Chapter 20: Ryan

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Silence. All the neighbors were off to work and school and Ryan was here. The refrigerator hummed downstairs. The heat clicked on and blew through the vents and then turned off again.

He stared at the paint on the wall. He had a feeling Jacky's mom had painted this room herself, because of the little spots where the white trim on the windows had bled onto the green wall paint. Maybe Mr. Jennings had been alive when they'd done up this room. No, wait. Jacky used to have a sister. There were pictures of her downstairs. Had this been her room?

Ryan sat up then, and ran into the bathroom and threw up.

He knew he shouldn't have eaten breakfast. It had sat like lump in his stomach all morning. Throwing up made him feel better. Now he was empty again. That felt right, too.

How had Mrs. Jennings been able to do that? To clean out her daughter's room, and change it, erase the memories of her? At first, Ryan almost couldn't breathe, trying to imagine changing his mother's room. But then he realized it would better that way. Once everything that reminded him of his mother had been removed, the room would just be a room. There wouldn't be any painful memories when he entered it.

Unfortunately, he'd have to strip down his entire house to rid himself of the memories. He'd have to knock down walls so that not even the shape of the rooms remained to remind him.

He pushed himself up off the toilet and sucked up a mouthful of water from the tap, gargled, spit out the taste of bile. When he looked at himself in the mirror he saw a stranger. Dead eyes, hollow cheeks, gray skin. Taking up a wash cloth, he tried to erase himself. Still the same. He sighed and shuffled back into the guest room. No, he couldn't stay here.

Downstairs, then. Unlike the living room in his own house, the Jennings' living room looked lived in. He sat down on the couch and pulled an afghan over himself and lay down. The couch was microfiber, and the pillow felt soft against his face. The remote was right there, on the coffee table. He clicked on the television. Sound filled the room. It was some soap opera. He didn't really care what it was. He closed his eyes.

The doorbell rang.

It seemed that in the blink of closing his eyes and opening them again, some time had passed. The television was playing a talk show now.

He considered not answering the door. Who could it possibly be? A delivery person? Allison? He didn't want to talk to either one of those options. He supposed he should answer the door if it was Allison. Maybe she had a new option for him. He sat up, swung his legs off the couch, pushed himself up, shuffled to the door.

Not Allison.

Monica, Matt, and Lance.

Shit.

"Ryan!" Monica said, throwing her arms around his waist and effectively pushing him back into the house so Matt and Lance could step inside. "Are you okay?"

"Yeah," he said.

He couldn't look up at Matt or Lance. All he could see was their shuffling feet.

"Geez, man," Lance said. "We had no idea your mom was sick."

"Yeah," said Matt. "I wish you would've told us."

Monica finally let him go, perhaps sensing how he wasn't really hugging her back. "Are you here all alone? Why don't you come stay at my house? My mom's there all day."

"I don't get why you're staying here," Matt said.

"I get it," Monica said quickly. "I mean, I understand you wanting to be with someone who understands what it's like to lose a parent. But you shouldn't be alone right now."

"I'm okay," Ryan said. No one seemed to hear him.

"So, like, what would make you feel better? Wanna go have some drinks at my place?" Matt asked.

"Matt," Monica said. "That's a terrible idea."

Matt shrugged. "I'm gonna get it from my dad for skipping school, might as well have some fun while I'm at it."

"No," Monica said firmly, and Ryan felt a wave of relief. "I was thinking we could all go to my place, and my mom can make Ryan whatever he wants to eat, and we can just relax." She looked at him, and the relief was gone. "How does that sound?"

"I'm okay staying here," Ryan said.

"By yourself? No." Monica stopped herself. "Okay, fine. We'll all hang out here."

Ryan looked back at the couch where he'd been sleeping just a few minutes ago. The perfect kind of sleep too, the drop down into nothing. Blessed, unfeeling nothing.

"I knew this was gonna be awkward," said Lance.

"Hey, man, don't be rude," Matt said to him. "Ryan's our friend.... Oh, man, this is going to be awkward."

Ryan finally heard what Matt and Lance had already seen through the storm door: the sound of a bicycle being tossed onto the grass, and feet coming up the stairs.

"What are you doing here?" Jacky demanded as he yanked the door open. 

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