"Carter," Mom mumbles as I struggle to carry her up the stairs. "I’m sowwy."
I tighten my grip around her waist, not surprised she sounds like a three-year-old. Still, it’s not a fun thing to go through. Every time I come home to this, it’s a fist to the gut. Like someone’s tied my hands behind my back and is swinging at me. Like my mom is punching me in the gut over and over until I’m puking up blood.
But the kicker? I know how sorry she is.
This isn’t what she wants, who she is, or who she wants to be.
People think alcoholics are violent. They don’t hold down jobs or they’re out drinking every night. No offense to the people who believe that, but they don’t know jack. Sometimes, people do it to deal. Because fate sat down and decided, ‘hey, let’s see how much shit we can throw at this person before they break.’ Before all the skinned knees and bruised limbs keep them from getting up after one last fall.
At times like this, it feels like Mom is broken, but tomorrow she’ll be fine. 99% of the time, she’s the one taking care of everyone and everything, so I tell myself, once in a while, I can be strong enough to take care of her.
"It’s okay, Ma. Let’s get you to bed so you can get some sleep."
It’s always like this when Bill, my sister’s dad, takes Sara for his part of the joint custody. It’s hard for Mom to let her go. Just another way life dealt her a bad hand, in her mind. Which I don’t get. He only lives five streets down and it’s not like Bill isn’t a good guy. He loves Sara just as much as she does. He would have loved Mom too, but she could never get over losing my dad.
On the last stair, our feet tangle. "Shit." Both of us almost dive headfirst into the landing, but I manage to catch us. Luckily she doesn’t seem to notice. Probably thinks we’re on ride at the fair. Mom’s always liked the rides.
Getting my footing, I head toward her room. Even half hanging in my arms she’s out cold, snoring in my ear, the scent of alcohol burning deep into my memory and stinging my nose. When I finally make it to her room, I lay her down. She kicks her foot when I try to pull off one of her shoes. "Come on, Ma. Let me get your shoes off."
My voice seems to soothe her because she stills. "Tommy," she sighs. You’d think it would be strange to hear her moan my dead dad’s name, but she does when she gets like this. I’m the closest thing she has to him.
One shoe drops to the ground, followed by the other. I pull the blanket up to her chin.
"Carter…sowwy. Love yooou." Then it’s another snore. My stomach wants to retch like I’m the one who took a few too many Tequila shots tonight.
This sucks. Sucks so f**king much. But what am I gonna do? Tomorrow she’ll be fine and I probably won’t have to worry about this again for a little while. It’s not often she drinks the whole time Sara’s gone, even though that’s the only time she has to do it. And when she does it? It’s always this. I’m pretty sure there are people in the world who were never meant to touch alcohol. She’s one of them. She can’t do the one-drink thing. One always turns into two, three, four, and five.
Another lesson I’ve learned: you don’t have to drink every day to be an alcoholic. Even though I hide it, even though I never bring it up to her and act like it doesn’t happen, I know this isn’t normal. Most people will never in their lives have to carry their drunk parent to bed. People always say it’s good to be different. Screw that. I want to be like everyone else. And when Mom isn’t drinking, I can pretend I am.
I bend over and kiss her forehead. "Night, Ma. I love you, too." Blood pumps fiercely through my veins, but my voice is calm. My whole body itches, like it’s about to bust out of my skin. Who was that Avenger guy? The Incredible Hulk—it’s like that. I want to burst free from myself. Transform into that big ass green guy and thrash whatever’s in sight.
It’s after ten at night, but I don’t care. I can’t sit in my room—in this house where the air is thick with the tang of alcohol. A scent no one else would notice, but one that makes me want to explode. My basketball is waiting by the door. One scoop and I have it in my hand, slamming it into the ground bounce after bounce until I’m in the driveway.
I dribble, spin like someone’s guarding me, shove off an invisible player then run at the basket. As soon my feet are off the ground, I’m free. There’s no one but me, the ball, and the basket. No tangy scent, no tears to make me feel guilty for being angry. No sister who always smiles because she’s sheltered from the shit that rains down on us. Which is what I want, by the way. Her to be sheltered. Sara doesn’t deserve the clouds. I want her to have the sunshine.
When the ball slides through the hoop, I catch it and start again. Over and over I run at the basket. Free throws, three pointers, lay-ups. My feet slam against the pavement the way I want to throw my fist through a wall. Sweat stings my eyes, but I keep going. Keep going until there’s nothing left in me to give.
"Carter f**king Shaw. What’s up, homey?" Travis nudges me from behind, then rubs his eyes. I, on the other hand, am trying not to laugh my ass off at him.
"Homey? Did someone forget to tell me it’s ‘Back to the 90’s’ day or something?"
Travis twists his Kings hat around backward. "Homey is a cool word. I already brought sexy back, so now I’m bringing homey."
"Dude, you can’t bring the Kings back, what makes you think you can bring back homey?" I flick the hat off his head.
"Whatever." Travis shoves me, but I’m too busy laughing at him trying to pick up his hat to care. When he retrieves it, he slides it back on, and by then we’re at our lockers down senior hall. "So, what’s up? Where’s your girl? Did she loosen the leash enough to let you walk to your locker by yourself?"
All I have to do is give him a look and he nods his head, knowing his girlfriend, Trina, is just as bad as my Mel is. What is it with girls? Is it too much to ask for a little room to breathe? The thing is, it might be different if Melanie were ever really here when she’s here, but she’s not. Don’t get me wrong, I know Mel is into me, but she’s into herself more. I pretend not to notice because, honestly, it works all right for me. I have enough to deal with.
Right as the first bell rings, Mel and Trina join us. It’s a reminder of one reason I stick around: Mel is hot. A little less so because she’s hot and she knows it, but not enough to take away the fact that she’s gorgeous. I’m pretty sure it’s a California State law that everything has to look good on Mel. Her red hair is long and straight just like her legs and unlike the short skirt she’s wearing.
"Hey, baby," she says, taking my mouth. I let the kiss linger, sucking the strawberry gloss off her lips.
"Hey." I’m not sure if she even hears me because she’s already saying something to Trina. Like a basketball, Trina passes back to me, Mel’s attention shifts again.
"Carter, your hair is messy and your jeans are all wrinkled. You look like you just rolled out of bed." She grabs for my hair, probably planning to try and flatten it, but I kind of jerk my head away before she can touch it.
"Rawr. I just wanted to help."
Ugh. I hate that. If you aren’t a pissed-off cat, you shouldn’t make noises like one. "Sorry. Didn’t sleep well. Got up early." I shrug.
The halls are starting to clear out by now. We all have the same first period, so we start down the hall together. I make myself hang toward the back.
"Come on, baby. We’re gonna be late," Melanie says.
"Yeah, baby. Hurry your ass up," Travis teases.
I flip him off. "Go ahead. I gotta check on something."
A few seconds later, they’re gone. That’s how easy it is. I’m not sure if it’s because I’m good at pretending everything’s perfect or they don’t pay attention, but it’s never been hard to keep my secrets. Sucks to know the one thing I’m good at is lying. Well, lying and basketball.
When the halls are silent, I dig my cell out of my pocket and dial, that familiar punched-in-the-gut feeling teasing me.
"Delilah’s Hideaway, this is Delilah speaking."
The internal knot loosens. All it takes is one word, the sound of her voice over the phone. One quick glance in person and I can tell if she’s had a drink that day. So far, she’s fine. If I hadn’t been too chicken, I would have known that this morning, but I couldn’t make myself stay home long enough to see her. "Hey, Ma. Just wanted to tell you I might be a little late this afternoon. Is that okay?"
Another lie. What I really should say is, I needed to make sure you weren’t too hung over to leave the house, but that would be acknowledging the big, dark secret we pretend doesn’t exist.
"Sure, kiddo. You don’t even have to come in, if you don’t want. I don’t mind staying all day."
In other words, she feels guilty, which makes me feel guilty. It’s not her fault. If her dad hadn’t been such a jerk, or my dad hadn’t died, or Sara didn’t have problems, she wouldn’t be so stressed. She wouldn’t have to work so hard or need to get away in the only way she can.
"No, I don’t mind." But then I think better of my answer. Being at work is better for her than being at home. She can’t drink at the store. No one knows how she gets. What she does. Our secrets belong to me and the walls of our house. It’s the only place she ever drinks. "Unless…" Like most of the time, I don’t know which way to go. What’s the right thing to do? Everything in my life is different shades of gray, so for now, I wing it. "I’ll call you later and let you know, k?"
"Okay." Pause. "I love you, Carter."
"I love you too, Ma." And I do. There is no doubt in her words, either. Does it make it harder or easier? I don’t know.
I hang up my phone and run to class.
The morning crawls by like only a day in school can. By lunch time, I’m already dragging, my eyes burning because I stayed up way too late last night. I’m a sleeper. Nothing better than letting the world go black for hours on end, but when my mind is racing, my blood rushing, it’s impossible. When I have a bad night, there’s a switch in my head that won’t turn off. I hit the button, but it doesn’t shut down, overflowing my head with all the crap I don’t want to think about.
"Carter, why are you so quiet today?" Mel squeezes my leg. We’re eating outside, which is the only place we eat when we stay at school. There are a ton of tables, but we always take the spot on the hill. Trina keeps a blanket in her locker so she and Mel don’t get dirty and we always chill here.
"I told you, I’m tired." I rub my eyes.
"You sleep like the freaking dead. I don’t know how you can be tired."
I shrug because there’s no answer I can give her.
"You should come over today after school. My parents won’t be home. We can take a nap, then maybe do some homework or something." She lays her head on my shoulder. This is the Mel I like. The one who makes things easier instead of more work. It’s not often she isn’t pointing out all my flaws, or worrying about what everyone thinks. So when she goes through this little transformation, I savor it.
"Maybe. I might have to go to the store and help my mom." My fingers thread through her soft hair and I close my eyes. These are the moments I can be the Carter everyone sees. My problems are gone and I’m the guy with the hot girlfriend, good friends, and who is known as the basketball God. Right now, all I know, all I feel, is her softness.
"You’re going to mess up my hair, baby." Mel ducks her head away and grabs my hand instead. "And that’s why you’re tired. School, working with your mom. What are you going to do when basketball practice starts tomorrow? Your mom shouldn’t make you work. It’s kind of selfish."