To begin with, his father returned from an extended deployment in Afghanistan in October, one of several recent tours in the Middle East. Along with other families from his military housing area, Jack, his mother, and older sister met the ship holding a banner, shouting and crying and laughing when his father’s eyes found theirs in the crowd. The first couple of days after his father got home were fine. They bar-b-qued, went to an amusement park, watched movies; his father even dragged their old remote control monster trucks out of storage and they went down to the school parking lot to race them together.
But then his father quickly turned distant and removed, and spent most of his time sitting on the couch watching reality television and drinking beer. He heard his mother and father arguing from their bedroom late at night. One night, his mother shouted something about his father having a midlife crisis, and then the backdoor slammed and his father’s truck roared away. The next morning, his mother told Jack that his father had left to rent a bedroom from a buddy in his unit who had an apartment in a city nearby. His mother stood at the stove frying bacon in her robe with her back turned toward him. She didn’t turn around.
The second thing happened at school a few weeks later. His homeroom teacher, who also taught music, pulled him aside after class one day. She told him that she’d heard Jack singing along to his iPod while he was unlocking his bike from the racks outside her classroom window. She said that he had a lovely voice and that she wanted him to join her school choir the next semester. She told him she’d taken the liberty of having the registrar already add his name to the class list that was posted outside the school’s theater.
Some other boys were still milling about the classroom, and Jack was startled to hear them snicker behind him after he’d gone down the hallway to see the posted choir list. When he turned around, one snapped his photo with a cell phone. Two others clapped the photographer on the back and they ran away squealing with laughter.
Later that night, his sister came into his bedroom carrying her laptop. She plopped it down in front of him on his desk and left the room. On the screen was the photographer’s Facebook page with the photo of Jack staring wide-eyed into the camera in front of the theater. Next to it was a second photo of the choir list blown up so that his name appeared prominently on it. Below the photos was a single word: “Fag”. The post had already been “liked” over a hundred times.
The third thing took place right after semester finals and before winter break. His only friend, a boy named Toby who lived a few doors down in housing, came over after school to tell him his family was moving. The military had denied Toby’s father’s request to stay enlisted as a recruiter after his upcoming retirement date. So, Toby’s mother was taking them back to their hometown that weekend for the holidays and so he could start the second semester on time at his new school. He and Toby had spent hours together playing video games. Recently, they’d begun experimenting with creating music digitally and planned on recording some tracks soon. Toby just frowned, gave him a fist bump, and Jack watched their car drive away early that Sunday morning.
Jack began spending most of his time either where his father had sat on the coach in front of the television or adding to a list he kept on his computer that he’d titled “Reasons My Life Totally Sucks”. Winter break and its abundant free time only exacerbated his feelings. Late in the afternoons, he sometimes skateboarded down to some warehouses and tried tricks so impossible he knew he’d fall or crash. Sometimes, he skateboarded aimlessly through unfamiliar neighborhoods until he found an empty lot or abandoned building where he could sit and smoke cigarettes he’d stolen from his mother or drink beer he’d taken from the case his father had left in the garage. He often wouldn’t come home for dinner. When his mother approached him, he refused to speak to her. His sister treated him with scorn.
The last thing occurred on one of those aimless evening skateboard jaunts. It was already dark, well past dinner. He turned down sidewalk and saw a piece of paper dangling from the low branch of a tree along the curb under a streetlamp. He stopped to look. The notebook paper was tied to the branch by a string. On the top of it, someone had printed the words: “For whoever lost this money. I found it near the base of this tree.” A ten dollar bill was taped under the words.
Jack stood blinking for several seconds, breathing deeply. He glanced up and down the empty street. A dog barked somewhere, but he didn’t notice it. And he didn’t notice the breeze that rustled the leaves on the tree. Something began to rise up inside of him, something lost and almost forgotten, and he felt his lips tremble and his eyes fill with tears. They were partly tears of surprise, partly tears of relief, but they were mostly tears of hope.