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not going left, not going right

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The house is tall and dignified and painted a perfect off-white. A picket fence and charming landscaping surround it. It even has a name, something quaint that’s never used anyway.

 

It’s like it’s bent everything around it to create its own intricate mini-reality, disregarding anything outside of the bubble. The house fits in here. Jack doesn’t.

 

And so he stands on the front steps, looking more like he stepped out of a low-budget romantic comedy than the preferred 19th-century period drama. He knocks, three times, then putting his hands in his pockets and then regretting it and pulling them out and then putting them back in because it’s not like he has anything else to do with them.

 

A woman with kind eyes answers the door a moment later.

 

“You must be Jack,” she says as she wipes her hands on her apron. “It’s a pleasure to meet you.”

 

Of course, the people living here are lovely. Figures. Jack doesn’t know what else to say, so he smiles.

 

“You can call me Esther,” she continues, and, well, shit, because he’s already a little endeared to her. “I’ll show you to your room so you can unpack before dinner, hmm?”

 

He agrees in some generic way and follows her through an open sort of hallway. He can see into a few rooms but is more occupied carrying his suitcase up the stairs, which are carpeted.

 

Jack’s room is painted a pale green. It smells like perfume and looks like a painting.

 

It is clear that he doesn’t belong, and he won’t try to.

 

Esther leaves him to prepare dinner, and so he’s alone in this space that’s perfectly aligned with what he should be.

 

He sits on the edge of the mattress, probably with too much force. Well, he has functional air conditioning and a shower connected to his room; there are certainly worse places to spend the summer.

 

Optimism. See that, Dad? Jack thinks, unzipping his suitcase to toss a bag of toiletries on the bathroom counter.

 

He heaves a sigh as he retreats to the bed, the first of what he feels will be many in the coming months.

 

 

At dinner he’s introduced to the rest of the Jacobs family: Esther, her husband, and their three children. The kids are well-mannered and quiet, until they open their mouths. They sit around a table with too many chairs for the number of people in the house (but Jack supposes it’s something they’re used to, for the amount of empty bedrooms upstairs).

 

“This is Jack,” says Esther. She sets a pitcher of water at the center of the table. “His father sent him to stay with us for the summer.”

 

“We know,” the youngest of the siblings says, with dramatics to rival Jack himself. He fights a laugh. “You’ve only told us about him eight times today.”

 

“Les,” the older of the boys says, sending his brother a placating look. He’s sitting directly across from Jack.

 

Esther sighs. “Jack, this is Les, David, and Sarah.”

 

The man sitting at the head of the table pours himself a glass of water. “And Mayer,” he says passively.

 

“And Mayer,” Esther amends, nodding at him.

 

Jack says “Nice to meet you,” or something of the sort; he can’t remember because at the moment he’s busy sizing up the siblings.

 

“How old are you, Les?” he asks, because he seems like the most likely to engage in the less suffocating kind of conversation.

 

“Twelve.” Les attempts to cut a piece of chicken. It’s a valiant effort.

 

“He’s ten,” David says. “I’m sixteen, and Sarah is eighteen.”

 

“An adult.”

 

“She’s too old for us, now,” says David, shaking his head remorsefully.

 

Sarah hits his shoulder lightly, to which David gasps in mock offense, despite likely anticipating the attack from sitting next to her. “Of course I’m not too old for you.”

 

David laughs, and it’s beautiful. “What about you, Jack?”

 

“Seventeen,” he says, which places him right in between David and Sarah, he notes.

 

They settle into a relaxed conversation after that. Words bounce around the table and Jack is more than happy to engage in a bit of teasing with the siblings. He discovers soon enough that the Jacobs family is pleasant, but certainly not boring.

 

Mostly, his attention catches on David. He’s warm and witty and he makes Jack laugh. He’s pretty, too, but Jack tries not to focus on that because -

 

Well, it doesn’t matter why. He just shouldn’t think about it, is all.

 

 

David is loitering in Sarah’s room, which is all the way down the hall from his. He feels a little bad about spending so much time here, but she’s going to be off to college in August; he’ll live in here while he can, before she’s gone and it doesn’t smell like her anymore.

 

Sarah files through the drawer in her bedside table for a bookmark. “Jack seems nice.”

 

“He is.”

 

She gives him a Look that he is very familiar with. David opts to stare out the window; he hopes the view will always look this nice.

 

“You want to show him around outside, or something?” She sits down next to him.

 

David laughs. “The sun’s already gone down.”

 

“Tomorrow, then.”

 

He flops on his back. A little dramatic, but the dim lighting kind of lends itself to it. “I dunno. We should get to know him.”

 

“I think Les is already attached.” Les is picky about people. If he likes Jack, that’s probably a good sign.

 

David hums in agreement. “Do you like him?”

 

Sarah tilts her head back in thought. “Yeah.”

 

 

Jack wakes up to the harsh realization that he had forgotten to draw the curtains closed the night before. He’d fallen asleep within five minutes of hitting the mattress.

 

He’s all the way through his (admittedly brief) morning routine when a knock comes on the door. He’s on his back, his feet hanging off the end of the bed, and he doesn’t really feel like getting up, so he just raises his voice a bit to say that the door’s open.

 

It’s David, who is (thankfully) wearing clothes similar to Jack’s own. His hair is significantly more disheveled than it had been the night before.

 

“Good morning,” he says. “I was wondering if maybe you wanted to get some cereal and then I could show you around outside?”

 

Jack smiles at him. “Sure. Thanks, Davey.”

 

 

Outside is nice. The sun is present enough to highlight the trees around the edges but not so much as to be uncomfortable. Jack and David are both wearing beat-up Chuck Taylors, which makes them laugh a little.

 

There are perfectly placed, well-manicured trees all around the estate - which, David reminds him, is called Elm Creek - along with bushes and flowers and all these pretty things. But what Jack really finds interesting is the forest behind them.

 

It’s small, but it doesn’t feel like it. They can spin around and look at the sky and the branches and it feels like it goes on for miles.

 

David shows him the creek, too, and they lean on the railings of the tiny bridge over it and stare at the water. It turns out that David talks a lot when he’s excited; it’s not much of a surprise to Jack, but it’s nice to listen to.

 

And he does like listening to David. Likes talking with him, likes making him laugh.

 

On their way back to the manor (it’s called a manor, which Jack and David find ridiculous) they run into someone with white-blond curls and overalls, who smiles at David and blinks at Jack. He’s been watering flowers.

 

“Jack, this is Race,” David says, gesturing between them. “Race, this is the kid who’s staying with us for the summer.”

 

Race flashes a cheeky grin. “Nice to meet you, Jack. I’m the unpaid intern.” He sticks out a gloved hand for Jack to shake.

 

“You have been working here for three years,” David says, “and my parents pay your salary.”

 

“Don’t listen to him,” he tells Jack. “I’m open to tips.”

 

“I’ll keep that in mind.”

 

“Bye, Race,” says David loudly.

 

He laughs. “Bye, Dave. New kid.” He nods at Jack.

 

They are very much still in earshot when David turns to Jack and says, “He’s not as dumb as he pretends to be. He’s getting paid to go to college.”

 

After maybe two minutes in Race’s presence, Jack is already beginning to see why he’s close with David.

 

“He’s Sarah’s age?” Jack asks.

 

“Nah, closer to yours. Graduated when he was sixteen. His home life isn’t great - ” Here David stops, seeing the expression on Jack’s face. “No, it’s fine, he’s really open about it. He’s stayed here every summer since he was twelve, and now he lives on campus for the school year.”

 

“Oh,” he says. “Good for him.” He means it genuinely, but it comes out a little flat.

 

David kicks away a rock that’s in the middle of the path. “Yeah. S’nice to have people who aren’t family, you know? Although he comes pretty close, at this point.”

 

Jack laughs. “I can see that.”

 

He tilts his head to the left, a silent question.

 

“Oh, I just mean, like…you talk to him the same way you talk to Sarah,” Jack says, rubbing the back of his neck. If David thinks anything of that, he doesn’t say it.

 

 

Jack spends at least two hours that day drawing the view from his window.

 

He can see right over the bend of the path that they walked on today. If he looks for them, he can find other structures on the horizon. It’s all greens and blues and clear skies and it feels like a photograph.

 

It looks like summer.