The train jolted too much for Wilom to sleep long, and through the cracks around the edges of the door, the sunlight was streaming in at just the wrong angle. Wilom retreated further back into the crates, cranky and feeling uncharitable towards everything.
There were very few stops between there and his home town, and he had the train car entirely to himself. The first stop had come and gone and nobody had so much as looked in the train carriage, let alone disturbed him, so when it left the station, he stretched out and went for an unsteady climb over the crates to move some blood into his fingers and feet. The crates were tied down well, and whatever was in them was heavy enough that Wilom’s weight didn’t budge them an inch.
Soon, he’d have to let himself think about the fact that he’d just run away. That he’d stayed up half the night to bribe the train foreman to turn a blind eye to him. He’d slept for a while propped up against the crates, but nowhere near enough to catch up on what he’d missed.
He climbed up to the top of the pile and lay down across two crates. Every time the train jolted, the crate stack shifted and he had to tense, just in case he was about to be rolled off. Still, it was oddly relaxing. The hours slipped by.
Someone did come in to check on him at the next stop. The door opened, a head poked around the door.
Wilom waved, without looking at whoever it was. The door closed and footsteps retreated. He was alone again. Why was it that people who didn’t know him from a bag of chicken feed were the only ones that seemed to respect him?
As the light outside the train turned orange, he even started to feel excited. He was under no false impressions – his parents wouldn’t welcome him back right off the bat. But they couldn’t send him back. Their plan hadn’t worked. Getting him “away from his friends” didn’t do a damn thing for him and he could prove it.
Wilom thanked the foreman cheerfully, ignoring the man’s slightly confused expression and headed off. Part of him wanted to slow down and enjoy the walk, but it was overruled by the rest of him, which was pushing his legs faster and faster.
There were very few trees lining the path, so Wilom had a clear view of the river. Here, the river led down towards the ocean, and beside it, a little road matched its curves. He knew that road well, though until now, he’d always been looking at it from the other direction.
In the town, it was still too early for most people to have lit their lamps, but there was one light. It was between the road and the river, over the little hill where the grass trailed down to the bank, mostly hidden from the town by the rise.
It flickered – a campfire, only just lit and still small.
He looked at the town, and changed course. A little detour. He’d warm up to seeing his parents. At least he could count on these people being happy to see him.
All three of them were there. He cupped his hands around his mouth. “Hey! None of you can make a signal fire for shit!”
The three figures near the fire looked up. Alph, the youngest, immediately jumped to his feet and started to run towards Wilom. Tags wasn’t far behind, but Gloves, Tags’s older brother, stayed seated and leaned over to pick up a beer.
Alph grabbed Wilom around the neck and swung off him, forcing Wilom to grab him around the shoulders in a huge hug just to stay upright. Tags put his arms around both of them, and slapped Wilom’s shoulder.
“You should have told us you were coming,” Tags said.
“Couldn’t you even send a letter?” Alph asked.
Tags shoved Alph’s head with the hand that wasn’t around Wilom’s shoulders. “This is Wilom. You never expect any warning from Wilom,” he said.
“I can’t stop surprising people. It’s my only charm.”
As they approached the campfire, Gloves stood up too, and pushed a beer bottle into Wilom’s hand. The top was already off.
“Thank you,” Wilom said. “But I won’t be drinking much tonight.”
Wilom tried to grin, and took a sip. “I still have to go talk to my parents,” he said.
The three of them gave him the exact same slow nod and ‘oh’-mouth. Wilom had to chuckle. They all knew exactly what it was like.
He dropped down next to the campfire. Alph dropped down clumsily next to him, and sent his beer flying over Wilom’s shirt.
“Shit, balls,” he said.
“Alph,” Wilom groaned, then flashed him a grin. “Maybe it’s just as well you spilled that. How long ago did you get started?”
Alph couldn’t answer – he had the neck of the bottle in his mouth, trying to catch the foam rather than spilling more onto the grass.
Wilom steeled himself for the taste of the beer. He hated beer. It was the worst drink ever invented. But it was alcoholic and familiar, the perfect combination.
“It’s great to see you again,” Tags said. “Did you convince them to send you back? How?”
Wilom shook his head. “I didn’t,” he said. “My aunt and uncle probably aren’t too happy just now.”
Alph laughed. “That’ll teach them!”
Wilom met Gloves’s eyes. The oldest boy was the only one who wasn’t laughing. He was watching Wilom with a serious expression, like he had worked something out and was wondering if Wilom had, too.
“You missed the good part,” Tags said, distracting Wilom.
“What, the part where we steal the beer? I was about to say I have a beer, but then … I remembered what this swill tastes like.”
Tags aimed the neck of his beer bottle at Wilom. “Hey – we’ve talked about this before. There are strict rules about what you do and do not say about the beer.”
“Guess I’ve been away too long,” Wilom said. “What’s been happening?”
Alph shrugged. “What happened just before you left? Just repeat that sentence over and over to yourself. You’ll get much the same experience.”
“It must have been more interesting for you,” Tags said. “What happened to you?”
Wilom took a deep breath. “I learned to hate chickens,” he said.
Gloves interrupted Tags’s next question. “It’s getting late,” he said.
Tags glanced at his brother, and then turned back to Wilom. “Yeah, you’d better go talk to your folks.”
“You’re right,” Wilom said. “Best to get it over with.”
“You have to come join us tomorrow,” Gloves said, “You know that.”
Wilom raised the beer bottle to point. “Don’t joke. I’m coming back tonight, even if I have to sneak out to do it.”
“Your parents won’t like that,” Alph pointed out.
“They’re used to worse.” Wilom finished the beer and stood up. “See you soon. Don’t drink all the beer.”
“We’ll save you some,” Gloves promised.
Wilom, with a warm feeling spreading through his chest and a sickening aftertaste in his mouth, walked up and over the hill towards his parents’ house. He wiped at his shirt – it was drying, and he didn’t think it looked too bad now.
The old streets were so familiar. He’d walked down this path at all hours, both drunk and sober. His feet very nearly didn’t need input from his brain to walk home.
But as he went, he started to think. Seeing his old friends again had pushed it out of his brain, and in the train it had all been comfortably far away. But now he was walking directly towards the confrontation, it was all tumbling through his mind again.
They wouldn’t be happy to see him. They’d send him back. They sent him away in the first place because they didn’t think he was smart enough to make his own decisions and accept the consequences. They didn’t care if he didn’t want to go back, they’d just …
But on the other hand, he’d ruined everything in a new town. He wondered how many more endlessly understanding, out-of-town relatives they had, because to his parents, that was the number of second chances he was going to get.
He reached the door. The lights were on inside. He could hear them having dinner. His sister was not home.
He raised his hand to knock on the door.
Who was he kidding? They sent him away because they didn’t want to deal with him and his bullshit anymore. Then he’d proceeded to do the same things at the next town over. Now, it was practically the middle of the night, he smelled like beer, he’d been travelling – he’d run away – and he couldn’t prove he was different to when he left. All he was doing was proving them right.
There would be a lecture, which would last about five minutes, but then there would be disappointment and that would last … forever. He didn’t see eye to eye with them about his future, he’d grown to accept that. But he remembered when he first moved away – he’d been so hopeful that maybe he’d be staying with someone who might understand.
That hadn’t worked out. If he went back to his parents now, it would be a lever on him forever. He couldn’t do this, or that, because he’d run away home and proven he wasn’t and couldn’t be responsible.
So, he couldn’t knock on the door, and he couldn’t stay. He didn’t have anywhere else to go but back to Jali and Tanim
He stood there for a long time anyway, trying to convince himself that he was wrong, and that his parents would do anything other than send him away again. But he couldn’t bring himself to believe it.
He might as well just send himself away, and save them the trouble.
He shoved his hands in his pockets and walked back to the river.