Authors: Helene Dunbar
Tags: #teen, #teenlit, #teen lit, #teen novel, #teen fiction, #fiction, #ya, #ya novel, #ya fiction, #young adult, #young adult fiction, #young adult novel, #ptsd, #post traumatic stress disorder
I stumble backward and lower myself down to the concrete step. The air feels thin in my lungs. I don't want Kevin to hate me, but I can't stand the thought of him being scared. There's so little I have to give him, but I have this: the truth. Maybe that's enough to make him realize that there's nothing silly about being afraid of my father. Nothing at all.
I take a deep breath, clench my hands tight and look my brother in the eye. “He had a knife,” I say. And then I swear him to silence and tell him everything.
I'm ten, and I'm walking home from hockey practice without Kevin because Jim picked him up from school. I'm not really alone, though, because there are two other guys on my block who are on my team so we walk together, swinging our backpacks, joking around, pretending we're still at the rink.
We get to my house first. My father's car is in the driveway. I'm not sure when he was home last, but it's been a while. I wave to the guys and slowly walk up the steps, afraid of what I might find. Before I even open the front door I can hear the twins crying. Sophie and Jason are a pain because they always set each other off. They should both be sleeping by now. I wonder if Mom remembered to feed them.
I try the door but it's locked, so I pull the key out of my backpack. Just as I'm about to unlock the door, I hear a loud crash. Crashing isn't unusual at our house. Sometimes it's
the kids just being kids. Sometimes it's Mom and Dad just being Mom and Dad.
I push open the door. I can't tell what's crashed, but it doesn't matter because what I see is Dad waving a knife around. Kayla is huddled in a corner and Mom is on the couch crying. The twins are in their playpen screaming their heads off.
I freeze in the doorway. I want to run to Mom. I'm not close to the kids, but I want to pull Kayla farther away from Dad. He's tall and the knife is the biggest one we have; the one we use to cut through chicken bones and stuff.
When he sees me, he doesn't put the knife down. He looks at me like everything is normal and says my name.
I move over to Mom and she wraps her arms around me. She's shaking and crying. Her tears wash over me like a stream.
“Dad?” I think that maybe this is a joke or some grown-up game I don't know how to play.
“I'm moving to California,” he says with a puff of air that smells like smoke and beer. “You want to come with me, right? You and maybe your sister here?” He thrusts the knife toward the corner where Kayla is looking up at me, terrified.
I know where California is because we had to memorize the map in geography class. It's about a million miles away from here. And I'm not sure what he means about “you and maybe your sister.”
“Mom?” I'm hoping she's going to explain things. “Are we moving?”
Dad laughs and says, “No, not her. Just you and me. And maybe Kayla. What do you think, Gordie? Do you think she's going to grow up to be something or just end up like your mother?”
“I don't want to move,” I whisper. I know it isn't what he wants me to say, but I can't help it. I start crying too. I can't imagine moving away from Mom and Kevin and even the twins. I'm just getting good at hockey and our team really has a chance this year. I don't know if they even play hockey in California.
“See?” he says, his words slurring as he stabs the knife over and over into the soft rail of the playpen. “See, son, this is why I need to get you out of here. You're worse than a little girl. We need to toughen you up or you're never going to make it in the NHL.”
Hockey? This is about hockey? I'd gladly give up hockey if it means he would go away and leave us alone.
“No,” I say, stamping my foot. “I'm not going. I'm not leaving Mom and Kevin.”
Lightning fast, he puts the knife down, walks over, and backhands me across the face. My head hits the back of the couch. It stings even worse than when I've been checked really hard during a game. I start crying harder, not only from the pain but because, even though I don't like him much, he's my dad and I don't want him to want to hit me.
For all the times I've seen him wale on Kevin, he's never touched me. He's yelled and threatened, but he's saved his slaps and punches for my brother. I've spent a lot of time almost wishing
he'd hit me instead. Kevin is my best friend and he protects me from the bigger kids at school. As much as I hate the pain, it's even harder to watch Kevin struggle to be strong.
“Oh, Kevin,” he says in a mocking voice. “Your bastard brother has nothing to do with this.”
I wipe my tears away on my shirt sleeve and wrap my arms around myself to keep from running up and hitting him. I hate him so much. Why couldn't he just leave and stay away? Why does he have to keep coming back and making Mom cry?
I've seen my parents fight before. Big, scary, loud fights with things getting smashed and broken. But never like this. Never with knives. And no one has ever talked about splitting us up.
Mom pulls me back up and hugs me. I can smell her fear, a mingling of perfume, smoke from his cigarette, and some sort of alcohol. She whispers into my hair, “Honey, take Kayla and go up to your room.”
I look at her to make sure she's serious. Part of me thinks I should stay down here to try to protect her, but the rest of me wants to run like hell. She's pointing upstairs, saying, “Go on now,” so I grab Kayla's hand and drag her up.
I walk backward up the stairs to make sure he doesn't move. All the time, his eyes cut through me like that knife would have.
I sit down on the floor and hold Kayla in my lap. I slap my headphones on and play the loudest music I can find. It's something of Kevin'sâI don't even know what it is, but it's angry with lots of drums and bass, not like what I usually listen to.
I can feel my parents' fight rumbling through the floor.
Kayla falls asleep. I sit there for the rest of the night until I crash too, playing the angry music over and over and over on repeat until it's burnt into my brain, blocking out whatever is happening downstairs.
Here's what I don't do:
I don't call Kevin.
I don't call the police.
I don't climb out the window and go for help.
I sit there and listen to music while they terrorize and threaten each other.
I fall asleep while Mom decides that killing us and herself is a better idea than letting him have us. Have me. Because I was the one he wanted the whole the time.
They all died to save me from him. And all I did was listen to music.
I can't figure out if our room is too hot or too cold, too quiet or too loud. All I know is I'm still awake, and restless, and it looks like I'm going to stay that way.
I don't want to wake Kevin, so I wander down to the kitchen. I also don't want food, but I don't know where else to go. I just sit at the table and stare at the wall. It feels strange for Kevin to know about The Night Beforeâto have him know what I did and to know he doesn't hate me for it. It feels strange not to be afraid of that anymore.
When I told him, all he did was put his arm around my neck and pull me toward him. Then he smacked my head and told me I was an idiot for thinking he'd be upset with me for hiding upstairs while it was all going on. He reminded me that I'm supposed to trust himâI'd broken our pact.
. And as punishment, I needed to wash his car. I think about going out to do that now, but it seems like a silly thing to do in the middle of the night.
I sit in the kitchen so long I lose track of time.
The light snaps on.
“Hey, kid.” Jim opens the fridge and pours himself a glass of milk. He gestures with the carton, but I shake my head.
As he puts it back in the fridge, he says, “Heard you'd like to go camping on Saturday?”
I shrug. With everything else going on, I'd almost forgotten about it.
“With that boy on your hockey team, right?” Jim is smiling, but all of the blood in my body rushes to my cheeks. I think about telling him that Sarah is the real reason I want to go, and that I'm not really friends with Luke, and that I know we're both thinking it's the first time in five years I've considered doing something with a kid from school, but all I do is nod.
“It sounds like fun.”
I never seriously thought I'd be going, so I didn't prepare myself for thinking about things like what I need to bring, how it all works, and how I'm going to hold it together around Sarah for two whole days without her thinking I'm some sort of loser.
“Sorry I wasn't there today,” Jim says as he sits down across from me. “Sorry it had to happen this way at all.”
“Yeah,” is all I can say. Nothing would have been different if he'd been there. But it's kind of cool that he thinks he should have been.
He puts his milk down and opens a pack of Oreos. He twists the top off a cookie and eats the cream out. I thought only kids ate them that way. Funny how you can live with someone for five years and they can still do things that surprise you.
He dips the rest of his cookie in his milk and stares at me for the longest time. “It's amazing, isn't it? The stupid things adults do to screw their kids up?”
His words surprise me even more than his cookie-eating. One, he usually doesn't talk to me much. And two, when he does, he always seems a little nervous, like I'm going to flip out or something. I don't remember a time when he's talked to me like he talks to Kevin.
I guess he doesn't expect a response, because he keeps talking. “Your mom â¦ ” He smiles like he's picturing her in his head. “Your mom was so pretty when I met her. She had eyes the same color as yours. That same green. She was sitting in the park with a book on her lap and this big old Labrador she had before you were born. I couldn't take my eyes off her.”
This is uncharted territory, the equivalent of those parts of old maps that say “Here there be dragons.” Jim has never talked to me about my mom like she was a person, or anything other than just my mom. Like Kevin, he never mentions her much at all.
I don't move. I don't even breathe. I'm afraid if I say anything or distract him he'll stop, and I want to hear this so, so, so badly.
“She always wanted to be a mother,” he continues. “That was what she wanted more than anything. No one was happier when your brother was born. But for meânothing against Kevin, I adore that kidâI just had other plans.” He looks embarrassed, like he's suddenly remembering who he's talking to. “I'm sorry. Do you even want to hear this?”
I nod hard. I don't think I've ever wanted to hear anything as much as this.
“Anyhow, I wanted to travel, see the world. I was thinking about joining the Peace Corps or teaching in Japan. I already had plans to go backpacking through the Smokies when I found out Ava was pregnant. She said I should go, that she didn't want to hold me back. So I took off and left her to it, and she met your father. And then they had you.”
Jim runs his finger around on the edge of his glass. I wait for the sound glass makes when you do that, but there's only silence. “He's a hard man, your father. I don't really understand him. At one point I tried â¦ ” He stops himself. “Never mind, that isn't your problem. But in the eyes of the law, he's still your dad, and maybe you should give him a chance.”
I wrap my arms around myself, suddenly cold. I open my mouth, wondering if I can tell Jim about The Night Before, hoping that maybe he'll get it just like Kevin did. But I can't get a sound out. What chance would I ever have of staying with him if he knew what I was really like?
“Anyhow,” he continues, “I'd taken this job to save up for a trip, but after everything that happened, well â¦ ” He crumbles a cookie in his hands. “You're a good kid, Gordie. A real good kid. Don't let anyone ever tell you differently.”
My eyes well up. He wouldn't be saying that if he knew. Kevin promised he wouldn't tell, but what if he does? Would I get shipped off somewhere?
“I didn't do so well at keeping your mom safe from him. But I'm going to try to do better with you. I want you to know that.”
It takes a minute for his words to hit. For them to really fight their way through the cobwebs of my brain and get to a place where they make sense. Once they're there, they do something to me, inside, that I don't understand.
Before I know it, I'm on the other side of the table with my arms around Jim, hugging him, and he's hugging me back.
It's so odd. It's like a dream I'm sure I'm going to wake up from. All this time, I thought Kevin would hate me if he ever knew what I'd done. I was wrong. All this time, I thought Jim didn't give a shit about me. Maybe I was wrong about that, too.
I guess everyone felt like they'd failed to keep Mom safe. You'd have thought that between Jim, and Kevin, and me, one of us would have gotten it right.
I manage to get “thanks” out of my throat, which feels sore from all the talking I've done today. I pull away just as Kevin comes down the stairs. His hair is standing straight up and he looks like he's only half awake.
“Did someone decide to have a party and not invite me?” he asks, yawning.
“Nope.” Jim gets up with a sad smile on his face. “Just having a glass of milk and a chat with your brother here.” He winks at me and heads up the stairs.
“What was that about?” Kevin asks, his voice still filled with sleep.
“Just â¦ stuff.” I push past him and head toward the stairs.
“Stuff? What stuff?” Kevin asks. He isn't used to being the one left out of things.
I don't answer. I've done enough talking for one day.
Besides, it feels kind of good to be the one who knows stuff for a change.