Today marks the publication of the second of our top five stories, Jilli Mitchell’s “Leaving Home” Our judges said that the story had great dialogue, nice tension, and [spot on] pacing. Enjoy!
The crowd rings with applause and cheers. With the lights shining brightly on the court, the team circles around Matt, lifting him up on shoulders with arms in the air, rejoicing the victory of the most important game to date for the Barrington Buccaneers basketball team. The entry into the championship becomes reality just moments prior as Matt dunks the game winning ball into the basket. The trophy is passed through the team to Matt and he raises it over his head; he is drenched in sweat and celebrating his last qualifier before graduation. The next game will determine whether or not Matt leaves home a four-time champion or a loser. Matt gets off his teammates’ shoulders smiling, knowing that at this point in his life, he is at the top of his world this Friday night.
The celebration has not died down when Matt walks into school Monday morning. He is greeted by claps, high fives, and fist bumps as he walks down the hall with his thousand-watt smile. He turns the corner and is met with a pair of skinny arms wrapping around his neck and a waft of strawberry blonde hair in his face. Matt puts his arms around the ninety-pound cheerleader and spins her around. His lips meet hers as he squeezes her tightly. Amelia, in her short cheerleading uniform and with her perfect skin and smile and Matt, captain of the football team, have been together since freshman year and dominated the school as the “it” couple for the past four years. Amelia unwraps herself from Matt and looks up at him, her neck bent far back to account for the height difference between the two.
“Congrats on the big win, once again,” she says with a smile. She pecks him on the lips once more, propping herself up on her toes to reach his mouth.
“Thanks, babe.” Matt gave her a grin, his arms still around her. They stand in the middle of the hallway, students passing by them carefully in order to not disturb their superiors.
“Guess what I got in the mail today?”
“Ummmm… you got me. What?”
“You’re looking at the newest addition to Yale’s class of 2020!” Amelia lights up with delight as she tells her boyfriend the great news of her future. It was no surprise that she would get in. Amelia had not only perfect hair and skin, but also perfect grades. Matt and Amelia were not only the power couple in the sense of popularity, but they also consistently owned “Best in Class” throughout high school and were shoo-ins for co-valedictorians and entry into their dream Ivy League schools.
Matt hugs her tightly. “Congrats, A. That’s amazing!”
“What about you? Are the acceptance letters rolling in yet?”
“Uh.. no. I haven’t gotten any yet. I-”
“What? That has to be a mistake! How could any schools not accept you?”
Matt looks down at the ground, holding Amelia’s hands in his own and rubbing her palms with his thumbs. “It’s just been really busy with, with football and I just-”
“Matt, we talked about this.” Amelia looks up at Matt passively, rubbing his neck with her perfectly manicured thumbs. “Graduation is right around the corner. You need to start applying places if-”
“I know. And I will. I promise” Matt kisses Amelia once more on the lips before parting with her, quickly to avoid the conversation of college.
Matt’s focus drains throughout the day, remaining solely on his girlfriend’s big news of her future. Matt pondered on the thought of his own. Though Matt, with schools practically lining up to offer him basketball and academic scholarships, could go anywhere, he didn’t want to think about the future just yet. High school wasn’t quite over. However, Amelia wasn’t the only person concerned with Matt’s lack of focus on deciding his future.
Exhaustion floods through him as he finally gets home from practice. He quickly heads up the stairs to take a shower, giving his parents a brief shout of greeting as he sprints up. The tension and hard work from practice melt off with the steamy water splashing over his head and down his back; his body aching after Friday night’s game, as it did often as a result of playing the sport he loves. He showers for what seems to be hours before he turns the nozzle and grabs his clean clothes to change.
As Matt enters his bedroom, he notices a large book on the edge of his bed. Anger rushes through him as Matt reads the cover of the book. He runs down the stairs and into his mom’s office. He holds the book to her with a tight grip.
“What the hell is this?” Matt says, practically screaming at his mother.
“Honey, calm down.” She speaks timidly and gestures to the seat opposite her. “Have a seat and we can talk about-”
“No, mom. I’m not one of your patients. You can’t work your psychologist crap on me.”
“Matt, we need to discuss this.”
“Just leave it alone. Believe it or not, I don’t need to be coddled.”
Matt’s mom gets up slowly and meets Matt at door of her office. “Sweetie, high school is almost over. You haven’t given any thought to your future. Just… go through the book and pick a few schools…”
Matt storms out before she can finish, leaving the book behind as he heads to Amelia’s.
Hugs are given out to Amelia throughout the day as she celebrates her big news of getting into Yale. Popularity meant that people knew the news before she told them, therefore it didn’t surprise her when so many people came up to her, congratulating her like they are her best friends. Amelia had worked so hard throughout school in keeping up her perfect grades and living the perfect high school life. What dawns on her isn’t the realization that she is officially a Yale student, but that her boyfriend isn’t yet a college student anywhere. Amelia knows that Matt hasn’t applied anywhere, or even looked at a college yet, and her fear of him being stuck in high school has become reality and something that clouds her mind constantly.
Mrs. Plunden places a gentle hand on her student’s shoulder, startling her from her daydream.
“Are you waiting for someone to pick you up?” She speaks calmly to Amelia, sitting down in the desk beside her. Amelia looks at Mrs. Plunden with no recollection of where she is. She looks around the room slowly. Mrs. Plunden fears Amelia’s state as her student stares blankly, no sign of life within herself. She is about to speak again when, suddenly, Amelia’s eyes widen and she rushes out of the room Mrs. Plunden watches the door as the thin figure of Amelia Christianson fades from her view.
Amelia scurries through the hallways, chased only in her mind, as she rushes through the high school. She stops, her hand on the front door, ready to push it open. The realization of what she is doing dawns on her, however, and she removes her hand from the door and backs away. Slowly, Amelia distances herself from the door. She finds herself in the middle of the empty hallway, the silence making her fear consume her. Amelia takes out her phone and begins to dial, her fingers heavy against the cell phone. She presses the call button, but quickly hangs up. Her breathing quickens as her back slides down the lockers and she presses her knees to her chest. Warm tears fall down her face and she looks around the halls, ensuring herself that she is alone before she admits to herself that she is crying. She lets out a soft sob, her head tucked into her knees.
She sits there, immersed in her tears, as her phone rings. The noise frightens her and she jumps in fear. She breathes deeply in attempts to calm herself down before answering.
“Hello?” She squeaks out.
“Where the hell are you?” The anger in her father’s voice is not unknown to her, however it still makes her uneasy and her fear increases.
“I’m- I’m sorry, Dad. I had to finish up some work and-and-and I-”
“I don’t care if you had work to do! You think you can just do whatever you want?” With her father’s anger growing, Amelia’s hope of reasoning with him diminishes.
“I know, I’m sorry. I just lost track of time and I missed the bus. I didn’t mean to, I-I-I swear. Can you just come pick me up from school and-”
“Excuse me?” Amelia’s father exploded in his anger. He’s clearly been drinking again and Amelia knows that she has no chance. “YOU mess up and I have to come get you?”
“Dad, I didn’t mean it that way. I know I messed up but-”
“Good. Then you can walk home. Maybe the walk will do you some good and you’ll think next time.”
“Dad, it will take me hours to-”
“Then you better get started!” Amelia’s father hangs up, leaving her to herself.
Amelia goes to the restroom, not wanting to risk anyone seeing her. In the mirror, she stares at her reflection. Again, tears start to fall. Her makeup smudges and Amelia tries to wipe the tears away, but they keep falling. She starts sobbing as she tries to fix herself and make herself presentable. She looks at herself in the mirror. Her father’s anger floods inside her mind. Amelia flattens her hair with her fingers and rubs her eyes, erasing any evidence that she had been crying. She plasters on her perfectly white smile and exits to begin her long walk home.
Matt locks his car as he heads to Amelia’s front door. He walks up the steps, hearing a slur of heated conversation coming from an unidentifiable voice. He contemplates knocking or leaving, not wanting to interrupt what sounds to be an argument. He knocks vigorously on the door before retreating a few steps back, awaiting an answer. The front door whips open, almost hitting Matt in the face. Out steps a bulky, grimy man. In his hand is a Bud Lite, and on his shirt are the yellowed stains of perspiration and the stench of a few day’s odor. His stubble is as disheveled as the home from which he emerges. The home contains garbage and junk all around. The floor could barely be seen from where Matt was standing. He has never seen such filth within a single room. Matt searches for the house number on the front of the home, making sure he did in fact remember where Amelia lived.
“Who the hell are you?” says the man. Both his odor and his breath are rancid, and Matt fights the urge to back away or scowl at the foul smell.
“Is Amelia here, sir?” Matt tries to sound calm and sure. However, he is confused as to who this man is and why he has dropped Amelia off at this address so many times.
“She’s not home, buddy. So why don’t you just get in your fancy little car over there and get off my property?” The man slams the front door in Matt’s face, leave him even more perplexed than before. Matt steps away from the house as the man so angrily suggested he do.
Matt drives off trying to figure out what had just happened. He couldn’t understand how he had never known how his girlfriend has lived all these years. He becomes slightly angry with himself for never figuring it out, or seeing the clues. He cannot make sense of how she never told him about her father. Seeing him, however, made Matt so much prouder of Amelia for getting into Yale despite her newly apparent hardships. He now also knew why college was so important to her. Matt also wonders about Amelia’s mother. He knew that she had left many years ago, but Amelia doesn’t know why.
“Maybe I just saw the reason why,” Matt says quietly to himself, continuing to think about his new realization.
He contemplates going back home, but his mother trying to psychoanalyze him about his future makes Matt change his mind. Matt reaches a stop light and as his car comes to a halt, he picks up his phone and dials his girlfriend’s number.
“Matt?” Her voice sounds out of breath, like she has just run a mile.
“Hey… I just stopped over at your place and you weren’t there. Where are you?”
“You did what? Please tell me you didn’t bother my father, Matt.” Her voice is in panic. Matt hears fear in Amelia’s voice.
“A, I’m sorry. I just needed to find you and you weren’t answering my texts.” A silence enters the phone call for a few seconds. Matt doesn’t know if he say what he is thinking after seeing Amelia’s father and inside her home for the first time. He doesn’t know how to say it without sounding like a jerk. “Amelia, is that why you’ve never invited me over before? Because of your dad? Because you know-”
“Matt, I can’t talk about this right now. I have to go.”
“Where are you?”
“Matt, I’m fine. I’m at Sara’s working on some cheer stuff.”
“It’s almost dark, A. Do you need me to come get you and bring you home?”
“No, Matt. Sara is bringing me home. I have to go. I’ll call you tomorrow.”
Amelia hangs up the phone quickly. Her body feels as though it has been shocked as the cold wind continuously hits her skin, as it has for the last four hours. Amelia had forgotten to keep a jacket in her locker for when this happened and she had to walk home. Her mind tries to keep positive and she reminds herself that she is over halfway home.
“Only a few more hours,” Amelia says to herself as she shivers, her body feeling numb from the exposure to the cold upon her bare arms and legs. Her cheerleading uniform provides no warmth and no protection from the strong winds and the barreling cold weather of spring in Michigan.
As night falls, she hopes that the wind will let up. It has died down minimally after nine, however the temperature has also dropped since dark. Amelia knows that she shouldn’t call her father and ask him to get her, but her mind starting to become numb like her body. She takes out her phone and dials the number, hoping her phone doesn’t die. The phone rings for what seems to be even longer than the walk home, but Amelia saddens as the automated voice comes on the phone, telling her to leave a message.
Amelia puts her phone back into her backpack, her fingers trembling as they try to complete the action. She cups her hands together, breathing into the crevice in an attempt to warm her fingers. Unable to withstand the cold much longer, Amelia begins to run. Her breath quickening from the change in pace, she runs as fast as her tiny body can carry her. Her mind starts to race as she sprints down streets. She thinks of her mother, whom she hasn’t heard from or seen in years. It had been a mystery why her mother left, but Amelia never stopped wondering.
Amelia reaches home around midnight, her father sitting on the couch with a scotch is his hand. His face shows anger, with a drunken haze mixed in. Amelia knows that his drinking hadn’t slowed since they last spoke.
“Are you trying to make a fool of me, girl?” Amelia’s father spoke calmly, and to anyone else it would seem to be a normal tone. However, Amelia knew that her father was a time bomb, and all she can do is wait for him to blow.
“Dad, I didn’t tell him to show up here. I promise.” Tears falls down Amelia’s face and she wipes them away quickly, making sure that her father does not see them. Her fear takes hold and she stays far from her father, minimizing the damage he can do with the distance between them. Her voice trembles as she tries to speak confidently. “Dad, I swear. I didn’t know that he was coming here.”
Amelia’s father does not stutter from his stale expression. His face does not waiver from angry as he places his drink down and stands up to meet his daughter’s eye. Amelia’s fear climaxes as her father walks closer to her. She knows that she shouldn’t move, for that action alone would make him even angrier. She stays still, her breath getting caught in her throat as she tries to hide her fear. Amelia’s mind flashes back to previous altercations between her and her father. They all have similar beginnings. It always started with a drinking glass that had been refilled too many times, and Amelia being caught in her father’s slur of drunken rage and agitation. Though this scenario is something Amelia knew well, she was still afraid of the ending.
Amelia’s father stumbles closer to his daughter, his eyes fixed on hers. A cynical smile creeps onto his face. Suddenly, he explodes. “You made a fool of me for the last time, you ungrateful brat!”
Matt drives around town, unsure of where to go. Exhaustion begins to hit Matt upon the midnight hour. He decides to park his car and continue on foot, hoping that it will help to keep him awake. Matt walks the streets, finding peace from the quiet of his hometown as the rest of the town sleeps. The streets are quiet, aside from the chatter of the birds and the night creatures that search for shelter before the worst of the cold hits. The street lights dim themselves as the time passes, preserving their batteries as the rest of the world sleeps.
Entering the town park, Matt comes across an older woman. She sits on the metal bench, shivering from the cold but still looking happy to be outside. She sprinkles crumbs on the ground, however because of the late hour, no pigeons come to claim them. Matt wonders why the woman is doing this at such a late time, and he is considering asking her when she speaks.
“I like to leave them out so that they have it when they arrive in the morning.” The woman spoke with a confidence unknown to Matt. He feels as though the woman could tell what he was thinking. The woman slides from the middle of the bench, leaving room for Matt to sit beside her. Matt does so slowly, deciding if he wanted to get too close to this stranger. “What is a young fellow like you doing out here at this hour?”
Matt feels compelled to tell the woman the truth, and to open up to her. Her wise demeanor comforts Matt, and he finds himself wanting guidance from the old woman. “I couldn’t stay at home and have yet another conversation about my future.”
“Well, what is your future?”
This question shocks Matt. He has never been asked that question before. He had always been asked what he wanted to be, but never what his future was.
“I don’t know. I just don’t want high school to be over. I don’t want to start over and be unknown again.” Matt can’t believe what he has said. He has never had the ability to realize this until now: he is afraid to leave home.
Matt thinks about his mother and her attempts to get through to him like she did to her patients. He knows that she is simply fearful of his lack of plan after graduation. Matt’s stellar grades and athletic ability almost guaranteed him admission to any school that he chose, and everyone knew that. Not only his mother, but Amelia as well was concerned for him and his lack of focus on the future. Matt walks the streets, finding himself thinking about this for the first time in a while. He understands their concern, and he, too, is concerned about his life after high school. Truth be told, it scares Matt. The dream high school experience became a reality for Matt. He has the perfect grades, the popularity, and the dream girl. Matt knows that leaving high school meant leaving all of that behind, starting fresh in college. This realization scares Matt, and it makes him not want to ever think about the future, and he had done well with it. Suddenly, it’s harder for Matt. Graduation looms closer, and people he cares about have begun to worry for him.
Matt turns to the old woman. “Thank you,” he says emphatically. Though the woman doesn’t know what she has done, Matt does. Matt jogs out of the park, eager to get back to the main streets. Realizing as he walks down the streets, that he needs to enter the next chapter of his life. Matt knows that he needs to conquer his fear of leaving home, and leaving the life he has worked so hard to build. With that in mind, Matt heads back to his car. He walks the streets more freely, unbinding himself from his fear. He gets to his car and drives home, determined to begin the next chapter of his life with the little window he has left.
Amelia stares into her bedroom mirror, black lines of mascara and eyeliner streaking down her cheeks. She caresses the fresh bruise that lines her eye, wincing at the pain from the contact. She weeps silently, afraid of being heard by her father. Her father sits only a few feet away, enjoying the TV with yet another drink in his hand. Amelia knows to stay in her room while her father continues to drink. His anger has toned down since she managed to escape to her room, and she didn’t want to risk another beating. When this happened, her father drinking to the brink of snapping, Amelia wished for her mother to be with her.
Though Amelia has had plenty of practice at it, she has never fully mastered covering up the bruises given to her by her father’s drunken rage. Amelia grabs her makeup, attempting to bring back her flawless skin. As she does so, she tries to think of the excuse she’ll use. She tries to remember previous cover-ups so that she doesn’t use the same one too many times. Suspicion is the last thing Amelia needs or wants. Her father would be furious if she told anyone. “They’d only get worse and more frequent if people found out.” Amelia tells herself this constantly, assuring herself that keeping it secret is the right decision.
Amelia finishes covering up her bruise and retreats to her bed. On her nightstand, she spots her acceptance letter. She takes it in her hand, reading it over once more. A smile creeps onto Amelia’s face as she holds the key to her future. She thinks back on how hard she has worked to accomplish her freedom from home, and to get away from her life in Michigan. Amelia shakes with excitement, knowing that shortly she will graduate, and she will finally be escaping her father. No more bruises, no more seven hour walks home, on the brink of frostbite or hypothermia. Amelia smiles as this thought, the thought of freedom that had been so far away, is finally within her reach.
The want for freedom sends an urge through Amelia’s body. It surges inside her like an ocean and sends an impulse to her brain to do what she does next. The idea of being free controls her, and she decides to wait no longer for freedom. Amelia packs quickly and quietly, praying her father doesn’t come to check on her. Amelia opens her window slowly, and crawls out with grace. Sliding out of her father’s home, she begins her journey to freedom. She doesn’t know where she will go, but she doesn’t care. The only thing on her mind is having freedom at last. All that she is thinking is that she is proud of herself for finally escaping, for finally leaving home.
Matt silently reenters his house and climbs the stairs back up to his bedroom. He gets to work at his desk, determined to start his future. He begins fishing through the book his mother had left on his bed earlier, looking at the different schools and thinking about his post-high school life. He looks into the different programs and scholarships, the various majors and options. Matt becomes slightly overwhelmed by the choices he has to make, and after a few hours, lays on his bed to take a break and think.
Matt is deep in thought when he hears a knock at his bedroom window. The noise startles him, and he approaches with caution. As he gets closer, he sees a familiar outline of a girl with strawberry blonde hair.
“A, what are you doing? Did you walk here?” He helps her in the window and hold her tightly, her body ice cold. Matt notices the bags Amelia is carrying with her. “What’s going on, A?”
Amelia tells Matt everything, leaving no detail unsaid. She cries, having never said any of this aloud and never realizing how much she’s kept secret over the course of her life. She shows him her eye, and the other bruises covering her tiny figure. Matt looks at her with concern and shock. He would have never guessed that any of this has been going on since he has known her. She pretends so well, he thought. Matt also found a new sense of love for Amelia, now knowing how much she has gone through and how strong she has been dealing with it alone. He hugs her tightly through their entire conversation.
“I’m done waiting to get away from him, Matt. I’m leaving home tonight and I’m not going back.” Matt holds her face gently, his thumb rubbing against her bruised eye. Amelia notices the college book on Matt’s desk. She gets up and fingers through it, seeing all of Matt’s notes and research that he has done tonight.
“I’m leaving home too, A. You were right. I needed to start thinking about my future. And that’s why, assuming it’s not too late, I’m applying to college tonight.” Amelia smiles a genuine smile. After all that has happened today, she is happy to finally be free. And she is happy that Matt has finally started to think about his future.
Matt and Amelia spend the night talking about the future. Amelia helps Matt with his applications to the best schools, Yale included of course. Matt helps Amelia figure out where she will go for the rest of the year now that she has left home. He also convinces her to tell someone besides him about her father. Amelia is reluctant at first, but she now knows that it is the right thing to do. The two talk all night, completely ignoring the fact that they have school in a few hours. Together they have a surplus of laughter and fun, something the two hadn’t had in a while. Matt and Amelia help each other to forget their worries. Matt starts to feel excited about graduating high school and moving on. Amelia feels a sense of relief now that she has a new realm of freedom. Both are filled with excitement as they talk about leaving home, starting over and being together through it all.