Soundtrack: Runs in the Family – Amanda Palmer

This is the most fucking stupid assignment I have ever been given in my life. She can't be serious.

"I want you to give it some thought," the teacher goes on to say, "that means you, Mr. Tucker. This counts for ten percent of your grade, everybody, so no half-assing it." There's a collective groan from the class and some sighing. It frustrates me. These people are just upset that we've got some dumb assignment.

Why did I think that taking Creative Writing would provide me with the easy English credit I need to graduate at the end of this year? I stare down at the worksheet on the desk in front of me, trying not to look noticeably upset.

Tell me a funny story about your family. Make me laugh!

What a stupid fucking prompt. We couldn't have gotten some other dumbass thing to write? Like another "who is your hero?" essay? I would much rather write one of those than try and think of an amusing family experience.

I don't have a "funny" story about my family. Unless she counts all the times I've accidentally gotten shot with one of my father's shotguns, or how we're always running out of food stamps. People like Cartman think that those things are off-the-wall hilarious. To me, thinking of my family always makes me wonder if I'm going to get fed at the end of the night, or if I'll die at the dinner table instead. Of course, nobody believes me about my deaths. Then again, this is Creative Writing. I wonder if I could pass talking about dying all the time as a 'funny story.' I'm sure I've died in comical ways. I'd just have to think about it for a second.

The bell rings, and I stuff my shit into my backpack, desperate for a cigarette. Thank God that Creative Writing is the last class of the day.

"What a fucking stupid assignment," complains Kyle, as we exit into the hallway. I trail a couple feet behind him as he opens up his locker and shoves his books in.

I agree, "Man, I don't have anything good to say about my family."

"I know, right?" Kyle sighs, "I could always write about the time that my mother started a war with Canada."

"I bet you could make that sound funny if you tried," I offer. Kyle doesn't know how easy he's got it. Sure, Sheila can be a little overbearing and mama bear-ish, but I'd rather have Sheila than my folks. My folks don't give a shit about anything that I do. Which is cool, I guess. Or was, for awhile. Sometimes I just wish that they cared a little more about what goes on in my life. Ideally, I'd like a Sharon Marsh. Sharon is cool. She's the kind of mom that always makes sure that you've done your homework, but gives you space when you ask for it.

Randy's a little fucking loopy, and kind of immature, but at least he loves his kids.

My dad isn't like that at all. He and my mom are just high all of the time, not that I haven't picked up similar habits in recent years. It's just that – I think – if I were to have kids (which I never want, thank you very much), I think that I'd put the joint away at least long enough to make sure they're okay, and not, you know, getting hit by a train.

Sure, it sounds dramatic, but I can tell you exactly how many times I got hit by a train in my youth – thirteen. Just one of those times, it would have been nice to have my parents looking out for me. Or even my brother, I dunno. But he's just as useless as my parents, these days. I hope Karen doesn't join the rest of us failures.

"Whoa, dude," says Kyle, snapping me out of my thoughts, "Are you okay?" He's looking at me funny, his brow raised.

"Huh? Yeah, I'm fine, man. Lost in thought," I say, laughing it off.

Stan is already on the bus when we clamber on, sitting in the back next to Wendy. Kyle looks irritated, and I don't blame him. He has a thing for Stan, as far as he is from actually admitting it, and the guy is definitely the jealous type. But none of us are really into discussing our feelings, it just seems stupid. Not that I don't tease him mercilessly, because I do. Because it's fucking funny.

"Trouble in paradise?" I goad, prodding him in the side and grinning underneath the bandana pulled up over my nose.

"Fuck off, dickface," Kyle shoots back under his breath.

"Hey dude," Stan greets Kyle with their super best friend handshake, something that they probably would have given up before middle school if they weren't so attracted to each other.

"Ah, man, we got this super shitty prompt in Creative Writing, seriously, just kill me –"

That's about when I stop listening to them. I scoot to the very edge of the bus seat, leaning my head against the window glass. It's cold. When I breathe out through my nostrils, a little cloud of condensation is left behind. It's supposed to start snowing sometime tonight. I hope that school isn't closed. My house doesn't have heat, it's miserable to stay in on the days when there's a snowstorm raging outside.

When I was little, I used to sleep in my brother's room with Kevin during snowstorms, because Kevin had a space heater that my parents got at a garage sale for five bucks. It rattled, but it worked. More recently, Kevin and I sit in front of the same space heater on snow days and smoke a joint together.

What I can't get out of my head is how last time Kevin and I smoked together on a snow day, Karen came up too. She didn't smoke with us, but she brought us cocoa. I wonder if she ashamed of her family like I'm ashamed of us. Drinking and smoking and weed shouldn't be the bad things that my family makes them into. Normal people can enjoy a beer or a bowl without ignoring the things that matter to them, without smacking around their husbands and forgetting about their kids.

It's probably one of those endless cycles, if I had to guess. McCormicks drink to forget how they grew up, and in the process, raise their offspring the way that they were raised.

Holy Christ, may I never have children.

My bus stop is the first, but it's actually a solid walk from my stop to my house. I stand up when it comes to a halt. At the front of the bus, my sister says goodbye to Craig's little sister (clearly the sister must be better than her asshole brother).

We wait until the bus leaves to sort of huddle together. It's not out of affection, really. We both just have shitty winter coats that we outgrow years ago. The church donation bin is a little thin these days. Not that anybody wants to be charitable toward the McCormick family. After all, who wants to say that they helped keep a bunch of druggies warm during the winter? God, I hate this town.

I don't think Karen and I know what to think of each other most of the time, besides not giving a shit what the other does with their life.

"Do you think I could sleep in your room tonight?" Karen asks.

"What? Why?" I say back. It's just that a lot of nasty shit has happened on my bed. I'm not keen on having my little sister in the same place that I've had so many other people doing other things.

Karen bites her lip and looks down at the sidewalk as we move along. She wraps her arms around herself and shivers. As I light a cigarette, she explains, "These assholes threw a rock through my window last week. I think they were my ex's friends or something. I stuck an old shirt in the hole, but it's fucking freezing. I can sleep on the floor or something, I won't be a bother."

The floor is probably worse than my bed, come to think of it.

"Why can't you bunk with Kev?"

"His room smells like cheap-ass incense and he goes to sleep listening to Insane Clown Posse," Karen says indignantly.

Does he? I must have learned how to tune his shit out. Haven't we all learned to not pay attention to what the others are doing? My mom's the breadwinner, she's usually either at work or asleep. Dad's typically shitfaced or in the process of getting shitfaced. I spend my nights sleeping, trying to pass my classes with a C average, watching porn or I dunno – sometimes Bebe texts me to let me know that her parents are out for the night, and she'll let me sleep over if I can make her come. Which I do every time, by the way. I try not to be around much.

I think Karen actually does homework. She's like, in honors classes and crap. Other than that, she reads a lot of manga and pirates anime shows. She's the quietest person in our family.

I feel suddenly bad for the amount of loud sex I have in our house. Our walls aren't exactly well-insulated, but I never gave thought before to what Karen hears. I mostly thought about how few shits I give about Kevin or my dad hearing. By the time my mom's home, I'm usually passed out buck naked cuddled up against whomever I have with me (I can't help that, by the way. I'm touchy-feely. It's in my nature).

"So, can I?"

I shake myself out of sex-related reveries. I feel myself blush. God, it's always Karen that can make me feel embarrassed about my habits. She does it without even trying, and I don't think that she means to. I'm going to spend the rest of the night feeling like an asshat for having kinky sex in my younger sister's earshot.

"I guess," I mumble, "Hey, who are these dudes that are bothering you?"

Some dickwad kids are harassing my sister, I realize. What the flying fuck? That makes me uncomfortable on a level that I'm not used to, on the level that Karen's my fucking flesh and blood, and some shitheads think that they can fuck with her without facing some goddamned consequences. Why didn't she tell me about this before? I mean, life with McCormicks can be turbulent – we're prone to tempers and yelling over stupid shit, but at the core of it, we're there for each other.

It reminds me of when I told my brother that I thought I might like boys, too. Maybe not as much as girls, but I've met some really pretty guys in my lifetime. Kevin wasn't pleased with this revelation. We've been raised Catholic; around here, bisexuality is a dirty word. He punched me in the face and shouted at me. We didn't speak for a couple of weeks, but he didn't tell my parents. It wasn't long until some fuckers caught wind of my tentative sexuality, and gave me a pair of black eyes. When those guys ended up at Hell's Pass a morning later and I asked Kevin if he knew anything about it, he'd just grunted, "You don't fuck with my brother," and passed me his bong.

Karen says, "It's not a big deal," and gives a careless shrug. She's not telling the truth. Loyalty aside, we're pretty bad at lying to each other. Other people, sure – but each other? Nah.

I offer her a cigarette, which she takes. I light it for her and say, "Now tell me the truth."

Karen takes a drag off the end of the cigarette and shakes her head, "Seriously, it's nothing."

"I'm taking my cigarette back," I threaten, reaching over her shoulder. I try and snatch the cigarette out from between her lips, and she swats my hand away.

"Okay, Jesus, fine," she says exasperatedly, giving me a little shove, "It's kind of embarrassing."

"I won't tease you, I swear," I say, "At least, not too much."

"Kenny," she warns.

"Okay, I won't," I comply. Unfortunately my dashing good looks don't sway my sister into telling me what's up even faster.

Karen's shoulders fall. She's quiet, now. I have to lean in to hear her as she speaks. She says, "He wanted to you know. And I…didn't. So I broke up with him. He was fucking scary when I told him no. I thought that he was going to like, attack me." She inhales again from her cigarette, before rolling up the threadbare sleeve of her coat.

There are bruises on her arm. Though faded, it's clear that they're in the shape of a handprint.

Holy shit. I feel a prickle of anger heat up my whole body. It's more than anger, though. This is outright fucking fury. I ask, voice tight, "He didn't – uh, hurt you, did he?" I mean, this guy did hurt her, but I hate saying the word 'rape.' It's a hard, cold word.

She shakes her head, "I punched him."

That's my sister.

Doesn't change the fact that I still want to kick the shit out of this bastard. I realize I don't even know who he is, I've been so disconnected that I have no idea who my sister's been locking lips with.

"I guess his friends feel like I owed him sex, or something," Karen says, "Because he took me out on some dates or whatever."

"That's fucking stupid," I declare, "What the fuck, dude? You never owe anybody a fucking. God, who are these stupid assholes ruining sex for everybody? Fucking is sacred."

Karen laughs a little. She tosses the butt of her cigarette onto the ground and crushes it under her pink tennis shoe.

We stop talking, then, and walk the rest of the way in silence.

My dad's sipping from a bottle of whiskey, watching a football game with Kevin, when we come in.

"Hey, Kenny," my dad calls as I head for the stairs.


"Your mama lost her job," he says, "Give her a hug or something."

I almost ask 'why me?' but refrain, because for whatever reason, I'm my mom's favorite kid. We don't live in one of those families that treats their children equally. My dad's favorite is Kevin. It makes me feel a little bad for Karen, being that she's nobody's favorite.

My mom is sitting at the kitchen table. She's still in her Olive Garden uniform. She's silent, just drinking her favorite – vodka and hot chocolate. In the center of our table is the stack of unpaid bills. I have a feeling our electric is going out for awhile.


"Not now, Kenny," she says.

"I can get a job," I offer, despite the fact that I really don't want to become the one that our family relies on for money. Why can't fucking Kevin work? Lazy bastard needs to get his shit together, but I know that he won't.

"It'll be alright," I try again.

"No, it fucking won't!" she suddenly snaps, turning to glare at me. I take a step back and she shouts, "You and your fucking lazy daddy, and your goddamn useless brother – you don't do squat around here. Just get the fuck out of here."

I hesitate for a moment. She starts to cry, and I feel like an asshole, and I'm pissed that she equates me with fucking Kevin and my dad. It's a horrible mix of feelings. I don't like it.

In the end, I just sigh and turn around. I head up the stairs before my dad can yell at me for upsetting my mother.

Karen is in my room. I almost forgot that I'd told her she can hang around her.

"You alright?" she asks, but her eyes don't leave the manga in her hands.

"Fine," I mutter.

And it is. The electric will go out for a week or so. My dad will get drunker and Kevin will get higher, and my mom and I will take the responsibility of making money so that we can put an actual goddamned meal on the table. Child services will probably show up, and my dad'll sober up for a day to put 'em off our scent.

Thing is, I can't get rid of these people. I hate them sometimes, yeah. And they're mostly assholes, but so am I, I guess. They're family, though. For every time that Kevin gives me a bruise, there's been a time he's stood up for me. Karen looks up to me or some shit like that, part of being the more decent older brother. My mom loves me. The only person I really can't stand around here is my dad, but he's not violent, not really. He's just miserable and rolling around in a hole that he doesn't know how to get out of.

We don't always love each other. When you ain't got shit, sometimes you don't have room to love. That's just the fact of the fucking matter. But we're loyal. We're always gone be there, because only another McCormick will ever understand what it's like to be one of us.

I don't have any 'funny stories' about us. To hell with that assignment, I'll just write about Stan and Kyle instead. My biological family is too fucked up.

But we'll be fine.

We always are.