Lost Ones

ONE SUMMER in Magnolia, Arkansas, many years ago, my friends and I packed ourselves six deep in a one-bedroom, one-bath duplex. The house was a hundred years old, and we lived on one side of it, separated from our neighbors by a wide hallway filled with a graveyard of broken furniture that had belonged to the landlord’s parents and grandparents.

We put down a few mattresses on the floor in the bedroom, and I twisted eye hooks into the rafters to hang a hammock across the room. We had futons in the living room for sitting and sleeping, and put stacked bunk beds in the foyer, filling it from floor to ceiling.

Most of us went to college together, and we were an odd crew. James was a tae-kwon-do instructor who ran his own martial-arts school in town. Kelly told me she was a witch in both the religious and supernatural sense. Ron one night confessed to me that he was a vampire, but in more of a religious sense than a supernatural one. Nick, neither witch nor vampire nor martial artist, spent all year designing full-body Halloween costumes out of modeling foam, paint and fabric, the ghoulish armor hanging under the carport year-round. There were others who stayed for a few months or weeks and a rotating cast of live-in boyfriends and girlfriends. The shower ran, the washer hummed, cars piled on the lawn. Somewhere in that house, a light was always on.

There wasn’t much privacy there, and more than once I went into the deep backyard at night, threw a blanket down under the black curtain of an oak tree, and had sex on the grass. Friends of friends came into the house at all hours without knocking, wandering from room to room for someone to talk to. I’d stay up till 5 in the morning talking to people on the porch, or walk around downtown at night if I wanted to be alone.

One of us got a job at a pizza place in town. It didn’t pay much, but he brought home leftover buffet pizza after every shift, dry and stiff as the cardboard it came in. He helped get two others hired. Every day, new pizza boxes appeared in the living room, on top of computers or couches or left on the floor. I’d stumble out of bed at 3 in the afternoon and graze on something, wondering how recent it was, testing it with my teeth like it was old silver.

Kids stayed with us sometimes. Never for long, but they fell out of their troubled lives and landed in ours. We never wondered whether we should take them in, never debated whether we had space. We moved beds around, piled blankets on the floor, bought extra toothbrushes. We were young, and we’d seen something that was wrong. What else could we do but make it right?

There was the girl from the martial-arts school, maybe 14, so quiet that I can’t remember anything she said, except, “Thank you. Thank you.” We moved everyone out of the foyer and gave it to her, a door with a lock, a room with space for some of her clothes. We stood around helplessly the night she showed up, trying to figure out how to make this a better place for a teenage girl. We took glow-in-the-dark paint and made splatters of stars on the ceiling.

One of us had a brother who got into fights, failed his classes, drank and drove at 15. No place seemed right for him, not his mother’s or father’s, so he came to live with us. We aimed to be the best parents that we could. He needed school help, so we tutored him out on the wrap-around porch. He needed privacy and space, so we gutted a walk-in storage closet to make him a tiny bedroom—just enough room for a twin mattress on the floor and a desk at the foot of the bed, a lamp high on the wall, extension cord snaking under the door from the living room. We painted the inside bright green, walls and floors and ceiling, and my shoes are still stained 10 years later.

There was an 8-year-old boy, a cousin to one of the other roommates, who needed a place to go one night when his parents threatened to kill each other and the cops took them away. We drove far outside of town, down lightless country roads crowded with trees, and fetched him. I gave him a mattress in the corner, and because he hadn’t brought much and we didn’t know how long he’d be there, we went to the store and bought him some clothes.

“You’ve had a rough night, haven’t you?” I asked when we brought him back, not knowing how to talk to a child.

“I’ve had a rough life,” he said.

Late at night, we played Frisbee in the church parking lot across the street, the plastic disc skipping over the blacktop and threatening traffic. Sometimes we piled into our cars, drove to the lake and played chicken in the shallows, our shouts booming over the lake water. We cooked and shared food, played music loud enough to vibrate the floors, took in every stray who needed us. The kids went back to their parents, and what happened to them after that, we didn’t know.

Could I do that now, sleep on the floor and give my room to strangers? The older I get, the further I move from that kid who thought he could take care of anyone. I am tense and mistrustful, and I put as many doors as I can between myself and the world. I have more than I had then, but it feels like less. You can’t just take in someone else’s kids. You can’t just open your door to anyone, can you? But there was a time when I was a one-bedroom house with space for dozens. I was a porch light glowing, a dish of something baking in the oven, an ear to listen on a long drive through the woods. There was a time when I had faith that I was enough.

Micah Hicks was born in Hope, Arkansas. He is the author of the short story collection Electricity and Other Dreams. He currently lives and writes in Orlando, Florida.