Darren knew the moment he opened his eyes that it was too early to be awake. Pale light illuminated the dusty blinds, but did nothing to combat the morning darkness. The old radio beside the bed pronounced the time in blue: 5:47 a.m.
For a moment he stared up at the ceiling and took in the stillness. It’d been years since he last came home, years since he’d slept in this bedroom and woken up with his parents down the hall. They slept in separate bedrooms now; no sense in sharing at their age. In the room that’d once been his sister’s, his mother’s oxygen machine wheezed gently behind a closed door, pumping air into lungs that could no longer be trusted. He imagined his father was already awake downstairs, hunched over his coffee.
Darren sat up, pushed the old quilt aside, and placed his feet on the chilled wood floor. It was a motion he’d repeated every single day for nineteen years, yet now he marveled at the oddity. He knew this room inside and out; knew better than anyone that there were still probably stickers on the inside of the closet door and that he’d once hidden a dirty magazine behind the loose bit of wall paneling now hidden by a dresser. It was the newfound emptiness that skewed the space and made it unrecognizable. Nothing from the old days seemed to remain.
Careful to be quiet—though he imagined his mother couldn’t hear much over the machine strapped to her face—Darren snuck down the stairs, skipping the sixth step out of habit because it probably still creaked. The kitchen light wasn’t on. His father must still be sleeping.
He fumbled around the kitchen by what little light had begun to leak in through the window over the sink. The coffee dripped sluggishly into the pot as it brewed. He watched the dark liquid rise behind the glass and, when there seemed to be enough, he poured himself a cup that wasn’t quite two thirds full. The tendrils of steam rose like phantoms.
He unlocked the back door, wincing as it creaked, then slipped outside and took a seat at the ancient picnic table. The sky was pale blue, lingering on the edge of darkness. His arms and legs were uncomfortably chilled by the morning air. This, at least, stirred some memories.
The old tom cat that’d greeted him when he arrived the day before slunk up onto the patio and snaked its way between his legs.
“Are you taking care of them?” he asked.
The cat sat down under the table and stared back with big yellow eyes.
(Fiction by Kayleen Burdine)