A short story by J D Stupple

It’s the fourth of April and it’s cold outside, the kind of cold that you can only feel in your feet. A family sit in the living room staring at the screen together. The fireplace is a theatre of red and yellow. The father and mother share the solitary sofa and the kids are happily splayed out on the floor. The mother lies across the sofa, resting her feet on the father’s lap. He sits upright, feeling the warmth of his wife’s legs with one hand and holding a can of Coca-Cola in the other. They listen to the voices from the television; they are not the voices that they hear on the street.

The front door opens and shuts. A third child walks in from the cold, wearing his black jacket and reddened face with a rebel’s pride.
‘You drunk?’ The father asks without taking his gaze from the television screen. The kids on the floor look around to their distant, older sibling.
‘Not quite,’ the teenager says with a hint of provocation that the father, uncharacteristically, does not rise to.
‘Good, you know your mother doesn’t like it when you go drinking on a school night.’
The mother is silent, but her silence is taken by the family to mean she does not object to being spoken for, at least not in this instance.
‘I only had a few.’
‘Even so.’
The teenager haunts the doorway of the living room, watching his family watch TV. His siblings have moved their gaze back to the screen, the colours, the Americans, the advertisements.

There’s a clock above the fireplace; it is four minutes fast. The mother bought it during the January sales. A cat wanders into the room silently, rubbing its body against the father’s legs, receiving no response.
‘Where’ve you been then?’ Asks the father.
‘And about?’
The teenager’s monosyllabic responses have become the source of a running joke between the two parents. When they are alone they do impressions of him, answering long, rambling questions with their short, rasping impressions that sound so similar to their child. It is a joke that allows them to talk about something that would be painful if they confronted it with seriousness; their son’s slow withdrawal from them. The teenager takes his phone from his pocket to check the time, and to check whether she has texted him back yet. The time is 9:30. She hasn’t.

The advertisements end, and two men in pleated shirts walk with exaggerated steps around a sound stage. A laughter track invades the humourless but comfortable living room. The father looks above the fireplace toward the clock, the minute hand lays lazily beyond the number six.
‘I think it’s time you two got to bed.’
They turn around, first toward the father, and then towards the dark silhouette standing in the doorway.
‘But Harry’s only just got home.’
The father raises an eyebrow at the both of them. They rise, kiss their mother goodnight, and march upstairs with the sluggishness that children reserve only for the tasks they are reluctant to perform.

The teenager trudges into the centre of the small living room. He sits on the floor, parking his body close to the fireplace.
‘Careful,’ the mother says, ‘its been throwing sparks out all night long.’
The American accents and the laughter tracks fill the silence of the room. The teenager slips his jacket from his shoulders. He is wearing a Pink Floyd t-shirt. The father grimaces, the t-shirt brings images of longhaired sixth form students smoking pot to his worried mind. He wonders if his son smokes, he thinks about asking him and then refrains. His son looks unhappy. His shoulders are slumped; he runs his fingers over the black screen of his phone. The father stares at his son, pretending to admire the amber glow of the fire. The mother is falling asleep and the father can tell without looking, the clue is in her breathing.

Before long the advertisements are back and the monotony of them opens up the room to conversation. The father picks his words carefully.
‘How are things with Shirley?’
The son does not respond at first. He doesn’t know it, but this is exactly what he wanted his father to ask. The fire crackles.
‘They’re fine.’
A silence as long as two breathes passes between them.
‘If you say so.’
A new advert begins; a middle-aged man walks on to a cheap set. He is selling insurance or short-term loans or something else that is easy to ignore.
Father and son roll their eyes together.