Daniel watched as the window’s cold early light crept across his bed covers. He imagined it as some hungry beast, consuming his body. First his legs, then his chest. Given time, it would devour him completely. Kate stirred in the bed that sat next to him, rolled over, but never woke. She could always sleep longer than him. Sharing the room with her irked him. He hated giving up his privacy. In their previous home, before the court case, he’d had all the necessities: walk in closet, walk in shower and king sized bed. A home so big he could actually go the whole day without ever having to see anyone. Although he only ever avoided Grant.
Tossing off the covers, he grimaced as his bare feet touched the cold wooden floor boards. Add another thing to the list of past comforts gone. No more heated floors. On his parents list of prerequisites for their new place they’d written only two: cheap and can we move in now? Looking around his room, he was sure they’d succeeded in checking off both. The previous tenants, swiftly ejected for defaulting on rent, must have dreamt of turning this room into a nursery, but they’d succeeded in only half accomplishing the project. One wall showcased an amateurish collage of farm animals. A happy smiling cow stood next to a tree in a green field. At its feet, a family of six happy smiling yellow blobs marched in a line. Or, chicks maybe, he couldn’t tell. Above, in a too blue sky, a happy smiling bird with no eyes flew over their heads. Everything happy. The other three walls they’d not even started. They retained the colour chosen by the tenants before them. Black.
He remembered standing in the room with his mom when they’d first come to look at it with the building manager. Daniel was certain, listening to the two women talk, he’d never heard the word potential used so many times. At least it came with the two steel frame beds and a large dresser with a mirror. They needed anything they could get after Grant had sold all the furnishings in their last home to cover as much of the debt as possible. He hated how Grant always called it that, the debt. As though he, his mom and Kate had all together racked up the additional costs that sank them so badly after people first started getting sick. He’d bought it all: fancy cars, business trips to warm places, endless designer clothing, and always for the same reason. Grant would say there was a certain lifestyle expected of him. He had to keep up appearances. From a young age Daniel always wondered, how when he grew up, would he afford all the appearances? Turned out the answer to that question is most people can’t, unless by fraud.
After an insufferable shower where the water took two minutes before it heated up, Daniel got dressed and made his way downstairs. In the kitchen, Kate, his mom and Grant, all sat around a square table with round metal legs. A plastic stapled-on table-cloth decorated with oranges covered its surface. Leftovers again from the previous tenants, the table and the cloth.
“Hi, honey, did you sleep well?” His mom beamed with a smile that put the farm animals to shame.
“Still a little tired actually.” He pulled out the last remaining chair next to his sister and sat down.
“What’s for breakfast?”
“Just the basics I’m afraid: toast and fruit,” she chimed, pushing her chair back on her way to the kitchen. “But I can go shopping today. I want to take a look around the neighbourhood anyways.”
“It’s alright, Mom. I like toast.”
“Liar,” said Kate. She’d spoken with her head down. Eyebrows furrowed, focused on her e-reader. Swiping intermittently from right to left to turn the page.
“What are you talking about? I’ve always loved toast.”
“You love toast so long as it provides a medium for peanut butter. You love peanut butter, not toast.”
“That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard.” After a pregnant silence, Daniel added, “Do we have any peanut butter…?”
His mother, slicing an apple, answered from the kitchen. “Well no, honey, that’s on the list for today. We have butter though. You like that don’t you?”
“Oh, yeah sure, no problem.” Daniel smiled at his mom, crushing the despondent feelings welling up that would prove his sister right. He attempted to ignore the smug expression she now wore while reading her book. “I really don’t mind you kn-” The doorbell rang.
Dropping off Daniel’s plate of toast and sliced apple in front of him, his mom stepped lightly by the kitchen table. “I wonder who that could be?” she said, her voice irritatingly coloured with a timbre that hinted she already knew the answer.
The door opened inwards and blocked Daniel from seeing who his mother spoke with. Grant, who’d been muttering angrily behind his newspaper, lowered it. Even Kate, whose attention could be no more ripped from a book than a sword from a stone, looked up in curiosity. It wasn’t possible. Daniel’s heart raced. Grant had told him it was necessary. He’d even said goodbye. But there was no mistaking that hopeful jingle of metal. That happy panting behind the door. He ran from his seat nearly knocking his mother over. “Lincoln!” he exclaimed, elated. The black lab stood outside the door. Upon seeing Daniel he wagged his tail so hard it bowed his whole body back and forth. Taking the leash from his mother as she scratched a signature on the delivery man’s paper, he led the dog inside. “Can you believe it?” he said, wrestling the dog to the floor behind the door while it licked his face and nipped him affectionately.
“No, I can’t,” said his sister, sounding worried, looking at Grant.
“That makes two of us.” The anger evident in Grant’s voice was barely contained. The happy reunion ended as soon as the door closed. “Beth, what the fuck did you do!” The pleased-with-herself expression slid from her face as though she’d never known it.
“I thought we could afford it, Grant? Lincoln’s a part of the family. We kept the Lexus. I thought we could keep Lincoln,” she offered with wounded hope, “for the children?”
“I need the Lexus, Beth, for appearances. That dog is useless. It’s just gonna cost us money we don’t have.”
“Lincoln’s more useful than you,” said Daniel, jumping up to stand protectively in front of his pet. The dog cowered behind him, confused and worried by the raised voices.
Grant stood up. He slammed his hand on the table, rocking the glasses set out for breakfast. “You spoiled little shit. I got that dog for you.”
“So you could give him away, because you got caught for approving bad drugs. That’s crueler than ever having him.”
“How dare you. I put food on this table. You owe everything you’ve ever had to me.”
“Grant, please.” Beth stepped between the two. “We can make it work.”
Grant moved threateningly from the table towards the door. Standing in front of his wife he held up his index finger inches from her face. “No, we can’t, Beth. We can’t make it work. You’ve fucked us. Now we’re even more screwed if I don’t find a job this month. Get out of my way.” Beth stood aside, back to the door with her head down, hands clasped in front of her. “Now I’m going to get changed and go out to look for a job, so this family can continue to eat. When I get back downstairs you kids better be gone for school. It’s enough you’re ungrateful; I’m not gonna raise idiots.”
Daniel stepped forward confronting Grant’s anger. Blocking his way up the stairs. “You think you’re tough, because you yell, because you can make people feel horrible.” He jabbed a finger into his face, as Grant had to his mother. “You’re just a coward, a coward with a loud-”
Grant slapped the hand out of his face and grabbed Daniel by his neck slamming him backwards into the wall.
“No, you little idiot,” said Grant, choking his son and forcing him down the wall. “I’m tough, because I’m bigger and stronger than you. You better be gone when I get downstairs.” Grant released his grip and stood up. “Or I swear to God…” With his path clear, he stomped up the stairs.
“Excited for school?” asked Kate from the table.
Daniel, rubbing his raw neck, hunched over on the floor, looked at Kate. She sat with her face propped between balled fists. The ghost of a wan smile on her lips.