The Two Worlds of Sydnee Cameron Year 3 Episode 10: The Prodigals Part 1

Welcome to The Two Worlds of Sydnee Cameron, entering its third year. If you’re new to this series, just start reading. 

If you enjoy this episode and want to catch up on Year 1, you can start with Year 1, Episode 1: Winners and Losers or check out the List of Year 1 Episodes or read the Year 1 Synopsis.

Previously in The Two Worlds of Sydnee Cameron, Sydnee’s cousins, Derrick and Joseph, moved back in with their parents. (Episode 6: Friends Forever)

Episode 10: The Prodigals Part 1

The sound of pounding rain abruptly stopped when David Clayton drove the van into the garage Saturday afternoon.

“I’m glad it wasn’t raining at the meet.” I climbed between the middle two van seats and grabbed my cross country gym bag off one.

“But if it had been, all the sweat would’ve washed off.” Chris Clayton followed me out and into the dim garage.

“Yeah, doesn’t work that way.” David held open the door to the kitchen. Seven-year-old Jamie ran inside. Candy Clayton, Chris and Jamie’s mom, followed him, and Chris and I entered last, our red-and-white bags slung over our shoulders.

The doorbell rang.

We all froze in the kitchen, glancing around at each other. Maybe all counting heads? That’s what I was doing. The only person missing was Chris’s fourteen-year-old sister, Elizabeth. She’d spent Friday night at a friend’s house so she didn’t have to get up at seven a.m. and spend what she called “a boring day watching people run.”

David walked to the front door and opened it. I couldn’t see who stood on the porch, but David’s face registered shock for a moment. Then he opened the door wider. “Come in.”

Two boys stepped into the house.

“Joseph? Derrick?” I dropped my gym bag onto the floor and rushed into the living room. “What are you doing here? Did we know you were coming?”

Neither of my cousins spoke. They stood shivering in T-shirts, underdressed for a rainy October day.

I hadn’t seen them in over two months, not since they’d moved back in with their parents in Leavenworth, Kansas, and they both looked beat down. Maybe the trip here had been exhausting, but the weariness seemed to go deeper.

Derrick still had the familiar piercings decorating his eyebrows, lip, nose, ears. But he was missing his colorful hair. Actually, he was missing his hair. A half-inch of dark brown stubble covered his skull like brand-new grass, making him look weird. But his expression was too familiar. Hard, tense, ready-to-fight. This was the same Derrick I’d met over a year ago; not the Derrick I’d said good-bye to two months ago.

He leveled his old hate gaze on me, the look I’d almost forgotten, and my insides fractured into a million pieces.

Joseph looked better, sort of. At least he still had his hair. But dark shadows rimmed his eyes, and his shoulders rounded forward like he didn’t have the strength to stand up straight.

“Why don’t I make hot chocolate? Jamie, you can pour the mix into the mugs.” Candy walked back into the kitchen with Jamie on her heels.

“Obviously, we weren’t expecting you, or we would’ve been home.” David’s voice cracked. “Does anybody else know you were coming? Like your parents?”

Derrick raised his chin, saying nothing, which was enough of an answer, but Joseph spoke for both of them. “No.”

“Well, then, I suppose I should let them know you’re here.” David pulled his phone out of his pocket. “Why don’t you go sit in the living room and warm up?”

Joseph and Derrick plopped into the seats. Chris and I sat on the couch, and David disappeared toward the back of the house.

We stared awkwardly, but not at each other. I stared at my cousins, but neither of them looked back. Derrick stared across the room, mouth a flat line, eyes steely. Joseph stared at his knees.

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“Did you, like, run away from home?” I could’ve started with how are you, but anybody could see they weren’t fine. So I just skipped all the normal small talk to save time. And lies.

Joseph shrugged and glanced at his younger brother.

“If we were running away, we’ve failed.” Derrick glared at Joseph. The look carried more history than just this moment. Like they’d been arguing about this for hours or days. “You’ll be sending us home tomorrow. Or tonight.”

“Hot chocolate’s ready.” Candy gripped the handles of four yellow mugs. Steam rose in front of her smile. “Glad to have you boys back.”

“Like you’ll let us stay,” Derrick muttered over his mug.

Candy’s smile didn’t waver.

“Thanks.” Joseph wrapped his hands around his mug.

Chris and I also thanked Candy, and she returned to Jamie in the kitchen.

Derrick raised his mug to his mouth, then he slammed it on the coffee table. Brown liquid splashed over the sides and onto the wood. “I’m not five. Hot chocolate fixes nothing.”

He stalked out of the room. A few seconds later, the kitchen door slammed shut.

“Was it that bad?” I sipped my hot chocolate. Might not fix anything, but it tasted good. “Being with your dad, I mean, not the hot chocolate.”

“Yes. Eventually.” Joseph stared at the floating, melting marshmallows. “Things started okay. The school has a policy against colored hair and piercings, so Derrick bleached his hair and took out every piercing. He looked scarier, but he tried.”

I couldn’t help smiling at the image of Derrick without hair some color of the rainbow or his piercings, but the smile hurt. He’d tried to follow the rules. And he still ended up back here, angry and in pain.

“But the second week of school, Derrick’s geometry teacher accused him of cheating.” Joseph finally looked at me, his voice taking on an edge. “Derrick scored a hundred on a pretest, and the teacher said Derrick couldn’t have done that. Alexander or David would’ve stood up to the teacher and the principal. They would’ve said Derrick definitely could—and did—ace the test, and maybe the school needed to give Derrick credit for geometry right now and move him up to Algebra II or Calculus or just go ahead and graduate him.”

David or my dad, Alexander, probably wouldn’t have been quite so demanding, but Joseph was mostly right. They had both stood up for Derrick when a similar situation happened at our school. Remembering that made me miss Alexander.

“But not our dad. No, our dad told the principal about Derrick getting in trouble for hacking into school computers back in Germany. Our dad said he’d take away all of Derrick’s computers and the school should make sure he couldn’t access any. And even when Tyler—the tech guy from Liven Games who makes sure Derrick’s not doing anything he’s not supposed to on his computers—came out and said he found no evidence of Derrick doing anything wrong or illegal, Dad demanded Tyler take the computers anyway.”

“Oh no.” The fractured pieces of my heart ground into dust. Taking away Derrick’s computers was like taking away basketball from me. No, worse because Derrick hadn’t done anything wrong, and without his computers, he’d had nothing. Nothing but his brother. And us hundreds of miles away.

“After that . . . Derrick started showing up to school with his hair green or blue. The third time the school called our dad, he shaved Derrick’s head. So Derrick stopped going to school most days. He might show up to take a test, getting a hundred or better even though he hadn’t shown up in class or turned in homework for days.”

“That’s better than purposely getting almost failing grades, right?” I glanced at Chris to see if he agreed.

Chris watched Joseph with wide eyes, and a look of disbelief. Maybe his complaints a couple of weeks ago about an eleven p.m. curfew and not having a car didn’t seem worthy anymore.

“How about you? How was school for you?” I looked back at Joseph. He was normal-smart—had to show up in class, do homework, study for tests to get good grades.

“Okay, I guess. Things were fine for me until Dad started telling Derrick he could learn from me. That I wasn’t always trying to call attention to myself with my hair or my clothes or acting smarter than everybody else.”

“Derrick is smarter than everybody else.” I jumped to Derrick’s defense, even though everyone listening already knew how smart Derrick was.

“Dad also started talking about how I’d finally found a sport, and even if I wasn’t very good, at least I was doing something right. And Derrick . . .” Joseph hung his head. He sounded like he couldn’t admit how Derrick had responded, but I could guess. Derrick used to manipulate his older brother, and he’d been angry at Joseph after Joseph became a Christian. My uncle had brought back that Derrick. “I couldn’t take it anymore, so I skipped school with Derrick some days and . . . yeah.”

Joseph wasn’t telling the whole story. Too much shame pushed down his shoulders for simply skipping school, but I didn’t ask. I couldn’t ask.

“I let your parents know you’re here.” David returned to the living room. He’d been gone an awfully long time to just tell Ian and Gretchen where their sons were.

David looked at the empty chair next to Joseph. “Where’d Derrick go?”

All three of us silently pointed toward the kitchen door.

“I’ll be right back.” David left us alone again.

The awkward silence resettled. I chased it away with another question. “So if you’re not running away, why are you here?”

“Derrick wanted to go somewhere else, but I had the money. He couldn’t steal enough for a bus ticket further than Kansas City. So I said we had to come here, because maybe . . .” Joseph glanced over his shoulder in the direction where Derrick and David had disappeared. “What are we going to do anywhere else? Live in a tent under a bridge?”

“I’m glad you came here.” I nudged his foot with mine. “Maybe David can fix things this time.”

“Maybe.” But Joseph didn’t sound very hopeful.

“And you’ll get to see Lilli.” I tried to find something happy about this dreary day—and I didn’t mean the weather. Seeing his girlfriend should make him happy. “She’s been asking why you haven’t called or texted, but I told her you weren’t talking much to any of us. Now that you’re here . . .”

I stopped talking. My words weren’t cheering Joseph. Instead, they seemed to do the opposite. He looked even more miserable than while telling about the last couple of months.

“Sydnee, Chris.” David walked in, his arm around Derrick’s shoulders—offering comfort or keeping him from running? “You two should probably shower and get ready for the Halloween party.”

“Okay.” I stood and was hit with the scent of my dried sweat. Definitely needed a shower.  “Are Joseph and Derrick coming tonight?”

“We’ll see.” David gave the parental equivalent of don’t hold your breath.

Showering and putting on my costume for tonight’s church youth group Halloween party didn’t take long. Abby Stewart, my best girl friend, insisted I couldn’t dress up like anything sports related. She also said Chris and I should dress up like a couple. I’d said no way. If that had been my idea or Chris’s, I might’ve considered it, but it wasn’t. So I finally settled on ninja. Because no one’s going to mess with a ninja. Plus the costume was easy to throw together.

So thirty minutes later, with almost two hours until the party, I slipped back into the living room, practicing my stealthy, ninja skills.

The talking stopped. David, Joseph, and Derrick all looked at me.

Probably shouldn’t change my career plans from the WNBA to ninja warrior.

“What are you?” Derrick wrinkled his nose, staring at my all-black outfit.

“Ninja.” I waved my hands in front of me, attempting a ninja stance, but I’m pretty sure I looked like Elizabeth batting away a mosquito. At least I didn’t try any ninja noises.

Derrick opened his mouth, about to say something else, but clamped it shut.

Maybe the old Derrick hadn’t completely returned.

Footsteps on the stairs pulled everyone’s attention that direction. Chris hadn’t told me his costume. Said it was a surprise.

He walked into the room dressed like a . . . watermelon?

“What are you?” I looked over the two-tone, stripe-y green shirt and pants.

“You’re a ninja.” He pointed at me, then himself. “I’m a watermelon.”

I felt the blank expression on my face.

“Fruit ninja.” Derrick solved the mystery.

“Oh. Ninja. Watermelon. I get it.” I finally did. “That’s funny.”

“I can tell from your laughter.” But Chris didn’t sound offended.

“Why don’t you two leave early?” David fished car keys out of his pocket. “Maybe get something to eat before the party.”

“But there’ll be food at the party. And we’re dressed like this.” I glanced at Chris’s costume and mine.

“It’s Halloween. No one will be surprised by costumes.” David handed Chris the keys and some cash. “Here, it’s on me.”

“Thanks.” Chris snatched the keys and money out of David’s hand like he was scared his dad would change his mind. Then Chris grabbed my hand. “Let’s go.”

“Oh, don’t forget to bring your sister home after the party.” David raised his voice to follow our exit. “And text before you come home.”

“He’s trying to get rid of us, isn’t he?” I asked as we entered the dark garage.

“You think?” Chris punched the garage door button. “I usually have to beg and swear an oath and listen to a lecture any time I ask to go out with you, forget what Dad puts me through when he actually says yes.”

I didn’t think Chris was completely serious. We lived in the same house, and I never saw David make dating that difficult. “So he wants to talk to Joseph and Derrick without us around?”

“Yep.” Chris opened the passenger door of David’s car for me. “But I’m not going to argue.”

I kind of wanted to. I wanted to go back inside and find out what David was going to do. Would he be able to convince Ian to let Joseph and Derrick stay this time? Because he hadn’t convinced Ian of that over the summer.

“Where do you want to go?” Chris backed out of the garage.

“Wherever.” I shrugged. Wouldn’t matter. I’d be equally distracted anywhere, worrying about my cousins.

***

Chris and I got ice cream and wandered around downtown before the Halloween party. The businesses were hosting a Trick-or-Treat thing, so we didn’t stand out. Then we went to the church fellowship hall.

“You two would’ve made a cute Katniss and Peeta.” Abby shook her head when she saw us, mourning.

“But that’s kind of funny.” Lilli laughed. “Fruit ninja.”

Abby wore a rainbow wig and Lilli a pink one, and both wore a pair of pony ears. They’d told me the names of whatever ponies they were, but I couldn’t remember.

“I’m going to check out the gym. Meet me there?” Chris asked.

“Yeah.” I watched him leave, wishing I followed. But I’d head to the gym as soon as I could, and even if I showed up in the middle of a basketball game, they’d let me join.

“We were talking about you.” Abby led Lilli and me to a cluster of chairs.

“Me?” I sat on one of the cold metal chairs. “Why?”

“You need to ask Joseph if he wants to break up with Lilli.”

“What?” I looked at Lilli. The laughter had washed away from her face. Her shoulders drooped and her bright wig looked way too happy over her sad eyes. “You think he wants to break up with you?”

“He hasn’t talked to me in almost a week.” Lilli stared at her phone, turning it on and off like she hoped a message would appear.

“I already told you, he hasn’t been talking to anyone. Besides, you’ll probably see him tomorrow. He’s here.”

“He is? Where?” Lilli lifted her head and scanned the room.

“Not here, here. He’s back at home—the Claytons’ house. But he’ll be at church tomorrow.” If he hasn’t had to go home already, but I didn’t want to think of that as a possibility.

“He’s here? He didn’t say anything to me.” Tears brimmed in Lilli’s eyes. “He really does want to break up with me.”

Abby glared at me, as if somehow, Joseph and Lilli breaking up would be my fault. “You didn’t tell us he was visiting?”

“I didn’t know he was coming.” I held my hands up. Not taking the blame for this one. “We got home from the cross country meet this afternoon, and he and Derrick were waiting on the porch.”

“You still could’ve let Lilli know.”

Why hadn’t Joseph told her himself? Maybe he didn’t have his phone anymore. Maybe that was something else their dad had taken. I didn’t know, but I wasn’t getting caught up in more Abby-accusations. “I’m going to find Chris.”

A basketball game had started in the gym, and I joined in. We played until Mike, the youth minister, sent us back to the fellowship hall for prayer and food.

A few hours later, Chris found me on the edge of a game. But what game I couldn’t say. My eyes were watching, but my brain was with Joseph and Derrick.

”You ready to leave?” Chris asked.

“Right now?” I glanced down at the tiny pumpkin in my hands. Why did I have a pumpkin? I handed it to Liam standing next to me. “Yeah, let’s go.”

Elizabeth was less eager. “Leave now? They haven’t even announced the costume winners yet.”

“Joseph and Derrick showed up today.” My words were met with wide eyes and a so-what look.

“Like, to visit?” Elizabeth asked.

“Visit. Run away from home. Move back.” I shrugged. “I don’t know. But I want to go home and find out.”

“Did Dad say we had to leave early?” Elizabeth crossed her arms over her Greek goddess toga.

“No,” Chris said.

“Then I’m not leaving until after the costume prizes.” She took off to join her matching goddesses.

“Sorry.” Chris jingled the car keys. “I have keys, but apparently no power.”

“It’s okay.” I glanced back at the game I’d been playing. A pumpkin toss? Is that what it was? “Do you think they’ll be able to stay this time? Or will they have to go home?”

“I don’t think Dad’s driving them to the airport tonight.” Chris pulled me into his side for a hug. “But I hope they stay. Being the only one upstairs is boring. And a little scary.”

“Scary?”

“Yeah. Three beds, three monsters under the beds. You know how exhausting it is fighting all three monsters alone every night?”

“Need to borrow my ninja costume?”

“Not sure it’ll work on monsters. You take out fruit, remember?” Chris ran his hand up and down in front of his watermelon costume.

I laughed.

“That’s the first time you’ve laughed, or even smiled, all night.”

“I’m so worried.”

“I know.” Chris pressed his lips against my temple.

“Alright, everybody.” Mike clapped his hands and waited for the noise to die down. “It’s time for . . . costume prizes.”

Cheers and hoots filled the room. I cheered too. Prizes meant we’d be able to leave.

Of course a hundred prizes were awarded. Okay, only twelve. Abby and Lilli tied for best-dressed characters. Chris and I won best couple—take that, Abby. Then there was scariest, funniest, and every other superlative imaginable, like the Who’s Who section of the yearbook. But finally they were all awarded, and Elizabeth agreed to leave.

Chris drove the speed limit the whole way home. For once, I wouldn’t have commented on breaking that law.

After he parked in the garage, I left him to help Elizabeth drag in her pillow and bags from her sleepover.

I stumbled into the house and looked around the kitchen for my cousins.

The only person in the room was David, seated at the table, hands folded in front of his mouth as if he’d been praying.

“How was the party?” he asked. He sounded upbeat, but his eyes were red and his face looked tired.

“Good, I guess.” I waved away the question. “Where are Joseph and Derrick?”

“They went to bed.” David carried a mug over to the sink and rinsed it out.

“Are they . . .” I was scared to ask.

“I’m going to fight for them to stay. A lot harder this time.” David smiled, a resolve in his eyes so strong that he didn’t need a ninja costume to help him fight.

“Here, take your stuff.” Chris’s voice rang over the banging door.

“Can’t you carry it to my room?” Elizabeth sounded muffled behind a pile of pillows and blankets.

“You’re helpless.” Chris glanced around, holding Elizabeth’s bag. He didn’t ask, but I could see the question.

“They’re upstairs,” I told him. “You better get up there and help them fight off those monsters.”

“Funny.” Chris walked out of the kitchen, Elizabeth’s pink bag making him look like a watermelon that lost to the fruit ninja.

“Monsters?” David raised his eyebrows at me.

“Yeah. Apparently there’s an infestation.”

“Well, hopefully I can take care of a few of those monsters.”

“You will.” I forced out confidence. David had to win this time. Joseph and Derrick needed to be here.

We all needed them here.

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