stay at his best-friend Curt's house again. He couldn't blame him, his brother probably needed his own escape. His mother was still home, though. Didn't she have bowling or ceramics class or something tonight? Most likely. That was good, she wouldn't be home very long. She always had something to go to, her own way of escape. Strange family I have, he thought, a whole bunch of Houdinis, all looking to escape. He thought of the families he saw on TV, like the Cunninghams on Happy Days. Why couldn't he have a family like that? The worst problems Richie ever had involved pretty girls and whether he would "find his thrill on blueberry hill".
He climbed the rickety wooden steps onto the rickety wooden porch. The front door was open, like it normally was on a hot summer afternoon. He could see through the screen door that his mother was sitting at the kitchen table, her back to the door. The blue cloud hanging in the air told him she was having a tough day, she always smoked a lot when she was depressed, which lately was almost all the time.
Time to put on the happy face, he thought. If he walked in the house like he'd had the time of his life she wouldn't ask any questions.
"Mom! I'm home!", he chimed as the screen door hissed shut behind him. The dog, who normally barks like crazy when anyone comes through the door, was asleep on the couch. Odd, he thought, Mom doesn't normally let the dog on the furniture, stupid thing sheds like crazy. His mother didn't turn around, the blue cloud stirred as she exhaled.
"Sit down", she said without looking at him, "I need to tell you something."
"O.....K...." He could tell it was bad this time. This wasn't about the Playboy he kept under his mattress, this wasn't about what the nosy neighbors on the other side of the back ally saw him doing with his girlfriend last week, this was bad. He sat across from her at the faded laminate kitchen table.
"Your father," she started slowly, "he left us. He doesn't love us anymore."
The floor folded up and smothered him against the ceiling.