When he stared up at his ceiling, stretched out on his old bed, he liked to pretend that the glowing star stickers he'd plastered there just a few short months ago were real, close enough to touch if he stretched his fingertips. Of course, they weren't hot and they didn't burn, they just kissed your fingertips with their soft light and promised that things would be ok.

It had been three days since his mother left.

Well, four if you counted the day that had just passed.

It had been four days since his mother had left.

Three, four, it didn't really matter.

She still wasn't coming back.

His phone vibrated gently beside him, reminding him that he had been texting. He picked it up and glanced at the screen, noting the neat letters of the name and the rounded numbers of the date.

It'll be ok, dude.

Only Jackson, his best and straightest friend, would think to add 'dude' after anything sentimental. He wasn't a homophobe, far from it; he just didn't like to question his own sexuality. If a pretty girl in tight clothes walked by, he had to comment, almost like it was expected of him.

So says everyone.

It was snarky and sounded a lot like cynicism, but he was too tired and too scared to care. When he was younger, he'd never thought that something like this could happen. It was all a nightmare that he could wake up from, a dream that he could escape, a thought that came only in times of deep uncertainty. He was happy, he would always be happy, and he was most certainly never going to question it.

He was questioning it now, along with everything he'd done, in case it was his fault.

It wasn't, he knew that, but it was easy to get stuck on his mistakes.

He never cleaned his room, he always forgot to do the dishes, he was a little scared of driving so he hadn't got a license, making his mother his personal chauffeur.

He was a lot scared of waterslides, so he never let his mother take him to a waterpark, even though she adored them.

It was the simple things that tripped him up, even though he'd never bothered to remember them before. When he thought of them now, they stung like the deepest cuts, but they hadn't ever bothered him before.

Before, it hurt to think and breathe and say before.

Before was before his mother left, before things went downhill, before he stayed up at night and tallied up what he'd done wrong and prayed that she'd come home.

It had been three days, four days, forever since his mother left.

It's true, man, you'll get through this.

He stared at the screen without thinking of a response, letting the words soak in. How could someone with a perfect life know what getting through felt like?

You don't know that.

He hit send and didn't bother to consider that maybe he was being a bit of a jerk about it. He could be a jerk, couldn't he, since it was his life gone to pieces?

It was his life gone to pieces.

His mother said that a lot; gone to pieces. She liked the way it made things sound dramatic even when it was only a piece of burnt toast.

"The butter's gone…I just feel like everything's gone to pieces."

"We got butter yesterday, it's right here."

You need to call me?

No.

He didn't trust his voice or his very volatile temper at the moment.

It was 12:30 and it had been four days since his mother left.

I think you need to call me.

Please just…let me go through this…alone.

Alone?

As soon as he got the message his phone began its shrill cry, a call to action that he took angrily, snapping his phone open.

"I told you not to-"

"I know what you told me, dude, but I'm worried about you."

He hung up because he already knew that and he didn't want to hear it again.

Ouch.

I told you to leave me alone.

He regretted it as soon as it was too late to fix it, something that tended to happen every time he tried to not give a damn about people.

Now he really was alone and it didn't feel too good.

The stars blinked at him and he flipped them off, imagining that they dimmed at the gesture. He just wanted to be left alone, goddammit, but when he was alone it felt like he was suffocating.

I'm sorry, that was an asshole thing to do.

You're an asshole due to circumstance, so I'll forgive you.

My mother leaving gives me the right to be an asshole?

No, but it's ok to cry about it.

He wasn't sure where that came from but it made him feel better none the less. He was seventeen, plenty old enough for toughing it out, but he still felt like letting it all go in the form of salty tears and heaving breaths.

I just want her back.

He wanted to hug her again, to hold her hand in the parking lot even though he felt stupid, to go shopping with her when she wanted an opinion that wasn't forced out of a fellow Belk patron.

I know, dude.

I just want her back.

He remembered how she would kiss him on the head before he got out of the car in front of the school building, leaving a lipstick print that made him feel like a little kid. He would scrub it off with the heel of his hand but the red streak tracing up his palm would stay as long as possible. He liked the splash of color and the love it showed.

Go visit her.

She didn't even tell me where she went.

She hadn't left a map, an address, a hint as to where she might be. It was clear she didn't want him to contact her, because she hadn't left any instructions as to how he could. Did she not want him? Was he not good enough?

The night drew on and on, dragging into the early morning that he still considered night. The clock glowed softly beside him and his phone vibrated but he didn't answer it.

He knew what it would say and he didn't answer it.

The night was silent except for the soft hum of his breath as it passed his lips and hit the still air of his bedroom. His fan, very broken, was frozen in one position. His dad had promised to fix it but, with everything that had happened, wasn't in the mood.

It had been four days since his mother left.

It had been five days since his fan broke.

He needed to fix it somehow because it was summer and, naturally, hot. He was hot now, hot and sticky with sweat that wasn't completely from the heat. It was shame and guilt and a desperate need for something he couldn't have all mixed together.

His phone buzzed again and he chucked it across the room where it hit the wall and the floor with two separate thuds.

"I just want her back."

He knew what the messages would say but he didn't want to read it, didn't want to hear it, didn't want to be forced to believe it anymore.

The stars smiled but they were smiling with malice now and he rolled over so he couldn't see them smile anymore.

It had been two months since he'd put them up.

He'd done it with his mother, when she was feeling particularly silly and had bought them from the dollar store. They were cheap but they glowed like real stars when the night fully darkened. She'd slept in his room that first night, curled in his bed while he took the floor, whistling softly at what she dubbed "the artificial beauty of a buck."

He laughed at the memory but it hurt somewhere deep inside to laugh so he stopped and stretched his arm straight up until his fingers brushed the headboard. When he was younger, he'd broken a finger against the headboard, because he'd been jumping even though she'd told him not to.

It had been four days since his mother had left and tomorrow it would be five.

His phone began that shrill cry again in the corner, like a baby that's been hit, and he threw his pillow over his head to block out the noise. Eventually, it would stop.

It was dark under the pillow which smelled like his shampoo, the shampoo his mother had always bought, because it supposedly made him smell "classy". It smelled like fruit, a fruit that he couldn't quite identify, which he didn't really consider classy. Still, he always used it because it was easier than searching for another one.

The voice mail came on and he could hear Jackson's voice, faint and desperate, probably begging him to pick up the phone. The pillow toppled to the floor as he strained to hear what the voice was saying, as if that would really make a difference.

It had been six days since their last fight, he knew because he'd counted. It had been about something silly, driving and how he was a big kid now and needed to at least try. He'd called her a bitch and he hadn't meant it but he still wanted to cry when he remembered.

He was scared of a lot of things and she knew that but she was just trying to help.

He wasn't scared of this though, never of this.

When the voicemail ended he picked up his phone and shut it off, ignoring the messages and the desperation.

It had been four days since his mother left.

Jackson had been the first to learn, since he had been over playing video games when it happened.

It kind of hurt to look at him now.

It had been four days since he'd looked Jackson in the eye.

It had been four days since he'd looked Jackson in the eye and it would be five tomorrow.

Jackson had loved his mother, just like everyone else had. She was fun and spunky and always willing to lend a hand. He baked cookies with her countless times for meetings and orphans and new neighbors, always licking the spoon when they were done. Even as a teenager he still licked the spoon.

There had been one time when it had made him sick and he'd almost regretted doing it but not enough to stop.

She made fun of him for it for years afterwards.

It had been four days since his mother left.

It had been six days since their last argument.

It had been five days since his fan broke, six if it was still broken tomorrow.

It would still be broken tomorrow.

He'd tasted beer before and his mother had nearly killed him for it. She claimed she could smell it on his breath but he was pretty sure she'd just seen the bottles hiding under his bed.

He'd stopped hiding porn in his room when his mother found it and lectured him about women's rights and how demeaning the whole thing was. When he'd asked her what kind of porn he was supposed to enjoy she'd dissolved into giggles and told him he was ridiculous.

He'd done weed once and she'd caught him, coughing at the stench and opening the little window by his bed to get rid of the smell. She hadn't been mad exactly, but pretty adamant that he wouldn't let her see him do it again.

He didn't let her see, but he did do it again.

It had been four days since his mother left.

The women of the town had all been sympathetic, saying that it was such a shame and asking how he was doing. He was able to lie and say he was fine he just wished he could see her. They'd all shaken their heads and told him it was for the best that he just let her go.

He couldn't let her go, but he made sure to pretend like he could.

In the sixth grade he'd dated a girl and, when she'd dumped her for someone better, he'd been devastated. His mother was good at helping him move on and he really wished she was here to help him move on now.

Of course, if she was here he wouldn't need any help.

He turned on his phone to see that he had several more voicemails.

It had been four days since he'd looked Jackson in the eye.

The phone buzzed sending shivers up his arm and he dropped it on the mattress.

Tucked under his covers he was safer than he thought he should be so he kicked them off and pulled off his clothes and sat there, naked and vulnerable, waiting for something to happen.

His phone vibrated so he threw it at the wall again and listened to the noise. He hoped it would break but, as a true mark of excellent craftsmanship, it kept on living.

It had been five days since his fan broke, six if it didn't get fixed tomorrow.

It wouldn't get fixed tomorrow.

His phone stopped buzzing at 2:03 and he knew Jackson had given up, not out of indifference, but rather out of exhaustion.

He knew how Jackson felt, he was exhausted too.

At 2:05 the stars blurred together because he wouldn't shut his eyes.

At 2:13 he put his clothes back on; nothing was coming and it never would.

At 2:20 he heard his father moving around, tossing and turning, like he was having a bad dream.

At 2:56 he tried to sleep but was afraid that he would have a bad dream.

He couldn't really sleep anyway.

His mother would always hold him when he had a bad dream, whispering that it was going to be ok, even when he was gasping for breath and shaking and drowning in the very real possibility that it wouldn't be ok.

She was right, every time, and he always fell back asleep.

It had been some odd amount of years since his last nightmare.

It had been four days since his mother left.

If he closed his eyes he could pretend she was there, holding him like it was going to be ok, even though he was drowning in the realization that she was wrong all along.

It wasn't ok.

She hadn't even left instructions.

He should have gone to the waterpark.

He should have held her hand.

He shouldn't have called her a bitch even though he really didn't mean it.

He shouldn't cry but the tears fell anyway.

He should be strong when he was so weak.

He should probably get a driver's license.

He should really try to fix his fan.

The bed was wet with the guilt and the shame and the heat.

He felt like an asshole for ignoring Jackson.

It had been four days since he'd looked Jackson in the eye.

It had been four days since his mother left.

If he closed his eyes and really concentrated he could see that red streak up his palm and remember the love.

Was it his fault that she was gone?

When he'd cried, she'd always hugged him tight, tight, tight.

He liked the way she laughed, soft and simple, like it was the funniest joke in the world at a really serious event.

He liked the way she held his hand when he was feeling sad, like she knew he needed something even if it was small.

When he was younger, she'd always kiss his cuts and scrapes, like her lips had some kind of healing power. It always made them feel better, the cuts and the scrapes, because she was his mother and she was all that mattered.

At 3:36 he tried to sleep but gave up.

The stars swam through his vision and he felt like he was seeing them through a very long tunnel.

His phone buzzed again and he wasn't sure who it was because he'd figured Jackson had gone to bed.

His mother had loved Jackson, saying he was the sweetest boy she'd ever met, besides her son of course. Jackson had always been able to make her laugh, even when no one else could. He resented Jackson for it sometimes, but never enough to bring it up.

At 4:00 he got a glass of water and poured it back down the sink, watching the clear liquid disappear down the drain. His dad was silent in his dark bedroom, the nightmare gone for the moment.

At 4:05 he tried to go to sleep but was afraid of having a nightmare.

It had been four days since his mother left and it would be five tomorrow.

He was going to look into getting a driver's license.

He was going to look into fixing his fan.

He was going to repaint his room.

He was going to look for instructions.

He wasn't going to do anything except pretend to live.

When his phone buzzed at 5:48 he checked to see who it was and discovered that Jackson hadn't given up. He didn't check the messages because he knew what they said.

He'd heard it all before.

His mother used to say things over and over again, as if they were of the utmost importance. They were simple things, common sense things, but he could recall them all now as if they were all he had left.

They were all he had left.

It had been four days since his mother left.

She'd always told him to clean his room when she had company over, like it really mattered what his room looked like. One time, when he was young and easily embarrassed, she'd shown a whole parade of people his messy room.

He made sure to keep it clean.

It had been four days since his mother left.

He made sure to keep it clean.

In case she came back.

In case he found instructions.

In case she came back.

She wouldn't come back.