I’m not sure when I finally accepted that he wasn’t coming back. He’d been different lately. Distracted, moody, distant. We’d always had a great relationship, or so I thought at the time, and despite the big difference in our ages, we were still brothers, and he always sort of looked out for me. Mom was so depressed she barely left her bedroom for longer than it took to microwave up a cup of tea, spread some garlic and butter on a piece of overtoasted bread, then tuck another dog-eared romance novel under her arm and disappear from our lives again with the quiet click of the door pulled shut behind her.
David was my anchor. He was the one I looked up to, the one I let myself believe in, mostly because he was the only one who stuck around most of the time. Dad was a traveling salesman, a “regional rep” for some company selling medical supply equipment or something like that. His trips started taking longer, and longer, sometimes a week or even two. He said competition was up, so he had to start traveling farther to find new clients. We never seemed to have a lot of money, so I guess we had to believe him. Maybe needed to believe him.
Looking back, I guess maybe we should have seen it coming, but when you’re eleven years old, you don’t really expect it. I think Dave knew, suspected at least. He and Dad seemed to get into more and more fights, mostly about how we needed him there, how it wasn’t Dave’s job to run the family, it was HIS. I don’t know if the fights helped or hurt. All I do I know is that one day, Dad packed three suitcases into the back of his beat-up old Subaru, told Dave to take care of things while he was gone, then looked at me with a strange expression, ran his fingers through my hair, and with a kind of sad little smile said, “Try not to forget what I look like.” I thought he was kidding around.
That was a year and a half ago.
I think Dave knew the day Dad left that it was for good this time. The signs were there, if you knew to look for them. Only I didn’t. Not then. I was still too young to believe such things were possible. Too naive to ever consider that Dad’s did that sort of thing to their own kids. I guess the saddest part of the whole deal was how easy it was for us to adjust. Dad had already been gone for so much of my life that when he finally left for good, I didn’t really notice much of a difference. We just went on doing what we did. Mom in her tattered bathrobe, with her tea and her toast and escape into trashy romance novels. Dave doing most of the shopping, nuking up Hot Pockets for dinner, and teaching himself to do the laundry and dishes because nobody else was going to do it.
Dad had sent checks for a while, I found out later, but they’d finally stopped coming and David had had to take a job working at the Jiffy Lube three days a week keep us afloat. We didn’t talk about it much, but I could tell it was changing him, making him different. He didn’t smile as much, and we didn’t laugh and wrestle and joke around like we used to. More and more, he seemed to be somewhere else, in his head. Looking back, now, I can see how he was starting to remind me a little bit of Mom, and a little bit of Dad. Even when he was there, he wasn’t. Not really.
After Dad took off, Mom get worse, if that was possible. She’d sleep for days at a time. Dave would have to force her to take a shower every week or so, and we’d go in to wash the sheets and pick up all the dirty dishes piled up on her nightstand. Or on the floor. Or in the bathroom sink.
Dave was only 17, but now he was basically a single parent. And caregiver for a mentally ill mother. Not that I understood any of that at the time. It was just life, and mom was just mom, and while I knew things weren’t the way the were probably supposed to be, I guess you just kind of adjust your definition of “normal” after a while. When you’re 11, you don’t really have a lot of other options.
I guess when you’re 17, though, maybe you do.
One day, Dave said that he was tired of being cooped up in the smelly old house, and that we needed to get outside, see the sun, get some Vitamin D. So, he scrounged around in the cupboards and came up with enough stuff for a decent picnic. He grabbed the last two Diet Pepsis, a rare luxury for me, a half a bag of Cheetos that somehow hadn’t gone stale, and a couple of hastily constructed PB&J sandwhiches. We piled it all into his little Honda Civic, and he drove us about three miles away to City Park. It wasn’t much of a park, since we lived on the outskirts of what wasn’t much of a city, but it had a decent jungle gym, some awesome swings, and wading pool for the little kids.
It was a perfect day for it. The weather was clear and warm without being hot, a light cool breeze, and everything freshly clean and vibrant from last night’s rain. He parked on the street at the edge of the park, and we walked barefoot in the long, spring grass. He found us a good spot under a tree next to the playground, we ditched our stuff and headed over to the swings. He pushed me as high as I’d ever gone on those swings, high enough to where the tension goes out of the chains when you stop at the top and you sort of fall back down with a quick jerk and a swoosh at the bottom. He chased me around the jungle gym and then up the slide backwards. It was the most I’d seen him laugh in a very long time. It was good to see the “old Dave” back for a while.
A little later we headed back to our stash by the tree and started in on the lunch. The warm sun fell all around, and the cool breeze rustled through the leaves above us. The Pepsis were still cold, and I swear that was the best PB&J I’ve ever had, before or since. After a while, though, Dave got that far away look in his eyes again, and I asked him what he was thinking. “I just….I just wanted to give you a special memory,” he said. “A good day, hopefully one you’ll remember for a while. I know you haven’t had a lot of them lately.”
I looked back at him, a little confused. “It’s not that bad, Davie. Not really. I know you do your best, and Mom, well, I know she’s a little…sick, I guess. That’s not your fault, right? We do okay, Dave. We do okay.”
He looked at me, then, with that same, sad little smile I’d seen on Dad’s face the day he left. He reached over and tousled my hair, and said, “You’re a tough one, kid. I think you’ll do all right in this life.” I smiled back at him, not really sure what to say, and for some reason, suddenly just a little insecure. Dave kept looking at me, or maybe through me, until he seemed to come to some sort of decision. His eyes refocused and he snapped back to the present. “Tell you what, scamp,” he said jumping to his feet. “I’m going to run over to the 7-Eleven and get us a couple more sodas, K? A day like today needs cold beverages, right?”
All of a sudden, for some reason the last thing in the world I wanted was another soda. “Nah, Dave. That’s okay. Let’s just play some more, or we could just head home. I’m good.” But Dave was already walking back towards the street, his keys dangling from his fingers.
He turned, walking backwards while he talked. “You’ll be fine, scamp. You just hang out here for a while. I’ll be back. You just hang around and have fun.” I tried to call after him again, but he had already turned back, walking with steady strides towards the car. He dove ino the front seat, started the car, and with a quick wave to me out the window, pulled out into the street and headed off towards the 7-Eleven, about 4 blocks away.
Three hours later, I still sat there. The once-warm sun was setting now. It was almost 4:30pm, and I wasn’t sure what to do. Dave had said to stay and wait for him. I was worried. It shouldn’t, couldn’t have taken that long to get to the 7-Eleven and back, could it? I finished off the last of the Cheetos, and went back to the swings. An hour later, I knew something was wrong. It was starting to get dark, and some of the street lights were already starting to come on. There was nobody else in the park anymore. They’d all gone home to dinner or wherever else it was people went after a day in the park.
I didn’t know what to do, so I made a quick decision. I dumped the rest of our stuff in the garbage can, and started walking towards the 7-Eleven, watching for his little red Civc the whole way. No luck. About 20 minutes later, I arrived at the convenience store, looking hopefully for Dave’s car. The parking lot was empty, except for a old Ford Stationwagon parked over by the dumpsters. I went inside and looked around. No Dave. Not a lot of places for a person to hide inside a 7-Eleven. My heart started to ache in my chest. No. Not again. Not Dave.
I went up to the counter and nervously asked the cashier if he’d seen my brother. Tall guy, brown hair, green jacket. Drove a red Civic? “No, sorry, don’t remember anyone like that.” I asked if there was another 7-Eleven close by, maybe he went there instead? No. Closest one was about 12 miles away in Bradford.
I was tough, sure. I was used to wierd behavior from my family, sure. But I was also 11 years old. I started to cry. The cashier got this confused and slightly panicked look on his face. He didn’t know what to do with an 11-year old suddenly balling his eyes out in the middle of the store. But, he was a nice enough guy. “Hey, hey buddy. What’s wrong? Do you need some kind of help?”
“I..I…I…nnn-n-nneed to c-c-call m-m-mmy mom,” I stuttered out between sobs.
“Okay, little guy. It’s all good. There’s a pay phone right on front, just to the right of the door.”
That set me off again, unfortunately. “I don’t have…ann-n-ny money,” I choked out between heaving sobs. Despite everything else that had happened in my short life, I’d never felt so lost, alone, and scared as at that moment. The cashier, Tony according to his nameplate, was beside himself.
“Little dude! Little dude! It’s cool, okay?! Here, I’m not supposed to do this, but I supposed this counts as an emergency.” He reached under the counter and pulled out a cordless phone, setting it down in front of him. “It’s a local call, right?”
I nodded silently, just managing to get myself under control. Tony smiled reassuringly, and pushed to phone closer towards me. I reached out and dialed my phone number. It rang. And rang. And rang again. Seven times I let it ring, praying for my mom to hear it and pick up. Finally, half way through ring eight, there was a click, and a groggy, “Hullo?”
“Mom! Mom, it’s me, Jeffery.” I couldn’t help it, I started crying again. “Mom, you need to come get me. Dave left, and I don’t know where he went, and he hasn’t come back, and it’s getting dark and I don’t know what to do.”
“Jeffery?” Blearily, only just now fully reaching consciousness. ” Jeffery, where are you? What do you mean Dave left you? Left you where?”
“MOM! It was on the note we left you.” The note we left on the kitchen table, which, if she hadn’t left the bedroom again today, she wouldn’t have seen yet. “Dave brought me to City Park, and we had a picnic, and it was going great, and then he said he was gonna go get some more sodas, but I had this weird feeling, and I didn’t want him to go, but he did anyway, and that was like five hours ago. ” I paused to sniffle. “Now I’m here at the 7-Eleven looking for him, but he’s not here, and I don’t think he ever came here, and now I don’t know where he is, or what I’m supposed to d-d–dooooo.”
I clung to the phone like it was my only lifeline, and I guess it was, kinda, at that moment. I waited for my mom to answer, but there was just this heavy silence. “Mom?” I heard something, a soft, whispered, sing-song noise, and I suddenly realized that she was crying, too. “Mom? Are you okay?” The tables suddenly turned, and in the middle of it all, I forget myself for just a moment and was worried about her. Strange.
“Damnit,” I heard her whisper. “Damnitdamnitdamnitdamnitdamnit. I can’t deal with this. Not right now.”
“Mom! I need you to help me! I’m all the way in TOWN, at the 7-Eleven! I need you to come get me!”
More silence. Then, a sad whooshing sigh, as if all her will to live was escaping her body in a rush. “Sweet Jeffery. Your father took the Subaru when he left. We only had David’s car after that. If he took that with him, then….I don’t..have…a car to come get you IN. I can’t come get you. I’m sorry.”
That was when it happened. I remember it clearly, one of those penultimate moments in life, a defining moment of such vivid clarity that it feels almost like an adrenaline rush. Something snapped, some vital connection inside me was broken, and a new one cobbled together from all the little bits and pieces left over.
I realized that I was on my own. At 11 years old, I realized, it was up to me. My Dad, was gone. My brother was probably gone, and my mom? Well, she’d hadn’t really been there for a long time either. I felt like a battleship or a cruiser from one of those old WWII movies, getting ready to go into battle. Hatches shutting, ports closing, people scuttling about inside the ship closing every possible opening, every potential vulnerability that might let something inside. I was on my own, adrift on the open the sea, and I would have to be the one to take care of me. Because no one else would.
My tears suddenly stopped. Dried up and gone. My grip loosened on the phone. It was no longer my lifeline. I looked up at Tony, the kind cashier, and my eyes met his. “Okay, mom. I understand. I got this. I’ll see you later.” I pushed to button to hang up, and handed the phone back to him. His eyes seemed to say that he understood, at least a little, of what had just happened.
“Little dude. I wish I could give you a ride, but I’m the only one here and I can’t leave the store.”
I just shook my head and gave him half a smile. “It’s no problem, sir. I’ve got this. I’ve got it handled. It’s not that far. Not really.” I had a pretty good idea of how to get home. Mostly.
“You sure you’re all right? You need me to call the cops or a taxi or something,” he asked?
“No,” I said quietly. “I can make it on my own.”
“Okay, well, hey, wait a sec,” he said. He ran over and got a pint of chocolate milk out of the cooler, and handed it to me along with two Twix bars. “One for the road, okay buddy?” I smiled, and thanked him. Tony was an all right guy.
I lifted my chocolate milk to him in a kind of salute, and then turned and walked out into the evening air. There was still a knot of barely controlled panic prowling around in my guts, trying to get out, but I could do this. It wasn’t that far, right? How far was three miles? Could I walk that far, really?
Did I have a choice?
I swallowed down the fear, washing it back with a couple of swigs of chocolate milk and a few bites of Twix bar. With enough chocolate, you can do anything. Right? Right. So I started walking.
I took me almost an hour. It was nearly dusk when I left the 7-Eleven, and by the time I left the edge of town and its protective umbrella of streetlights, night had completely fallen. There were enough houses scattered along the road that, combined with the headlights of cars coming and going, I had enough light to see where I was going. During one dark stretch of darkened houses and no traffic, though, I almost decided to turn back. But back to what? I had no money, no car, couldn’t drive if I did, and I didn’t know anybody in town I could turn to. So I kept my head down, nibbling on Twix, sipping chocolate milk and making up stories to myself in my head as I put one foot in front of the other, step, sip, step, sip, nibble, step.
And then I was home. I recognized the gravel of my driveway when it come into view between my sneakers. I looked up. Despite it all, my heart gave a little jump. It was home. It was sanctuary, of a sorts. It was a bed, and clean socks, and lights. I turned and crunched my way up the gravel to the rough concrete driveway in front of the garage. No red Honda Civic. No Subaru station wagon. No anything. I climbed the porch and pushed open the front door. There was a light on in the kitchen. That was a good sign. “Mom??” I called out. “Mom, I’m home!”
On TV, or in the movies, she would have come rushing down to meet me, frantic tears in her eyes, hugging me fiercely and sobbing about how she was so WORRIED about me!
“MOM?” I called out again, walking up the stairs to the kitchen. “Are you home?” I walked into the kitchen, the note David had left her still lying undisturbed on the table. The kitchen exactly as we’d left it. She’d never even left the bedroom.
A little something more died, right then. Another little piece broke off inside somewhere, as I realized that even home wasn’t…home. Not really. Not anymore. Maybe not ever. I swore I wouldn’t cry. I swore I wouldn’t. But my eyes started to well up as I looked around my silent, empty house. I wiped my nose on the back of my sweatshirt sleeve, and swallowed the salty burn of my tears. I didn’t have time to cry. Not anymore. There were things to do.
So. I popped a HotPocket in the microwave for dinner. And started in on the dishes.