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The house felt empty in a way that Michael had never imagined was possible, and Michael knew a lot about empty houses. He'd spent years constructing buildings that would one day be called homes, lovingly forming their shapes with his strong hands from the floor to the ceiling. He'd spent hours driving nails into the frames of homes with only the quiet call of other hammers to keep him company and he'd always thought that a house could never be emptier than it was then: exposed to the outside, wind blowing though it and still unclaimed by a family.
Michael had been fired from that job almost two months ago and now he knew betterâ€”a house was never more empty than when it had already been claimed, lived in, called home, but no longer was. When a family left their home in shamblesâ€”that was an empty house.
Michael was standing inside such a building now.
Mary had left with the girls over a week ago. He'd known it was coming, but somehow, it still took him by surprise when he saw his daughters' faces turning to look back at him through the window of the car. Mary had sworn he'd never see them again, and the girls were still young enough that Michael could easily become a blur in their memories, a fuzzy figure who had once been their father. That didn’t seem fair to him, but Mary was right: no judge would ever allow him visitation.
Michael had thrown away all the pictures he had of his daughters in a drunken rage. They were still in the trash can, somewhere near the bottom, but he didn’t bother to retrieve them. Leaving the photographs there was the only thing he could do to try to erase his daughters from his mind.
Michael had also packed away most of his old clothes, his books, the silverware and dishes and other things Mary had neglected to take with her. All the boxes were stacked in the living room like a monument to the home that had once stood there. The storage people would be there in a few minutes to haul the stuff off to their concrete cubicles. With any luck, Michael would never have to see any of it again.
He'd messed up. Michael knew it, there was no mistaking it. He didn't need Mary or the girls to serve as a reminder of itâ€”he'd never forget it. He'd never make those mistakes again.
Because Michael had a plan. He would use the last of his money, the money he'd gotten after selling the refrigerator and the furniture and the television, and he'd check himself into rehab. He'd get clean, get sober, and then he'd do something right with his lifeâ€”find a good job with another construction company or join the Army or maybe even go back to school. There'd be new girls to fall in love with, new families to make, new homes to build.
The doorbell rang and Michael went to let the storage people inside. As he helped them carry the boxes to their trunk, Michael knew he would never mess up like this again.
It must have been love. That was the only possible explanation. Josh was only seventeen, but he had seen a lot in the world and wasn’t really the type to believe in such a sappy, stupid thing, but it was the only force he could imagine that could have managed to keep Michael and Jen together all these years.
But Josh couldn’t imagine what force had managed to keep him here.
The laundry had been dumped, still wet, in the middle of the living room. The shoes from the rack had been thrown there too, and so had the books and papers and TV remote and everything else that Josh’s father was capable of throwing. Josh saw one of his textbooks being ruined beneath the soaking clothes and bent to rescue it, but he had to jump back when Michael threw the phone, though Josh wasn’t sure whether the target was meant to be him or the pile.
“Where is your mother?” his father roared, and not for the first time, Josh wondered if the neighbors could hear. This happened almost every night his mother was out lateâ€”screaming, trashing the house, throwing thingsâ€”and the neighbors had to be blind and deaf if they didn’t know after all these years.
“I told you, she’s working!” Josh yelled back.
Josh doubted the phone worked after its flight across the room. “I can’t. It’s Friday, she’s at work.”
“Where is she?!” Josh father repeated. But Josh was sick of the exchange, and he knew that there was no point in trying to get anything across to his father when he was like this. Josh stalked angrily out of the room, determined to figure out what his father had done with his backpack so he could at least try to get some homework done. Michael chased after him, stumbling as he took the corner too fast, and grabbed hold of Josh’s shoulder so he could jerk him around.
“Why won’t she answer the phone?” his father demanded, and his eyes were wild. There was no rationality left there, and Josh was tired of trying to explain.
“Because she’s at work, idiot,” he snapped, yanking his shoulder out of his father’s tight grip. “Besides, she won’t talk to you when you are drunk anyway. No one wants to talk to you.”
Josh realized his mistake not a moment later. His father lunged at him angrily, knocking Josh backwards into a wall. His head banged against it, but before he could even gasp in pain, his air was gone.
Michael worked in construction and he had very strong handsâ€”they wrapped around Josh’s throat easily and his thumbs contracted like snakes. Josh clawed at the hands with his nails, drawing blood that stained the color of dirt. He tried to shout, but there wasn’t enough breath left in him to do anything other than register the thought that this wasn’t his father anymore.
The ceiling seemed to fall down on Josh’s head and the floor buckled beneath him. Josh managed to get a leg up high enough to knee the man in the gut and he broke away, spinning round and running. He tripped over the mountain in the living room and bolted out the entrance way. He slammed the door behind him and wanted to keep running, though he didn’t know where to.
Instead, he sat down on the porch step and tried not to listen to the muffled sound of the man cursing behind the windows of the house. The neighbors were peeking their heads out of their homes, gaping at the grown boy crouched on the concrete, trying very hard not to cry, not to hate his mother for staying with this man, not to hate Michael for all the things wrong with him, not to hate both of them for even having him. Josh couldn’t imagine how anyone could have children if they knew they’d end up treating them like this and Josh knew he’d never let his children into a home like his.