"Thanks. How’d it go?"
She waves her hand like she doesn’t want to talk about it. "You know how he is, Carter."
Which means he was an ass. Surprise, surprise.
"What did he say to you?" I remember the first time I heard Grandpa call her names. I was six. He wasn’t in the nursing home yet. Grandma had just died and she would go over to his house every day to check on him. Those were the only times I ever remember Mom and Dad fighting—when it came to grandpa. He didn’t like her going over alone. He didn’t like her going at all, but she did anyway.
That day she’d told me to wait in the car—which she did a lot, but I had to go to the bathroom so bad, I couldn’t hold it. As soon as I walked in the door, I heard it.
"I don’t need your help, you bitch. Go away and leave me alone."
"Dad…please don’t call me names. How much have you had to drink today?" At the time, I was lucky enough not to know what kind of drink she meant.
"Oh, you’re the boss now? You have that fancy husband and you get to come into my house and tell me what to do?"
"It’s fine, Carter. Everything’s fine. I just had a long day."
No, it’s not fine at all. It’s no wonder where I got my ability to lie from. "It’s not right." My hands open and close into tight fists. "He doesn’t deserve you."
Her chin quivers and I automatically feel like a jerk. She already has to be upset enough. The last thing she needs is me pushing her about him.
"Carter! Carter! Look! Look!" Then Sara starts mumbling, excitement overtaking her. Sometimes she gets so happy—so ecstatic her words get all jumbled up. She’s waving a sheet of paper at me.
"Slow down, Twig. What’cha got there?" I grab the paper out of her hand. It’s a drawing of Barney. Yes, Barney the dinosaur, but I’m there too. It’s me playing basketball with a purple dinosaur. I don’t know what to say so I keep looking at it. It’s perfect. The hair matches mine. You can tell I’m dribbling the ball as it floats above the ground. Yes, I’m being guarded by a purple dinosaur, but still.
Mom steps closer, close enough I smell her vanilla perfume. "Oh my God. " Mom’s voice shakes. "Before you came yesterday, I got busy with a customer and Kira sat with Sara. I heard them talking and she asked Sara what her favorite things were and she said Barney and her brother. She did an amazing job on it, didn’t she?"
I’m embarrassed to admit, there’s something in my throat keeping me from speaking. I can’t stop looking at the picture. I can’t stop concentrating on how I feel. Good. Good like I haven’t felt in a long time. Better than I did at practice. Better than I do with Mel. Which is stupid and makes me feel like sort of a wuss, but yeah…this girl drew me. Perfectly. And my sister… Who knew I ranked up there with the purple dinosaur?
"Mine!" Sara yanks the picture out of my hand and runs away. I’m still in a frozen state that I’ve never experienced before.
Mom sighs. "So much energy. I’m never going to get her to bed tonight." She pats my cheek and follows after Sara.
I need air. Need to play ball.
The whole time I’m running and jumping and shooting in my driveway, I think about Kira. About Mel and Trav and Trina. I ignore the sweat in my eyes and play harder, clearing my head. Maybe Travis is right. I’m not feeling it with Mel anymore. I haven’t for a while. Being honest, I’m not sure she has, either.
Not saying I like Kira either. Really, I don’t even know the girl; she’s strange compared to other girls I know, but I like how she makes me feel. Mel used to help me feel better and now…now she makes me feel worse. Plus with Mom, Sara, basketball, and English, I have enough on my plate and hate having the gnawing feeling in my gut that Mel’s off flirting with other guys. I think it might finally be time to let one of my stress-factors go.
My stomach growls, reminding me I didn’t eat dinner. Putting my ball under my arm, I head back inside. The house is quiet. There are three pieces of pizza on a plate for me. After warming them up, I head upstairs. One peek in Sara’s room shows me she’s asleep, the picture of me and Barney in her hand.
Before going to my room, I stop by Mom’s to tell her goodnight. After a quiet knock, I push her door open and freeze. She’s coming out of the closet, a glass in her hand. A full glass, and I know exactly what’s in it.
All my muscles pinch. My heart thumps so hard it hurts. Or maybe it’s her; maybe she’s putting the ache in my chest and not the organ.
Sara’s here. My little f**king sister who has nightmares and needs help when she gets up to go to the bathroom is in her room sleeping and Mom’s going to drink. It might be because of Grandpa or maybe it’s me, because I don’t keep my mouth shut about him, but it doesn’t matter. Suddenly I’m pissed. So pissed I want to scream at her to stop. Ask her what the hell she’s doing. She doesn’t drink when Sara’s home! That’s always been what made it manageable. That’s the way things go. The way they’ve gone since Bill left and she started to drink. Who said she could switch up the rules?
Her eyes don’t leave mine and mine hers. She knows she’s been caught. My plate shakes in my hand, but I can’t speak. What if Sara has one of her nightmares and Mom is drunk? What if Sara needs her and she’s too out of it to know? How can she do this? What am I going to do now?
Without a word, I turn and walk out of the room. Tossing the plate on my desk, I fall into my chair knowing I won’t sleep tonight. Knowing I have to listen for her. Sara wouldn’t know what’s going on if she catches Mom stumbling around, but I’m her brother—I’m one of Sara’s favorite things and I’ll be damned if I’ll let her see Mom like that, whether she understands or not.
There are a few clues to look for when you’re curious how much someone drank. Now these aren’t foolproof, but I pay attention to them anyway. They can help judge how the night was, how your day’s going to be…how upset you need to be.
One of them makes my day hell because it calls for a whole lot of caffeine and video games all night to stay awake. How late does the light slide out from the under the other door at night? Does the TV stay on all night or go off at some time? In other words, do they pass out or actually go to bed. This is a pretty good indicator, but let me tell ya, sucks for the school day. Staying up at night, watching someone’s door, isn’t high on my list of things I like to do. Been there, done that, had the messy-morning hair to piss Mel off to show for it.
The other one is how early do they wake up? Late? The last minute before they’re going to be late, or bright and early, whistling at the coffee pot and setting out the Cookie Crunch?
The TV went out last night…the light only on for a couple hours after we parted, but this morning—this morning she’s up late. Hangover or guilt? I’m not sure. I’ll have to wait until I see her to know.
You can always tell how much someone drank the night before by how they wake up. Out of it? Eyes kind of swollen? Sluggish like they didn’t get any sleep or they’re sick? There are even those times where you can tell the difference in speech. There’s still that slight slur that says it hasn’t even worn off yet.
I’m still waiting to see Mom firsthand to know how today is. Sara’s been in and out of Mom’s room a couple times. She’s dressed and all that so I’m hoping it’s guilt that keeps her behind her bedroom door. That she just doesn’t want to see me because she knows how wrong she is. Knows she needs help, and is thinking about how to come down and tell me she’s getting it.
Okay, so lack of sleep made me delusional, but a guy can hope.
Pushing away what should be my chocolate chip reward for keeping my eyes open all night, I lean my head into my hands.
Maybe she should feel guilty, but I should too.
For the ten thousandth time since last night I wonder, am I doing the right thing? I can deal with it. When it just affects me, who cares? I can take care of myself, but Sara? I won’t let her see it. There’s no way I can risk her. That never became a possibility until last night.
Guilt slams into those thoughts. This is Mom. Didn’t I just tell Bill she’d never let anything happen to Sara? That she’d always take care of her and that she’d never get hurt? Is it that easy for me to turn my back on Mom? Maybe it wasn’t what I thought. Maybe she realizes how wrong she was and it will never happen again. What kind of son jumps to conclusions like this the first time?
"Barney! Barney!" Sara slides into the kitchen, her sock-covered feet skidding on the floor. She’s out the other side before I have the chance to say anything to her and the TV is on. She can work a TV and DVD player like nobody’s business.
A second later Mom walks into the kitchen. I try to ignore her, not sure what to say, but I keep seeing that glass. Her stepping out of the closet, knowing Sara’s asleep in the next room.
I’m not sad anymore. The guilt is gone, replaced by heat. Anger. How could she pick that bottle over Sara?
Suddenly, I don’t want to study her. Don’t want to see her eyes, or hear her speak. I just want out. To escape it and pretend everything is okay.
Done with my soggy cookies, I push to my feet and head for the kitchen door. Little mini-eruptions go off inside me, readying me for the big one I know is coming.
Her words make me freeze in the kitchen door. We’ve never talked about it this way before. She didn’t even mention what she’s sorry for, but I know and there have never been apologies before. Usually it’s something we pretend doesn’t exist.
"It was a hard day. Your grandpa was angry…and…"
My hands clench. I hate him. Hate him for what he’s done to her.
"But that’s not an excuse. I’m sorry, Carter. It won’t happen again."
I don’t turn around to look at her. The sigh that comes from her tells me she’s glad I didn’t walk out. I’m glad too because I hear it in her voice. The hurt and fear would break me if I saw it in her eyes.
It won’t happen again…
Those words wipe out the explosions inside me. Sober apologies are real. I know it. They have to be. She wouldn’t lie about something like this. Would she? No…No, this is Mom and she wouldn’t lie about something this important. Not to me.
Suddenly, I can breathe. I didn’t even know I couldn’t before. But it’s going to be okay now because she said it won’t happen again. "It’s okay, Ma… It’s okay."
I risk a quick glance at Mom before I walk out, feeling lighter than I have with her in a while.
My truck purrs to life when I start it. I have a ton of finished homework in my bag, and practice tonight. I’m determined today’s going to be a kickass day. Okay, maybe that’s stretching it, but a good day. A normal day.
I need normal, no drama.
Mel pops into my head, our arguments and what I’d decided to do last night.
Or what I think I’d decided. But were things really as bad as I was thinking last night? I mean, thirty minutes ago I was freaking out about Mom and now I’m suddenly sunshine and rainbows or something. Maybe things with Mel will get better too.
Or maybe I’m being too weak to risk the wrath of ending it. Is it wrong trying to hang on to the calm—the hope that for once everything really might be okay?
It’s not until I get to school that I start to wonder… Did Mom mean it will never happen again, or just not when Sara’s home?
We decide to go out to lunch today. Mel’s driving with me in the passenger seat. Trina and Travis are in the back, sitting way too far apart from each other. Well, as far away as you can get in a Bug, that is. Her arms are crossed, obviously mad about something while Trav drums on his legs to non-existent music.