Warning: This work has been rated 16+.
The next time they told me I'd be staying with my grandparents, my mom helped me pack a suitcase. I didn't ask how long I'd be there, but I watched as she packed outfit after outfit, t-shirts and pants and socks and underwear and jackets and coats and shoes. I watched her pack several outfits for church, separate button-down shirts and khaki pants. The season was inching on spring, and nearing my fourteenth birthday, but it was still a month away.
I sat silently on the ground, my legs crossed, as my dad knocked on the doorframe and said, "Clayton, get anything you might want from the house and put it in your backpack."
I hesitated, and he must've seen the question in my eyes, because he snapped, "Just get what you need, alright? Whatever you need."
And then he left the doorway. He didn't look at my mom. She didn't look at him. She stayed intensely focused on the suitcase in front of her, and I couldn't tell she'd even registered the conversation before she said quietly, "Just get whatever you want to have for the next few weeks, okay?" She didn't look up from the suitcase.
She drove me to my grandparents' house in silence, eyes tired as she stared blearily at the road. It was a Saturday night, and darkness surrounded the car, only cut through by the beam of the headlights and streetlamps.
"Are you and dad okay?" I asked finally in the silence, and my mom sighed.
"We just need to work things out." She looked so worn-out.
I turned my gaze back to the road, quiet. The fighting had kept me up later than usual last night, and it had sounded worse than usualy.
"You're not going to get divorced, are you?"
"We just need to work things out," she repeated, and the rest of the drive to my grandparents' house was quiet.
When we got there, my grandpa was waiting by the curb, and I could see my grandma waiting inside, watching through the screen door. "Hey, Clay!" My grandpa said as I climbed out of the car. "How you doing?"
I shrugged. "Fine."
"Good to hear it. Where's your stuff?"
I pulled on my backpack and said, "My suitcase is in the trunk."
Wonderful. Grandma's got your room all set up for you."
It was my room that time-- not the guest room. I followed him inside with my suitcase. My mom looked too dazed in the driver's seat to even get out and hug me. She said goodbye, and then I watched her drive away.
"C'mon bud," my grandpa said, putting an arm around my shoulders and ruffling my hair. "Let's get inside for some ice cream, huh?"
I rolled my suitcase in and my grandma fretted over me, talking about how they were very happy to have me staying with them for a while, and how it would all be alright because my grandpa would take me to and from school every day, and how in the morning we were going to church and the service started at 9am so she'd wake me up at eight to shower, but not to worry because she'd iron my clothes beforehand so I didn't have to do that myself.
I absorbed everything mutely, feeling a migraine beginning to set in. Grandpa scooped all three of us some vanilla ice cream and drizzled chocolate sauce on top of it, then stuck spoons in each one. We sat down at the small kitchen table, eating the ice cream in silence, before my grandma said, "Clay, we cleaned out that guest room and took everything we were storing out of there so you could use it. And we've got some extra hangers so your clothes don't get all wrinkled in your suitcase, if you want to use them. And the drawers in that old dresser are empty, so you can put anything you want in there too. We want you to be comfortable."
I swallowed down the bitter taste and said, "Thanks grandma." She patted my hand and my grandpa stared into space in silence.
After I finished the ice cream, I went to the guest room and put my suitcase in the corner. I put my backpack in the chair. I collapsed down across the bed, feeling the stabbing behind my eyes begin to consume me. It wasn't late, but I fell asleep that way, still in all my clothes, bed made, door ajar.
In the morning when my grandma came to wake me up for church, the light clawed at my eyes when she opened the blinds. My head pounded, pain searing through me. I cried out, covering my face from the light until she drew the blinds shut again. My grandpa gave me ibuprofen and my grandma went to church on her own. When she got back, my grandpa left to go to the store, and my grandma watched television in the other room. I stayed in the dark all day, a pillow shoved over my face, drifting in and out of consciousness.
I vaguely registered my grandpa getting home, making lunch, bringing me a sandwich and a Sprite. I barely touched the sandwich, could only stomach a little of the Sprite. My head was on fire.
It was only around 6pm that it began to slowly subside, claws retracting, knives being gently tugged out. I ate more of my sandwich, drank a little more of the Sprite. My grandma knocked on my door and slowly opened it; she'd turned off the hall light so she could check in on me without it hurting.
"Hey sweetie," she said gently, "how you feeling?"
"Fine," I mumbled.
"Well that's good," she reassured. "Listen, your grandpa and I were thinking since you might be staying in here for a while that you might want something that made it feel a little more homey. And he got some of these glow-in-the-dark stars to put up on the ceiling if you want. And I know you're so big, so this may seem like a silly thing to do, but we just thought it might make it feel a little cozier."
A lump rose in my throat, and I shifted on the bed. "No," I said, my voice feeling slightly coarse. "That's really sweet. I'd like that."
She smiled and nodded. "Alright, well I'll go tell your grandpa and he'll get a ladder to put them up, okay?"
I nodded wordlessly. I was thirteen, nearly fourteen. I watched him climb up the ladder, the room pitch-black. Watched him mess with the tape, lightning flashing across his face. The gentle heat in his eyes as he pressed them into the ceiling. They weren't childish; they were big. I stared at them every night-- every night for the month I stayed with them. And by the time I went back home, it almost felt like I was leaving it behind.