Alice Donovan was a strange creature.
A crotchety old woman with a bad hip, she spent every morning creaking across the kitchen floor while Kai tried—and failed—to sleep. He thought she looked about ready to kick the bucket, but as soon as she got her hands on that damn walking stick—oh boy. It was like the clock had turned back three decades. She was Superwoman with a stick.
“Happy Birthday, Pup.”
Kai glanced at the calendar—April 7th. It was one of the few things he remembered about himself after the accident.
“I’m sixteen,” he grunted. “Shouldn’t you stop calling me pup by now?”
The old woman let out a wheezy chuckle. “Would you prefer I start calling you Stud?”
He cringed, and she erupted into a gravelly laugh. “Didn’t think so,” she chided.
If there was one thing Alice Donovan appreciated, it was a sense of humour. Every late night spent trekking to the police station; every meeting with the principle, the youth counselor, the paediatric psychiatrist—she always worked up the energy to crack a joke.
“Come home by six tonight,” she told him. “No running off into the woods this time. I need you here.”
Kai huffed and slumped his shoulders. “Alright, I’ll be here.”
Without a word of goodbye, he turned and walked out the door. It was a school day, but he had no intention of spending the next eight hours sweating on his ass in a room full of mean-spirited turds. He’d been taken out of the classroom for kids with learning disabilities some time ago, but he never understood why; they were a hell of a lot easier to get along with than the so-called ‘normal’ kids. After three fistfights and a broken nose, Kai had no desire to step foot on school property. That, and he would dig his eyeballs out with a protractor if he had to stand up in front of the flag one more time. Screw the state of Washington and the other forty-nine of them.
Yawning sleepily, he headed straight for the neighbourhood playground where the housewives and their kids came during the day. Most teenagers were too fucking self-absorbed and embarrassed to be seen around a bunch of toddlers, so they avoided the playground like a bag of anthrax. He didn’t really care for the equipment, but he always wondered if watching the miniature humans socialize would teach him what he’d missed. Maybe if he spent enough time there, he’d eventually crack the code.
Unfortunately, it was a little late for him to go back to being a kid. After six years with Alice Donovan, Kai had grown over a foot, shooting through the awkwardness of puberty at the speed of a rocket launching for the moon. And aside from the random boners that (literally) popped up to say hello at the most inappropriate times—car accidents, funerals, dramatic breakups—he quite enjoyed being taller than most of the other boys his age. It helped keep them away, and that was worth more than any boner.
Parking his butt on the wooden ledge around the perimeter of the sandy playground, Kai watched as people trickled in and out of the park with their mini-me spawns. He wasn’t old enough for anyone to scream Stranger Danger, so the adults ignored him. Occasionally, someone would even ask him to keep an eye on their shit-stained kid while they went to grab that wallet or cell phone they forgot in the car. But today was quiet. There was only one little girl playing by the slide, her mom sitting on the bench reading a book.
Kai watched as the girl took off her tiny red shoes, shaking the sand out and tapping them against a metal bar. As if guided by a sixth sense that only the unsocialized of the human species was privy to, she looked up at him and blinked. They stared at one another for several moments, like two dogs meeting on their daily walk for the first time. Putting her shoes back on, she walked over and plunked herself down in front of him.
“Hi!” she yelled, her large, brown eyes brimming with curiosity.
“My hearing’s fine.” He raised an eyebrow, examining the little gremlin. “Hi…”
“You aren’t playing,” she observed, dragging her butt through the sand like a dog in need of a deworming. Did kids get worms?
He sighed, glancing over at the girl’s mother, who was now watching them. “I’m not here to play.”
“Is it because you have no one to play with?” she asked as she pushed her toes into the sand. “I don’t have brothers or sisters, so I always play by myself. But sometimes I don’t feel like it. Playing by yourself is lonely.”
“Why don’t you play with your mom?” He tilted his head towards the woman on the bench.
The girl wrinkled her nose as she dug her fingers through the cool earth. “Mum doesn’t like to play kids’ games.”
“Most grown-ups don’t.”
“Where’s your mom?”
Kai flashed a menacing grin. “Dead.”
“Oh…” she trailed off, her face falling a bit. “She’s probably in heaven.”
Now there was something he didn’t believe. “Why?”
“Because you’re nice,” she explained, leaning over until she nearly flopped face-first into the sand.
Kai wondered what was in the water to make her think that.
“Zoey, let’s go!” It was the mother, standing by the bench with her book under her arm. She frowned at Kai, clearly displeased.
“Coming!” the little girl called back in sing-song, climbing to her feet and running away. She gave Kai a parting glance over her shoulder as she took her mother’s hand, then walked out of the park with her.
Kai watched them leave, then turned to look into the forest behind him. It was calling to him, but he knew that if he went in, he wouldn’t be coming out any time soon. He could spend hours wandering the woods, the peace and quiet lulling him into a calm he never seemed to find in the real world.
And yet six o’clock was so far off. Maybe if he was careful, he would catch the sun on its way down and know when it was time to go back. Still, he loved being in the woods; it felt like home—only there was no one there to greet him.
It was six forty-five when Kai snuck back into the house—though the sneaking part wasn’t exactly successful. The door was so damn dramatic every time someone opened it—squealing its hinges were being torn off.
“You’re late!” shouted Alice as she came into the tiny hallway of their bungalow home, cigarette in hand. Her sweater was stained with ketchup and barbeque sauce, her hair barely contained by a net like she’d been working at a deli all day.
“You’re filthy!” she hollered when she saw him, taking a drag of the cancer-stick between her fingers.
From head to toe, Kai was covered in grime and dirt. His clothes were tattered and his face was smeared with dried mud, a fresh line of bruises just starting to form along his jaw. He ducked his head and took his shoes off, bits of leaves and plant roots dangling off of them.
“The hell were you doing? Battling Faeries?” Alice threw her arms out in disbelief, then winced as her elbow cracked.
“I uh,” he removed his socks—also black as tar, “I was chasing coyotes.”
The old woman blinked, the explanation not what she had expected. “Why on earth would you—”
Her eyebrows drew together. “One,” she hacked, raising her index finger. “How did you not get attacked? And two,” she raised another. “How did you even manage to keep up with a pack of coyotes?”
Kai shrugged, smiling cheekily as he threw his socks in the laundry bin.
“I swear, you should be an Olympic athlete.” She shook her head, blowing the smoke off to the side.
“I wanted to do kickboxing, but that asshole therapist said it would make my aggression worse.”
“We’ll find another therapist,” she sighed, following him as he headed for the kitchen. “You hungry?”
Kai sat down at the table—a wobbly scrap of wood barely keeping itself together. “Starving.”
“Well,” the old woman flashed him a toothy smile, “since it’s your birthday, I decided to make your favourite.”
His eyes widened in youthful anticipation. There wasn’t much that provoked positive feelings in him, but food always did the trick. “You made ribs!” he exclaimed, slapping his hand down on the table.
“Don’t bust my table, jerk!” She opened the oven and pulled out a massive pot of fall-off the bone, baby-back ribs. Hobbling over, she put the pot down in front of him and tossed a whole pack of wet napkins onto his lap.
“Happy Birthday, Pup.” The affection poured straight through her usual gruffness. Leaning against the backrest of the chair, she placed her knobby hand on the top of his head and ruffled his thick, black hair, then handed him a card.
“You’re a good kid,” she said. “Even if no one else in the world believes it.”
Kai’s cheeks were already stuffed with juicy pork, his face smeared with barbeque sauce as he stopped chewing and looked up at the old woman, then down at the card in her leathery hand. Chucking the bone back in the pot, he wiped his hands on a napkin and took the white envelope from her, tearing open the flap and pulling out the lilac birthday card.
Suddenly, guilt gnawed at his bones. All he ever did was cause trouble; he knew it was his fault—always getting into fights, never being around, losing his things and coming home with bruises and cuts from all the scraps he got into. But this year was different.
He opened the card and stared at the words inside. Her writing was awful—worse than chicken scratch. Sometimes the shaking got so bad she couldn’t even write her own name. But he could tell how hard she tried to make it look nice.
You’ve probably taken a decade off my soggy life with all the shit you pull, you little punk. But I still love you. I’d trade that decade for these last 6 years any day. You’re family.
Happy Birthday, Kai Donovan.
Kai closed the card and put it down on the table. It was the first time she’d ever referred to him using her own surname.
She was offering it to him.
Grinning widely, he stood up and threw his arms around her creaky old bones, squeezing until she cussed him away and playfully whacked his leg with her cane.
Sure, they were both trash. But that’s why they were family.