Jake sat in the backseat of his mother's '91 station wagon, shivering. With the window down, crisp air seeped in but he didn't roll it closed. He wanted to hear.
"No, Sam, "his mother said, shellacked nails clenched around the payphone. She was leaning in towards the privacy box, but couldn't keep her voice down. Not when she was talking to Jake's father. She was wearing a fur coat, her hair was about a foot tall, and her heels were sinking into the snow. She kept glancing at Jake with a nervous smile, and he'd smile back.
"No," she said again. "I've told you—oh—about a dozen times. He's not staying with you… I know it's Christmas. You've never cared about a damn Christmas for the past ten years, have you? Yes, we have a place to go, Jesus Christ. We're not homeless!" With that, she slammed the phone on the cradle and wrapped her arms around herself as she trudged back to the car and got in.
"Motherfucker," she muttered as she lit up a cigarette and stared pointedly out of the driver's side window. "I'm sorry, Jake."
"I'm not a baby, mom. I cuss."
"You certainly do, but I was talking about your father."
"Close your window, baby." She exhaled a puff of smoke and sighed. "I just meant, he wants you for two weeks which is just fucking hilarious. Just—"
"Mom, you can't be alone during Christmas." Jake was already close to tears thinking of his mother sitting in their motel room with no presents and nobody.
"That's sweet, but not the problem." She dropped her head back. "Shit. I gotta find you some pills if we're gonna do this. It was gonna happen sooner or later. If I keep dodging that asshole, he's gonna know something's up." Twisting around, the fake leather creaking under her, she pointed at Jake with her cigarette. "If you forget one damn pill, boy…"
"I won't!" Jake's heart sped up at the thought of a Christmas with his father, with a tree and lights and a room and presents and everything a kid was supposed to have! "I promise I won't."
"Mmhmm." His mother sat back again. "Two weeks. Fuck. That's gonna cost an arm and a leg." She flipped the ignition and pulled away, snow crunching under the station wagon's tires. No one else was out—they weren't near any holiday shopping areas, not that Jake would know what those would look like.
They ended up at a diner where they often ate. While Jake inhaled his burger and fries, a man showed up, sat behind Jake's mother, and said something. She said something back. Then he got up to go to the bathroom, then she got up to go to the bathroom.
He left. Jake watched him leave and sucked on his milkshake.
"Okay, kiddo," his mother said, sliding into the booth seat across from Jake. She set a small bottle in front of him. "That's enough pills for three weeks. You take them every night after brushing your teeth, right?"
His mother smiled and stole one of his french fries. "I love you, baby."
Jake knew she did, and never once had he doubted it.
His father lived in a cul-de-sac. Every house on the circle had Christmas decorations that rivaled the White House, or at least that's what Jake figured. He stood at the right address, duffel bag in hand, and waved his mom goodbye even though she was clearly going to idle there until he rang the doorbell.
But he didn't have to. One of the (two!) doors opened and a tall man wearing a Christmas sweater walked out with a big smile on his movie-star face.
Jake's mother took off. The man towering over him was his father. Jake knew that instinctively, right down to his gut. His gut said: Sentinel. And then it said: Oh yeah, also dad.
"Jake," Sam Marchiano said warmly, swooping down to envelope Jake in a loose hug. "Oh, and Cheryl..." They both watched Jake's mother disappear around the corner. His father chuckled. "Well, anyway, welcome home."
Through the flurry of activity following that first encounter, Jake didn't have time to correct him. Home was with mom, home was on the road, home was in the station wagon, home was whatever diner they camped out at for a few weeks. Home was not on this cul-de-sac. But Jake was shown to a room with flower wallpaper and a doily on the nightstand, and was told to put his bag in the closet; he could unpack later.
"You're twelve now, right, sport?" Sam asked him. They stood in the living room—Jake, Sam, and the Christmas tree. Jake kept nervously glancing over at the presents tucked underneath.
"Yeah," he said.
A hand landed on his head, stiffly patting him. "Good age."
Not really. Two days after his birthday—about six months ago—Jake felt an electric current run down his spine and then suddenly he could sense how disappointed his mother was with her burnt morning coffee. It all happened just like that, and then everything fell apart.
"Yeah," Jake said again.
There was a mantel over the fireplace, and sitting on it was a clock with a little door. Jake was looking at it when a bird popped out a chimed eight times. With a low hum, Sam checked his watch. "They should have been back by now." There was irritation in his voice. But he smiled as he gestured towards the couch and said, "That's fine. Leaves us a little time to talk."
So in the glow of the Christmas lights and the flickering light from the fireplace, Jake sat and listened to his father, who he had never met since the day he was born, talk about a family Jake wasn't really a part of. "My guide," Sam said affectionately. "Lisa. I met her at the Center and, well, it all just clicked into place—" There was a lull as if Sam were building up to the actual, important news. "And of course, your brother. Logan."
Sam smiled, his gaze far off. "Pretty sure that one's gonna be a sentinel like his old man."
'Why did you bring me here' crossed Jake's mind as Sam's proud feelings nearly overwhelmed him. "Oh," was all he said.
Sam's grin faltered a little as he looked at Jake and cleared his throat. "Not that, um, well. I mean, you're… not a sentinel, right? You're nothing?"
Jake thought of his pills tucked away in a scent-blocking bottle. "Right."
"Of course, I don't mean nothing, I just—well, Cheryl would have told me if you were a sentinel." He sounded so sure. He said Jake's mom's name like he hadn't abandoned her twelve and a half years ago. He didn't feel guilty, either. That's sentinel confidence for ya, Cheryl would have said.
Jake wanted his mom. He didn't understand why he had to do this, but she had been really clear that he did. So he would. "I'm not a sentinel," he said softly.
"And that's fine," Sam replied. "That's fine… How's school?"
Right. School. "I homeschool," Jake said mechanically. "Since I was eight."
"Oh, eigh—" Sam quirked his head. "Eight? I thought I remembered your mother mentioning an elementary school in that town you two lived in—"
"No, I homeschooled," Jake cut over him quickly. "Cause, you know, mom travels a lot for work."
"Right, right." Sam frowned. "I wish she had kept in contact with me a little more. It really was a pain to track you guys down this time."
Then why did you? Jake never thought he'd have to meet his father, let alone spend a holiday with him. Cheryl had always been quite clear that Sam Marchiano had no interest in their lives and never would. When she first told Jake that there would be an extended meeting, he thought she was joking. Then she brought up the family.
"He married his guide," she had huffed, and for the first time in his life, Jake had felt pain from her in regards to Sam. Old pain, but pain nonetheless.
"Jake," Sam started to say, breaking Jake of his thoughts, but then jerked, his gaze shooting to the window facing the driveway and stood up. A few seconds later, a car's headbeams turned onto the cul-de-sac, and out of the darkness, a fancy-looking SUV pulled up. No minivan for this family.
Jake stood too. He felt a little nervous watching the dark shape of his father's guide carry something from the car, which under the porchlight became Jake's half-brother. Logan. He was a baby. Well, maybe older than a baby.
Beckoned to the door, he followed as Sam strode over and pulled it open. A short woman with brown hair and a conservative sweater outfit came in. She was smiling, snow in her hair, and tilted her face up to receive a kiss from Sam. "Is he here?" she asked even as her blue eyes focused on Jake.
"Oh," she trailed off a little breathlessly, her gaze immediately flicking away. "Okay."
Whatever that was passed. She set the sleepy Logan down on his feet, and Jake, who never really cared about kid ages, vaguely placed him at five or six with a question mark thrown in. He had blonde hair like Sam's and blue eyes like Lisa's, and he stared at Jake without blinking.
"Hi," he said in that little boy voice.
Jake nodded. He really wished someone would get Logan to stop staring.
"Logan," Sam said magnanimously, crouching down to place his big hands on Logan's shoulders so that he and Logan were watching Jake. "I'd like you to meet your brother."
Detaching from Sam, Logan beelined straight for Jake, who barely had time to flinch before the little kid wrapped his arms around Logan's legs and pressed his face deep against Jake's belly.
"Well, then," Sam laughed. "Looks like we have a keeper."
"Honey, is this a private line?"
"Uh, I don't know…"
Cheryl sighed. "Okay, well, keep it light."
Jake nodded even though his mother couldn't see him. He was sitting on the scratchy quilt draped over the guestroom bed, corded phone stretching from the desk to his hands. "Can you pick me up?"
He heard the flick of a lighter and his mother inhale, then exhale. "Baby…"
"You gotta stick it out. At least until after Christmas. Besides, I'm halfway to Florida."
He knew that was a lie, but he didn't say anything about it. "They're a whole family here, like with Sears pictures on the walls and everything. And, mom, they like worship this kid—my brother. I don't get why dad wanted me to come."
"Honestly, I don't know why either, sweetie, but I've held him off for two years. You know that. Any longer and he might have brought the court into it—and that's just something we can't have happen, Jake."
With a huge sigh, Jake flopped back on the bed, the phone stretching even tighter. "Mom," he whined.
"Did you get dinner?"
He heard her snort, and smiled. "And I took my—"
He grimaced, about to apologize when he felt something tingling in his fingers. Craining his head up, he saw the bedroom door had been cracked open, and blue eyes were peeking through. "I gotta go, Mom," he said quickly, jumping off the bed and placing the phone back on the hook. When he turned around, Logan was standing there in a blue PJ set.
"What?" Jake asked.
Logan scratched his cheek, looking up at Jake without speaking.
" What ?" Jake snapped. Logan flinched, backing up a step, and Jake cursed under his breath, padding over to his half-brother and kneeling down so that they were face-to-face. "Do you need something?"
Finally, in a soft voice, Logan said, "Dad and mom's door's closed."
Jake shrugged. "So? Knock. They'll let you in."
From what he'd seen that night at dinner, Logan was spoiled as hell. After demanding that Jake see his room, his toys, his books, his everything that Jake had to give up six months ago, he then ordered Jake to sit right next to him at dinner, which Sam and Lisa obliged by moving the fourth chair to the other side. That was awkward.
But Logan didn't seem convinced this time. He stuck his thumb in his mouth and grabbed Jake's collar tightly in his little fist with his other hand. Stubbornness bled off him in waves.
Jake dropped his head. He'd been at this house for less than five hours and already he hated everything about it. "Okay," he said. "You wanna sleep with me?"
He got an armful of six year old, Logan latching onto him like a monkey. Jake was not exactly the buffest twelve-year old, and so he heaved Logan up and carried him to the bed. They fell in a tangle of limbs, and Logan's giggling was infectious.
It took some wrangling, but Jake got him under the covers. He'd had a few sleepovers with his friends, but never had a little kid tuck up against him. "Why were you scared?" Jake asked.
"Dad says I can handle it."
Jake's lip curled up at that recited word. It was heavy with meaning. He could picture Sam, a big sentinel, looming over his son and telling him it was time to man up. It was hard seeing this little kid as a future sentinel, but they all had to come from somewhere, Jake supposed.
"Jake," Logan whispered.
"Are you here forever?"
A few moments passed. And then Logan spoke again, "Why not?"
Jake sighed. "Because I really, really don't belong here."
A sense of hurried determination woke him. Well, that and the thudding sounds. Jake sat up to a disaster; his bag was torn open, his clothes were strewn around, and Logan was in the middle of it all, grabbing things and stuffing them into the dresser.
"Oh my god," Jake wheezed, throwing the covers off and scrambling over to the mess. "What are you doing?" He started digging, searching frantically for his bottle of pills.
"You belong, you belong," Logan said. He was piling up a mountain of clothes in his little arms and hauling them off to the closet. "You belong to—"
The kid jumped, dropping everything, and looked at Jake with wide eyes.
"Logan," Jake said more softly, holding his hand out in a calming gesture. "Where did you put… where did you put…" He couldn't say it. For six months he'd been drilled over and over about not speaking to strangers about the pills. But they were gone.
He started searching again—flinging clothes everywhere, brushing by a frozen Logan several times, pulling out drawers—when the bedroom door opened and Sam came in.