QP stood naked in front of his bathroom mirror.
He held his protruding stomach. White, jagged stretch marks scarred his skin. His breasts sagged. Frowning, he sucked in his belly until his ribs jutted. Pulling back the excess flesh from around his chest, QP flexed and squinted to see definition in his abs. Then he exhaled and the excessiveness of his form returned.
QP closed in on the mirror so only his face showed. He had a handsome face. A movie star face. Over and over, he told himself that he would grow out of the his body. Better to work with too much clay than too little, his mom always said.
Grinning at his reflection, it winking back, QP turned sauntered to his closet.
“Mac, you ready?” his mom called from the kitchen.
“Five more minutes.”
He wished he didn’t have to go see his grandma, or walk down the stairs and see his parents, for that matter.
His mom, Charlotte, was gorgeous. A former aspiring actress who had lived in Los Angeles before meeting Dean Richards. Or, as QP was fond of calling him, Dad. QP often wondered if his mom actually, miraculously fell in love with his dad, or if she fell in love with his money.
Dean, in a past life before settling down and having a child, worked as a screenwriter for a popular sitcom. Throughout his tenure as a writer, he made smart investments, and his substantial paychecks grew into a fortune. When people finally managed to tear their wide eyes from his brick wallet or brand-name suits, they saw a man with Type 2 Diabetes and a dead hairline.
QP dressed, then dragged his feet down the stairs and into the kitchen.
His dad sat on a barstool at the floating island. He drank a steaming cup of coffee from their installed Espresso machine and scrolled his social media feed on an iPad.
Across the hall, his mom applied makeup in front of a wall-sized mirror leaning in the half bath.
“I’m ready,” he mumbled.
“Just waiting on your mother,” Dean said. Flakes of croissant clang to his beard.
QP grimaced. Was that his future? He sat beside his father and stared at the black swirls in the white granite countertop. He thought of his friends and what he wouldn’t give to trade lives with them.
He knew they were jealous of his parents’ wealth. QP had every new toy and video game console that a kid could dream of. At fifteen, he already had his first vehicle parked in the eight-car garage. A Black Lexus GS 350.
But what his friends didn’t realize was that QP envied them. He knew that in ten, maybe even five years, he would grow into his body. As a boy in high school though, he didn’t want to be fat. He didn’t care about ten years from now. He cared about now.
Tyler, when he took off his shirt, had a six pack. And he’d never played sport, let alone worked out a day in his life. Evan, on the other hand, who had fought and wrestled and ran growing up, had muscles. Like real muscles that rippled and grew when he flexed them.
QP had rolls and man boobs and a stomach that hid his dick.
“Any word on Daisy” he asked his dad.
“Hold on. I’m reading this.” He glanced up at his son. “You ever take out that trash?”
“I forgot. I’m sorry.”
His dad sighed and set down the tablet. “We give you a beautiful home to live in. Buy you all the things you could dream of. We don’t ask much, but when we do, why is it that you always seem to forget?”
“I’ll do it right now,” QP said, standing from the stool.
“I know you will, but that doesn’t change the fact that the stink has probably settled.”
“I said I’m sorry.”
His parents always held their fortune over him. Like he owed them for being their son. Every new toy he owned came with a heavy price. His freedom. His parents owned him. Even when he had refused the car, said he wanted to buy his own, they insisted and surprised him with the Lexus. The next day, QP didn’t want to go to his grandmother’s. What’d they say?
“After all we do for you? I mean, we just bought you your dream car. And you still can’t go see your grandma? That’s all we ask.”
Their famous words. “That’s all we ask. That’s all we ask. That’s all we fucking ask. That and any choice you thought you ever had.”
QP moseyed around the island and removed the trash bag from below the sink. As he walked out the door, he glanced at the dog bed where his new chocolate Labrador, Daisy, should have been sleeping.
Her green bone rested in the empty bed. Food and water sat in the bowls off to the side. But she hadn’t been seen for almost two days.
When he returned into the house a couple minutes later, his parents waited for him at the front door.
“You look so handsome,” Charlotte said. She radiated beauty. Wavy brunette hair and tanned skin and green eyes. Had she not fallen for Dean, or possibly his money, Hollywood would have found work for her.
QP wondered if she ever regretted leaving a career for a family.
“Do I have to go?” QP asked. He always tried to escape the eery, dead-laden atmosphere of his grandma’s house.
“Out of the question. Get in the car,” his dad said.
“What about Daisy?” QP turned toward the kitchen.
“Mac,” his mother said. “I’m sorry, but I forgot to call. She’s your dog, anyway. I shouldn’t have to worry about it.”
QP struggled against anger and tears, and he redirected himself to the garage.
For two and a half hours, Savannah searched for her brother throughout the town.
Ayser didn’t have a movie theatre, a second high school, or a Starbucks. It did have two gun shops, three dive bars, and a Walmart.
To find trouble, kids had to look hard. They often found it at the old park on the east side of the tracks.
Elm and maple and pine trees grew in a dead, mismatched forest. The maintenance crew had all but abandoned the upkeep. Flowering weeds outgrew the brown grass. Spiderwebs stretched from the corners of the playground equipment, hiding black spiders in their dark, ignored recesses. The once bright and colorful paint had faded to tint of forgetfulness.
Savannah swayed on a swing. The rusted chain creaked as she kicked back and forth. This was her last hope to find Jose. She had expected to see him with a joint between his fingers, standing in a circle jerk with his young gang.
Instead, she discovered a Taco Bell bag upturned. The loose wrappers blew across the dead field like tumbleweeds across a desert.
She didn’t know where else to look, or where else to go. Her brief stop at home had tempted her to burn the house to the ground. There was no way she wanted to go back there. Not when she knew it would be empty. Not when she knew her mom would be in some unknown location, taking some unknown drugs with some unknown man.
So she swung. As she rose higher and higher, she felt like she was leaving the world behind. Whenever she reached her peak height, she felt like could disappear forever into the blue sky. But with each ascent, she always came down.
Savannah thought of Jose and his best friend, Oscar.
Oscar was in Jose’s grade. He was a chubby kid. Not QP big. QP had that football player athleticism to his bulk. Oscar possessed more fluff. Marshmallow fat. His cheeks bulged and flapped over his face like a massive dog’s jowls. His stomach was too big for his eleven year old body. His legs were still skinny from youth, and he had to waddle when he walked.
Oscar’s brother, Miguel, was seventeen. They lived in the same area as Savannah, and she knew Miguel from the neighborhood. He had dropped out of school around his freshman year. Worse, he was a known Sureño. A shooter in the gang, if the rumors were true. Someone drove the van, and Miguel pulled the trigger. He had initiated his brother. And if Jose was hanging around them, Savannah knew that he would inevitably be initiated sooner or later.
When she adapted to the constant disappointment of coming back down to the world, Savannah noticed a figure in the tree line. She dragged her feet on the light bark, kicking up dust and stopping her momentum.
“Hello,” she said from the warm seat of the swing. “I can see you.”
The figure didn’t move. It stood half hidden behind an elm tree. Savannah couldn’t distinguish any features other than it was tall and imposing.
The ghost of Jimmy, she thought. Chills stretched down her spine. Not because she believed in ghosts, but because of their conversation earlier. The demon.
“Stupid,” she said aloud, just to break the weight of the silence.
Except, the figure stood in the shadows of the trees. If she squinted, Savannah could almost convince herself it wore a mask. That did it.
Standing, walking backward toward her bike, she didn’t take her eyes off the figure. Her hands reached back, felt the bike’s leather seat.
She pedaled hard. Her legs grew wet with sweat, and her jeans chaffed against her skin. Her shirt was drenched and stained dark. Her brunette hair clung to her forehead as if she had just stepped from a shower.
The lawn in the front of her home was green, the only green lawn in the housing tract. Jose had taken pride in his work. He labored out there every day, edging the grass with scissors.
Savannah sat on the front porch step and stared at the yard below her.
Why wasn’t he out there working? Where could he be?
Worry knotted her insides. She was sick with anticipation. Not only that, her mom hadn’t returned, and despite not wanting to care, she did.
Was she high on some couch, or in some hallway? Or worse, in a back alley with a few bums? Maybe she went home with Mr. Peterson. Savannah wouldn’t have doubted it. Though he had a wife and two kids, he smiled and spoke and smelled like slime.
She checked her phone to see the time. 4:30. Her stomach rolled. But she didn’t feel hungry. She felt sick. She also noticed three text notifications.
Opening the group chat, she started to read.
QP: @Sava. We’re all gonna meet tonight at Tyler’s. 1 AM. Talk about who might be messing with us. I’m also going to my grandma’s. Figure I’ll look through the attic and try and find some more notes.
QP: @Bobby-boy. I know you didn’t get quality mommy-tit time last night, and you’re hankering for some milk, but you have to be there, too. Have her spit shine that little ween of yours to hold you over.
QP: @Tyler. I’m jk. You’re the only one Bobby allows to spit shine his ween.
Per usual, no one else responded to QP’s text messages. She started to type, then erased the message, looking out over the green lawn and thinking what she should say.
Should she convince her friends to abandon the idea of searching for someone trying to mess with them? Should they just forget about last night and pretend it never happened? Would their time be better spent searching for Jose? Then QP would complain about his puppy all night, and how no helped him look for her.
Savannah slapped the cement with her palm, then began to chew on her shirt’s collar until she was sucking her saliva from the cotton. Tears struggled free and slid down her cheeks.
Clouds shrouded the late afternoon. Wind steadily brushed against the side of her face, throwing her hair across her eyes and covering the wetness of her skin.
Her foot tapped lightly on the cement, pressing down on a weed that grew from a crack.
She hadn’t called the cops to report Jose, yet. She didn’t know if it was necessary.
He would come home. She believed that. Growing up, Savannah had rebelled against an absent mother. She had craved attention. She had even ran away from home for a weekend.
Maybe Jose was going through the same thing. Maybe he had ran away to prove to himself that the teachers and his mother and Savannah would miss him. That they cared for him. That he mattered to someone.
She lay back on the cement and closed her eyes and started to imagine a life outside of Ayser, until she fell asleep.