As he stepped onto the escalator, Matt took a breath and exhaled, releasing some of the tension he had let build up in his shoulders. He adjusted the straps of his backpack and let his arms hang back down at his sides. His parents would be waiting for him at the bottom with Joey, and maybe Alex. No – Alex would probably be at a party with her friends. That's what she should be doing, anyway. High school graduation only happened once. He hoped she was enjoying it more than he had.
His parents were easy to spot among the small crowds of people gathered in the baggage claim area. Mom was already waving enthusiastically once she had spotted him. Joey was moving his arms wildly. Grinning slightly, Matt raised a hand to give a small wave back.
As soon as he stepped foot off of the escalator, his mom enveloped him in a hug.
"You're home," she said happily, though he was already aware of the fact.
His mom had barely released him before Joey caught him in a bear hug. Matt caught his breath again, unable to help from smiling a little at Joey's lopsided grin. Then he turned to his dad, who gave him a slightly more awkward hug.
"Welcome back, Matt," he said with a nod.
"Thanks for coming to pick me up," Matt said. "I hope the drive wasn't too bad."
Dad shrugged. "Usual Saturday night traffic. We got here early enough."
At this, Matt couldn't help but chuckle. "Why am I not surprised?" He was sure that Mom had been sitting in the car waiting an hour and a half ago.
"Can you blame me? We haven't seen you in five months!" Mom defended herself.
"Five months!" Joey repeated for emphasis.
It had been a bone of (at least partially joking) contention that Matt hadn't come home for Spring Break. Mom had complained about it almost every phone call until about a month ago. Then she had just started saying how excited she was to have him back home. Now, he expected that she would start complaining that he wasn't staying for longer, even though he was going to be here for the whole summer.
"I'm sorry," Matt laughed. "I didn't think it was reasonable to pay hundreds of dollars for a plane ticket to only see you for a few days."
Mom scoffed. "It would have been worth it!"
"There's no need for you to worry about that." Dad always wanted to keep his kids from feeling anxious about money, but that was easier said than done when Mom clipped coupons and Dad pored over every receipt.
That was part of the reason why Matt had gone to Columbia – they had offered really generous financial aid. He could have gotten a full ride at a local school, true, but he had wanted to get away – wanted to start fresh somewhere else.
"No need to worry, Matt," Joey agreed.
"I think your flight's bags are coming," Dad pointed out, heading toward the baggage carousel. New York had appeared on the sign above Carousel 4.
"I'll get it, Dad." Matt moved toward the carousel to look for his suitcase. His dad might have a hard time identifying it, since it was black just like most of the other luggage that was starting to circle. Besides, his dad was starting to look older – he had more gray in his hair than he had at Christmas. As Matt visually scanned the passing bags, he did the math in his head. His dad would be fifty-four next summer – fifty-five? Fifty-five. He still looked wiry and strong, but still.
Matt's bag came into sight, and he leaned down to grab it before his dad could, pulling it easily from the carousel. It was packed relatively full, even though he had only packed what he would need for the summer, but beginning to lift weights over the last year had made it easier to lift even a thirty-pound suitcase.
"Is that all you brought?" Mom asked, looking from Matt's backpack to his suitcase when he and Dad got back.
Shrugging, Matt replied, "That's all I needed."
Mom paused, but then nodded. "Alright. Then let's get you home!"
Joey vocalized his happiness at this thought, drawing a few stares from a people standing nearby. Once they identified him as the source of the noise and saw that he had Down syndrome, they were quick to glance away.
"Car's this way," Dad indicated, nodding toward the short-term parking lot.
"So, did you have a good flight?" Mom asked.
"It was fine." The first time Matt had flown home from New York, he'd had a kid in the row behind him kicking his seat incessantly, and a baby had screamed practically the whole flight. Since then, he'd been grateful for every quiet flight. "Nothing to report." He paused, glancing around for Dad's Explorer. "Is Alex at a party or something?"
"Some graduation thing," Mom said with a wave of her hand.
"Two weeks before graduation," Dad mumbled.
"Let her have her fun," Mom decided. "We just got spoiled with Matt, huh?"
She smiled at Matt.
"I don't know. That stuff wasn't really my thing," Matt remembered. "But I did some of it. I went to prom." That hadn't exactly been a magical night, but at least going had gotten his mom off of his back.
By that time, they had gotten to the Explorer. Its lights flashed briefly as Dad unlocked it. Dad opened the trunk and Matt placed his suitcase in the back before piling in next to Joey.
"You sure you don't want shotgun?" Mom asked.
"Nah, I'm fine back here." Matt looked over at Joey, who was sitting next to him, and gave him a small smile. "You excited for summer, Joey?" he asked.
"Oh, yeah!" Joey replied. "'cause you're here!"
Joey held out his hand for a fist bump, and Matt, chuckling, obliged him.
"We might be a little bit excited to have you back," Mom said.
"Don't get too excited. I'm not going to be home all the time," Matt reminded her. He loved his family, he really did, but he couldn't handle staying inside all day. "I'm going to at least try to work."
"Well, you can take some time to relax a little bit first," Mom said. "There's no rush."
Matt was quiet. There would be a lot of other college students coming home at the same time that he was and competing for the same jobs. There were also probably a lot of Notre Dame students who already had jobs in the area and were staying. He probably couldn't afford to wait too long. Still, he didn't want to crush Mom's dreams right away.
"How did your last final go?" Dad asked, after he had finished paying for parking at the drive-up kiosk.
"Not too bad. I think I did okay." He had studied for it, as always. It was one of his actuarial science classes, because with credit from the Advanced Placement course he'd taken, he was done with most of his general ed classes before his sophomore year had started. If he played his cards right, next year would be his last full year at Columbia, and then he'd be able to graduate early in December.
They pulled onto the highway, and after a few minutes of driving through the city of South Bend, the closely-packed building gave way to wide stretches of green plains dotted by trees. Matt felt himself relaxing as he looked out the car window. Even Joey had calmed for the moment, contentedly playing with the little Colts keychain that he always carried in his pocket.
"You know, Janine Hall told me Lucas flew home yesterday," Mom piped up after a little while.
Matt shifted to glance up at the front of the car. "That's great," he said. Lucas had been his best friend in high school. Though they only texted occasionally now, they did keep in touch once or twice a month. "Maybe I'll see him."
"Let's see. Who else... well, I bet Micah and Tyler are probably coming back home, too, aren't they?"
Two of his other friends from Science Olympiad had also gone away to prestigious schools. They hadn't kept in touch as much, but Matt decided he wouldn't mind seeing them if they were back. "Probably. But they might have gotten an internship somewhere. The summer before junior year is when most people start doing that."
He almost had, too – had had the perfect one lined up in New York. The only problem was that he would have been required to start right away, and he didn't think Alex would have forgiven him for missing her graduation. And besides, paying for rent during the summer while working at an unpaid internship hadn't seemed like the best idea, anyway. Instead he'd subletted the place, and hopefully he'd make a little money back home at a job. He could always get an internship next summer.
"All sorts of your high school friends are still here, too. Didn't Zack go to Notre Dame? And Emily Clay, she's here at U of I, isn't she?..."
All at once, Matt's mouth went dry. He glanced back out the window, watching the blur of trees as they passed.
"I don't know," he said, managing to keep his voice even. "We're not really friends anymore."
He and Emily hadn't been friends for a long time. They'd been close in middle school, sure, both going to St. Catherine's for youth group, going to pool parties at the same people's houses. In high school, she got more involved in sports and student government, while he'd buried himself in AP classes and Science Olympiad. Somehow after freshman year, they'd drifted apart. Senior year, they'd had one class together – creative writing. For Matt, who saw reason and comfort in math, the class had been a necessary and unwanted elective. But hearing Emily's poetry, and having some secret insight into her thoughts through the writing she shared, had awoken him to the beauty of language. And, of course, he had been very aware of the beauty of Emily, just as he had been for all the years prior. Painfully aware. Not that she would ever have been interested in him.
And this was the other part of the reason why he had gone to Columbia: to try to get over her. Only it hadn't quite worked yet.
Thankfully, Mom had the compassion to sense that this was still a sore subject, even two years later. The rest of the ride, she was mercifully silent, and Joey took Matt's mind off of Emily once again by chattering about all the fun they would have together that summer.
Only a few minutes after they passed the Welcome to Woodville sign with its fading and chipped paint, Dad pulled into the driveway and the Explorer spluttered to a halt.
"Welcome home!" Mom said cheerfully.
Dad unlocked the door and Matt dragged his suitcase inside, only to be accosted by Tucker. Even though Tucker was probably eight years old now, he still acted like a puppy, weaving around Matt's legs excitedly. Tucker did not just wag his tail – his whole body wriggled.
"Hey, Tuck," Matt laughed, scratching his old friend behind the ears. Tucker looked up with him with those liquid brown eyes that could melt even the hardest of hearts, his tail beating softly against the wall of the entryway.
"We'll have dinner ready in an hour or so," Mom said, smiling at the sight of her oldest son back home again.
Matt glanced up from petting Tucker. "You want help with anything, Mom?"
"Oh, no. I'll be fine." She gave him a smile. "Thank you though. I know you'll want some time to get settled in." She gave him one more quick kiss on the cheek before she headed for the kitchen, and Dad slipped into his office.
Joey remained at Matt's side, as did Tucker. Matt hefted his suitcase and carried it upstairs to the bedroom that he shared with Joey. When he was younger, he had not always enjoyed that arrangement. Sometimes it was because Joey started to get on his nerves, but more often it was just because he wanted his own space. When he had been gone though, and his apartment was quiet aside from the faint sound of traffic outside, he had missed his brother.
As he entered their bedroom, his eyes widened as he beheld a giant, blown-up portrait of Peyton Manning on the wall.
"I see you've replaced me," Matt said, gesturing to the poster.
"You weren't here for football season," Joey said with a frown. "Again."
Football was Joey's passion. A lot of people who lived this close to Notre Dame would say they loved football, but only a select few could truly say they obsessed over it the way Joey did. Anyone who saw Joey and assumed, based on his Down syndrome, that he wasn't very intelligent would quickly be proved wrong when Joey rattled off plays from the final game of 2018.
"I know. I'm sorry, Joe. Plane tickets cost a lot of money."
Joey considered this for a moment. "You should get a job that pays more money."
Matt laughed. "Maybe I should."
Being a math tutor wasn't so bad. He always felt a little awkward around the high school students, since he wasn't that much older than them. At least they were better than the middle schoolers though. Last year, a middle schooler had offered Matt $20 to do his algebra homework, and when Matt had declined, the kid told Matt that "no" was not a word used in his house. (Instead, Matt opted for "I would prefer not to help you cheat," and the kid accepted that response.)
This year, he had switched to a program called Students Achieving More ("SAM") at a school near his apartment. It paid a lot less money per hour than private tutoring, but it was worth it to retain his sanity. He had never seen kids who were so entitled. The kids who were driven, obsessed with getting a better score on the SAT, made him a little sad, but he understood them. He had more difficulty empathizing with kids who thought they could just throw money at something, with no effort, and magically get results. Then again, perhaps that was only natural, if that was how their parents had raised them their whole life.
The kids at SAM were reluctant to get anything done, but Matt could endure that better than spoiled whining.
"I'll try to save up some money," Matt said to Joey. "I'll try to come home more next year, okay?"
He knew he shouldn't make any promises he couldn't keep - Joey always got his hopes up. But he would find a way to make it happen. It was only a two hour flight, anyway.
Joey beamed. "Okay, Matt."
"You want to watch a game now?"
With the soft eeeee of excitement that always made Matt smile, Joey nodded eagerly in agreement. Joey didn't care if the recorded game was from 3 years ago and he knew every single play by heart after watching it twenty-four times.
"I'll take that as a yes," Matt grinned. "C'mon. I think we still have the game against Clemson on our DVR…"
He could unpack later.
They had watched about thirty minutes of the game when he heard the front door creak open. That must be Alex. Matt paused the game and got up, leaving Joey still entranced with the Notre Dame quarterback frozen in mid-throw.
"Joey, I'll be back in a little bit, okay?" he said. "You can keep watching though."
A moment later, Matt heard the game start up again.
"Hey, Alex," he said, jogging down the stairs with a smile.
"Hi Matt!" Alex met him halfway and gave him a hug. "Glad you made it back okay. Sorry I wasn't at the airport."
Matt shrugged. "You have to enjoy this stuff. It only happens once."
Alex grinned. "Well, I don't think I'll see that again. We went mini-golfing, and Ben was trying to impress Sarah by pretending to fall into the pond, and then he actually fell in."
Even though Matt had no idea who these people were, he couldn't help but smile a little; Alex might be heading off to college soon, but her wicked sense of humor was just what it had been when she was a kid.
"Hey, honey," Mom called from the kitchen. "How was Senior Day?"
"It was good!" Alex ambled into the kitchen to see what Mom was cooking, and Matt followed suit. Unless his nose deceived him, Mom was cooking his favorite dish.
"Shoot... would one of you mind watching the stove? I completely forgot to get Tucker's food," Mom said.
"But you remembered chicken bake," Matt said with a smile. He was touched. Sure, his mom could be a little bit over-the-top sometimes, but he never doubted that she loved him. "Thanks, Mom."
She gave him a little smile.
"Listen, I'll go to the pet store and get some," Matt offered.
"No, you shouldn't have to do that. You just got home," Mom insisted. "I can go."
"Really, I don't mind," Matt replied. "It'd be kind of nice to get some fresh air."
"Well... if you're sure," Mom said slowly. She started to fish in her pockets. "Here, take some money."
"Mom," Matt said. "It's not a big deal."
She gave him a look. "Just take it! You need to save up."
Matt sighed, but obediently took the money. "I'll be back in a little bit. Mind if I take the Toyota, Alex?"
"Go for it." Alex tossed him the keys, and Matt managed to save himself from any embarrassment by catching them.
"I think I'll take Tucker," Matt decided. Tucker's ears perked at the sound of his name and he started to wag pre-emptively. By the time Matt had gotten his leash, he was in full-wriggle mode. Matt laughed. "You like that idea?"
Despite Tucker wiggling in excitement, Matt managed to clip his leash onto his harness.
"I'll be back soon," he said.
"Okay. Dinner will be ready in thirty, so don't dawdle," Mom warned.
"Alright, alright." Matt laughed and followed Tucker out the front door.
It was finally starting to warm up, and he rolled the windows down so Tucker could sniff to his heart's content. He played some Beach Boys as he drove, and found that driving down the main street of their little town brought with it a bittersweet nostalgia. For whatever painful memories he had of this place, he had a lot of good ones, too.
He found a parking spot at the pet store easily enough and got Tucker out of the car. It was a challenge to get Tucker to heel, as he was once again pulling excitedly at the leash, eager to smell and see everything in the pet store.
The glass doors slid open and Matt glanced around for the dog food; the store had been reorganized since the last time he'd been here.
As he was looking, his eyes met one of the cashiers up front. She gave him a small smile.
"Hi, Matt," she said.
He swallowed. "Hey, Emily."