Dylan's mom worked on Sundays.
Scratch that. Dylan's mom worked everyday. As a litigator, ever since she was forced to become the sole provider of the family, she was hell-bent on making partner.
"Want to do something together this weekend?" Dylan was pretty sure there were plans made already that didn't necessarily include him, but he thought he could ask anyway.
"We're going camping," Sean said. "Uh, my family." There was a bit of hesitancy in his tone, like he was apologetic about it.
"Oh. Cool. Have fun, bro."
"It's my dad's idea and I already know it's going to be really boring but they said I have to go." A string of explanations came flying out of Sean's mouth, one word hastily following the other, like business people getting off a delayed subway cart and rushing for work. He went on to say how he'd rather stay at home and play video games, which was what Dylan would probably be doing. Sean reminded him of how his own parents used to be when they declared that their married life was dull and raising a kid was pure agony in front of their single friends.
It was like they were guilty of their happiness and had to tone it down.
"Seriously, I'll be so bored and you know I don't have much to say to my parents." Sean's eyes rested on his face for a second before he opened his mouth again. "Would you like to come with us?"
"You want me to come? But that's your family trip. I don't want to impose."
"You're practically family. It will be a lot more fun if you come. I mean it."
It was always like that with Sean. He would act like he wanted a favor when he was the one offering kindness. Like last Thanksgiving, he claimed that they had a humongous albeit badly-cooked turkey and that Dylan and his mom would be rescuing them from certain health risks if they were to join them.
"I need you on this trip to save me from sheer boredom. That and Linda," Sean said now, referring to his kid sister. "Please?"
And so when weekend came, bringing forth blue skies and far clouds, Dylan sat in the log cabin with his borrowed family and pretended that all was well. Mr. and Mrs. Foster were nice people and Linda was adorable; she wasn't half as bratty as Sean exaggerated. The place came with electricity and hot water and a cooked meal. They even had satellite TV channels.
Dylan thought of a time when camping literally meant a tent in the backyard, two flash lights, and a never ending supply of candies and chips. He was surprised when everyone brushed their teeth at ten and even more so when they said goodnight at eleven. He was sharing a room with Sean and his dad, and the room fell silent as soon as the light was turned off.
Dylan shifted in his bed—it was white and fluffy, not a sleeping bag—and bit back the whimper that rose from his throat. It was swallowed quickly by a wave of Mr. Foster's snores, lost in the night like it never happened.
They were great but they could never be family. What he lost was never to be found.
"Psst. Psst. Dill."
Dylan turned his head. Sean's pale face descended from the bunk bed above him. "Dill. Are you asleep?"
"No," he whispered back, wondering if Sean could detect the watery texture of his voice.
"Wanna sneak out? My dad's so loud I can't sleep anyway."
They tip-toed out the room, holding their breath over the squeaks and creaks of the floorboards, until they were sitting on the porch. That was about as adventurous as Sean could ever get. Dylan took his rucksack off his shoulder and spilled the contents. Skittles and Lay's and Cheetos and Snickers paraded across the floor. A carnival of midnight snacks.
"It's not the same, is it?" Sean said, carefully sifting through the selection so he could find something that wouldn't get stuck in his braces. He kept the subject focused on the junk food and how he wasn't allowed to eat after he brushed his teeth, but they both knew he was asking about something else.
"We used to..." Dylan started, testing the words on his tongue. "We would stay up all night and eat and joke and...and he would tell me stories."
"What kind of stories?"
"Just...really stupid ones. Mutant monkeys and ninja butterflies..."
"They are a little bit like ninja turtles...but they use a different kind of weapon." It was juvenile and silly and it felt like a century ago, but Dylan realized he remembered every little detail. "They collect pollen and refine it, turn it into something poisonous and can alter people's memories. These ninjas are like an army, but you know, a high-tech one equipped with a top notch chem lab. They can fly and distribute it anywhere they want."
"That does sound scary."
"He said that bioweapons were really powerful."
"Indeed. Or you can have a special group of ninjas who control the stock market and the economy. They would be invincible."
They kept up their mindless conversation about superheroes and saving the world for a while, filling the night with salt on their fingers and cookie crumbs on the front of their pajamas.
"If you could have any kind of super power, what would it be?" Dylan asked.
"The ability to read minds," Sean said. "That way I can predict all the test questions and also find out if Annabel likes me."
Dylan snorted. "You need super powers to figure that out? Man, she likes you. All you need is the most basic set of skills to read body language."
"I need a dictionary to read her language. What about you?"
Dylan munched on the cookie in his hand, thinking. There was flying because flying was always cool. So was invisibility. Superhuman strength or super speed were pretty useful too. Teleportation. Shape shifting. Telekinesis.
"The ability to bring people back from the dead."
As soon as he said it, time froze and it was as if he could see and feel everything happening slowly. His heart rate climbed. His throat went dry. His nose clogged up. Sympathy surfaced and stayed afloat in Sean's eyes.
"I'm sorry, Dill. I don't know what to say."
"It's okay. I'm better now. You don't have to say anything." Dylan blinked rapidly. His eyes fell on the rucksack his mom had packed for him. Through the thin film of tears, he could see that his name was hand-stitched across the canvas. She did that for all his belongings. "It's just that he always told me he loved me but I was sometimes too tired or embarrassed to say it back and now I regret it. I regret it so much. I wish I had told him a few more times. That I loved...love him and I miss him more than I can handle..."
This time he didn't mind Sean's silence. Dylan was starting to get that there were times that required more verbal expression of one's affection, and then there were times like this, when words were redundant and he was just grateful for the company.
They bathed in that silence for a comfortable amount of time. Dylan traced his name on his rucksack.
"I bet he knew, though," Sean said lightly.
Dylan nodded. That was what he told himself all the time, too.
"And you know"—Sean's gaze followed Dylan's index finger, which was still tracing the letters—"you still have your mom. You should tell her that, too."