By Bethany J. Votaw
There’s always some time of adjustment to follow, but, if we are lucky, peace will come. But it will all go to shit again. But that’s okay, I let Mom and Dad know that. I tell them I know, and I care. But I don’t understand, and honestly, I don’t care. I just want my brother back. After weeks of constant “I miss Jamie,” and, “When is Jamie coming back?” I am given the answer I need.
“James coming back next week, Ben,” Mom says. Always so formal, stoic. She stirs the cream in her tea at the kitchen counter. I sit across from her at the kitchen’s island, a dry desert between us, her tea the oasis. She won’t meet my eyes yet. I don’t care how cold she tries to be, I beam, and she can’t help but smile too. I think it reaches her eyes, maybe it’s just my imagination. For a moment, I feel like a glob of honey sits in the deepest part of my stomach. It’s so sweet it makes me sick. Maybe she has a honey pit too. My big brother is coming back! I mean, we are really the same size, I am tall for 14 and he is short for 15.
“Ben, I want you to know something,” Mom says. My face falls. I had so many plans for him—with him. Is she going to be strict and hover like a helicopter, like last time?
“What’s up?” I ask, putting on my best ‘I am not disappointed but please don’t crush my spirit’ face. She reads it. Good.
“You see, James is sick.”
“Was sick. And this is the longest he’s been gone.”
I think back to the scenes at the park, the accidental bloody noses, and the time Jenny broke her collarbone. It makes me shiver. Mom works to keep the color from fleeing her face. Or maybe that’s just her look now.
“He’s improving. It’ll be different this time.” Mom says, I know she is convincing herself more than me, “We have new rules, we’ll make them stick.”
My stomach clenches. There are already too many rules.
Mom looks at Dad, who just joined us in the kitchen. He takes over. This must be big news. “Ben, James is sick in the head.”
“I know,” I squirm, I hate these conversations.
“No.” He set his jaw and I stopped fidgeting. “Look, James did some bad things. He hurt people. But e’s getting better, for real this time. But, when he comes back, there are going to be rules.”
“Like what?” I keep my voice as quiet as the river behind the house. This is about the kids at the park, the razorblades stuck in the slides.
Mom’s smile is tight across her bony face. Her eye sockets are giant craters. “Well, for one, you won’t share a room.”
“We don’t share a room.”
“You know what I mean.” She rubs a hand through her hair, I see Dad eye the liquor cabinet above the fridge, the one with a lock where the only key is in his office desk drawer.
“I know,” I say. Jamie has a bunk bed and I used to sneak over and we’d play games and darts late into the night.
“There will be a strict schedule.” She commands.
I nod. It’ll last a week before they flake out, ‘too overwhelmed’ or something like that. A buzz in her phone steals her attention. Her fingernails click across the screen, creating a dull arrhythmic crescendo.
“Jamie can’t be alone with strangers,” Dad says. I crack a smile. Jamie. Dad’s excited for him to come home too. He rarely calls him that anymore. He rattles off a list of other rules—simple things like he’s only allowed to have forks at dinner when Mom and Dad are around, something about plastic cups and other crap. I stop listening when my mind takes me back to the riverbanks just outside. I think the water starts moving faster, it’s excited too.
I can already imagine the look on Jamie’s face when I skip a rock completely across the river. He hasn’t even been able to do that, but I’ve been practicing. Then I remember Mom and Dad in front of me and choose to look somber, even a little afraid, but I’m not. Still, I widen my eyes just a little and frown my lips so they know I am serious. But I can’t wait to skip those rocks.
His hair used to be blonde, bright like the sunshine, but now it’s like a shadow. When Jamie walks through the doors and lets a smile slip. But I know he is trying to be angry. I can’t help but notice how his spine seems to melt into the couch. It really has been hell since he’s been gone. I don’t think Mom and Dad would like me to give him a hug. Instead, I smile from my assigned spot at the kitchen island.
We watch movies after a tense dinner, as a family. We all sit on the couch, in our “usual spots” Mom designated for us when we were just toddlers. We bounce from assigned seat to assigned seat. We eat popcorn and pretend this is all completely normal. Mom always like that phrase, ‘completely normal’. Dad always liked silence.
Transformers booms across the TV. Mom and Dad share weird looks at the loud noises and violence, but really, it isn’t even that bad. I’m not really watching anyway. I keep looking at Jamie, hoping his eyes will meet mine.
He holds off for a while, but they slip and our eyes lock. He sets his jaw and shakes his head, I try to be supportive, to look like his friend. I even have my palms facing up, like the counselor told us to do. Eventually, he looks away, but it isn’t long before our eyes meet again and eventually, he gives me a little smile, especially after I mimic skipping stones. A piece of happiness he can still recall. His mind is all mixed up now. Like each time he comes out his brain is more jello.
I slice my hand against my neck like I am chopping off his head. Or cutting his throat. It only means he is a loser; it’s always been our sign. Then I worry Mom or Dad notice, but they’re too busy pretending to watch the movie, too caught up in pretending this is normal.
I don’t watch the movie; I watch the rising and falling of Jamie’s chest as he breathes in and out, in and out. I promise myself to behave, to be extra good so that he can stay here longer. I don’t want to rock the boat and make it tougher on him. When the movie is over, we make small talk, I don’t remember what was said, something about how his room was just as he left it. Mom looks proud at her handiwork, as if she was displaying the innocence of Jamie’s youth. A cry of “look at me I did everything right as a mom and It’s not my fault I produced a monster’. “You treat me like a child, seems fitting I sleep like one,” Jamie brushes his hand against the new lock on his door, his baby blanket covers his bed. A nightlight shines in the corner, was it ever turned off? Dad blows out his breath.
I ball my fists at my side, not yet Jamie, just be good a little longer. Things will calm down. We brush our teeth, eyeing each other through our reflections in the mirror so it didn’t count as staring. It didn’t even count as eye contact. I went to my room and he went to his. Mom reminds me of no late visits. I wouldn’t bother him anyway, too early to push the limits. Mom locks Jamie in.
Then I hear the struggle and the arguing inside his room. Muffled words like someone talking through a pillow. Maybe it’s just the walls. Both parents beg Jamie to spare my little brain and heart from any loud arguments and distress. Mom’s voice goes squeaky, Jamie’s is a harsh whisper that makes my ears bleed. Eventually, things go quiet. They don’t try to hide anything anymore. Mom wails down the hall and Dad turns and clicks the liquor cabinet above the fridge. I can’t decide what will wake the neighbors, Mom’s cries or the click of the cabinet. The sounds of liquid being poured floats down the hall, under my door, and into my ears. Jamie breathes out, long and deep. I try to do the same.
I can’t breathe.
So I slip from my only oasis under the covers and reach into the dark depths of my closet. I find the little shoebox buried under my old shoes and my hand goes hot. Beads of sweat start at my temples and I haven’t even opened it yet. The box is worn and crack it with my fingertips, afraid the content will scorch me. The neat pile of bills stacked on one end, another pile of stud earrings and shiny necklaces on the other.
I cradle the bills in my hand, counting them over and over, reliving the memory attached from each bill. This one was from my mom’s purse, about two months ago. She still blamed Jamie, he had been gone a week. I got this hundred from grandma’s purse last she came to visit. I stole this earring off a girl on the bus. Her wallet too, but it had no cash in it. I finger the bills and caress the jewelry. And when my heart goes back to normal, and I can hear Jamie’s gentle snore from through the wall, I can finally sleep.
The morning almost feels normal. No mention of the previous night’s drama. I want to know what it was about. I came to my own conclusion when I saw Mom switching over laundry during breakfast. Jamie’s sheets. I look at him, he shrugs and shakes his head. He’s eating his eggs with a fork, the remains of Dad’s late-night glass are still in the sink, I think I can see the fumes of brandy floating in the air.
Jamie eats slowly, he stares at me, a runny yolk drips from the corner of his mouth. I shrug and take my dishes to the sink; I even put Dad’s glass away. The liquor cabinet is locked, no more evidence of his late-night treat.
Mom keeps busy with cleaning our already clean house. I finally convince her to let us go outside—she even brings us lemonade on the patio, I half expect her to bust out the old cookie sheets and start baking. I know she wants to make up for the lost bake sales and parent meetings at school. She tells us not to leave and I feel her gaze through the windows. I know she hopes the concrete patio is enough of a cage.
“What’s it like in there?” I finally ask.
“Like last time, but the food was better.”
I nod. It looked like it was better. His once skinny body had some squish to it now. His wiry arms now loose and limp. Maybe it’s the drugs the counselor shoves down his throat in the form of a prescription. His voice isn’t his either, it’s like someone shoved smoke down it and he coughed for weeks. “I collected some good rocks,” I say. “They’re down by the river.”
“Cool,” he says, taking a giant swig of lemonade. He leans back in the chair, legs spread like he owns this place.
“My arms are bigger now,” I laugh, but I know I struck a nerve. He rubs his head, sinks away from me, and his eyes flash red.
“Doesn’t matter,” he says, “I’ll get back to normal, even with all the shit they’re pumping my brain with. The chemicals are melting my mind.”
“What do you mean?”
“It wasn’t me.” he says, gulping the lemonade.
I watch his Adam’s apple bob up and down. “But you said you did it.”
“Of course I said that. It’s one of the steps to get out of that place, you would have taken all the blame and then some to get out of that shithole.”
I shrug. I wanted to ask who he thought did it. But he’s right. I would have said all the right things just to get home. Anyone would. Jamie rubs his arms, like he’s cold despite the sweat already dripping down his temples. We wait for Mom to be on the phone with some other relative and start our sprint. My legs pump hard over the uneven grass, I jump over the few large rocks and branches. The grass gets greener the closer I get to the water. My lungs burn by the time I can touch the small river. I won, but I also think he might have let me. But he’s panting just as hard as I am. We grab fistfuls of rocks and hurl them into the water.
“What happened last night?” I asked, ignoring the pain in my arm from throwing too hard.
“There was piss all over my sheets.” He says and flings another rock further. “Mom didn’t believe me, Dad too.”
“Piss? Are you sure?” I fling another rock.
“She could smell it and blamed me.” He snarled, throwing his rock short, “I thought it was the cat, she says the cat’s been locked up. Whatever. I just needed a bed that wasn’t full of piss and it was like I asked them to move the world.”
The cat was my fault. We had one before Mom found it dead and skinned under the porch swing. She swore would never have another but I begged and pleaded. She thought I was lonely and caved. Now it lived a life locked in the master bedroom, out ‘Jamie’s reach and temptations.’
“Still, are you sure it was actually pee?”
“Not you too.” He hurls another rock.
“What?” I make sure to say it when he doesn’t have a rock in hand.
“You’re like Mom and Dad, blaming me for shit I don’t do, making me think I’m crazy. But the stupid thing is,” he hurls another rock, I try to hide my flinch, “Maybe they are right. I can’t remember shit anymore. These pills and medications just turn my brain to mush,” He picks up another rock and taps it against his head. “All that shit about the park? Maybe it was me, and maybe I am the monster because I don’t remember or care anymore.”
“How’d you get a phone?” he asks.
It feels like a slap on the face. My cheeks burn and I bite my tongue. I love the taste of iron anyway. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“C’mon, I hear you tapping away on that thing late into the night.”
My stomach drops, it’s like he stabbed me. “And?” I force myself to be calm, I concave my chest so he can’t see my heart beating through my ribs.
“It’s a piece of shit. How old is it? And really? In your pillowcase? Easy place.”
“It gets the job done.” I shrug. The first-generation smartphone was more than I wanted to spend, I traded memories in the form of bills for that piece of shit phone, I wasn’t going to lose it now.
“How’d Mom agree to it?”
I sigh, “She doesn’t know. Don’t tell her. Please.”
His surprise is evident by his raised eyebrows. He pauses throwing a stone, “Wow, baby bro finally getting—” he looks to the rock in hand, “—stones.”
He laughs and it feels real. I laugh too, “Yeah, she’d flip.” And I knew he wouldn’t tell.
Mom’s voice interrupts the slap of rock on water. I jump, so did Jamie. We each throw one more stone, a final act of rebellion. Mine makes it further, but Jamie thinks he’s won. I want to argue, but Mom’s red-faced and has Dad on the phone. We race inside and get some lectures; I try to take the blame. She ignores me. She calls some doctor.
And the days go on like this, eventually they shift to weeks. Mom breathes easier despite the still precarious veil of peace. Jamie’s cheeks start to get color, his eyes less dull. He got in trouble for petting the neighborhood stray dog. Apparently, it was against the rules. There was a big row about that but when everyone came down for dinner and nothing else was said on the matter. Blissful and ever-shifting peace.
My jaw tightens when I find Dad’s signature glass in the morning. I have a headache, it’s like I was the one filling my guts with the whiskey. Mom goes to fetch me Advil. I hope we have the chewable tablets even though I’m not really kid-size anymore. They’re grape and feel like chalk in my mouth. I throw in a cough for good measure. Jamie squints at me.
Mom hands me a glass of water, no pill though.
“We’re out.” Her face is pale. She stands across the kitchen island from Jamie. She’s tapping frantically on her phone, her red nails clicking over and over and over. Jamie rolls his eyes and hops over the back of the couch and flips on the TV. We watch him watch cartoons, neither Mom nor I are willing to pull our eyes from the back of his head.
My parents argue again that night. No surprise considering family dinner was a success, there needed to be some element of drama. I know it’s about the missing pills. I’m sure Jamie knows too, I think I can hear his breath hitch and catch through the walls. Mom’s voice is shaking, and Dad’s is slurred. They think they are being quiet. All parents think they can do that.
“The medicine cabinet was a mess, stuff missing, things rearranged. I know he has some pill.” Mom’s voice threatened to break into a shriek.
“You need to calm down, we’ll send the boys out and search his room, we’ll find them.” “What if he takes them?” she asks. She sounded almost excited for the hunt. I know she’s searching for a reason to send Jamie away again.
“He won’t, too smart for that.” He lets out a long sigh and I swear the alcohol fumes float from his mouth and into my nose again. Maybe Jamie smells it, maybe he can feel its power work too.
“But my oxy,” Mom cuts in.
“There’s nothing we can do right now. We just have to wait it out.”
We all know Dad wouldn’t mind Jamie taking the pills, he’s probably pictured what it would be like to shove a handful down his first born’s throat and end it all. It is the same relief he chases from the bottle. I can almost taste the grape Advil on my lips.
“We should check the knives,” Mom says, “maybe the forks too, oh God what else could he have taken? What else does he have stashed?”
The knife drawer had a lock on it, and I hear them get it open. The clanking of silverware and the slamming of drawers comes next.
Mom’s voice shakes in an inaudible cry. My stomach drops. Jamie, who had been grunting out another series of push-ups, pauses too. “We’re missing a steak knife. The big one.” The last bit comes out a sob.
A chill races through the house. A frigid breeze squeezes my lungs. They feel it too. Four separate bodies under one roof, each unable to breathe.
They march down the hall, a united front, sort of, one soldier wobbles in his boots, the other quakes. The commotion next door would have woken me regardless. They search his room, strip it all down. The screams of fear and rage mix into a cocktail to rival Dad’s tumblers of whiskey. I decide to cry. I cry out my rage, I cry out my frustrations, and finally, a soldier comes knocking.
“Mom,” I whisper, “it was me, it was me.”
She gives me a blank face; I squeeze out a tear. My lip trembles. “It was me, the knife.” I jump at the sound of Jamie’s door handle turning. I bring Mom to my bed and lift the pillow. The long serrated knife glints in the light. It is still warm from where my head was pressed against it.
“Why do you have this?” Mom’s face was a look of anger and fear, horror, and something else.
“I was scared,” I whispered, I could hear Dad talking with Jamie, keeping him in his room, both of their words slurred I think.
“You were scared?” Mom shakes my shoulders a little, breaking my stare at the door and forcing me to look in her eyes.
I nod. “After what happened last time, I just wanted it—you know, in case.” Another tear falls. I let it slide down my cheek, my hand twitches and eventually I can’t resist it and wipe it away.
She blows out her breath. She smells like whiskey too. And lemons. She pats me on the shoulder, and I melt into her, she hugs me fiercely and whispers in my ear, “You can’t be doing that, if you are scared, you need to let me know.” I can’t remember the last time she touched me.
She squeezes me again, taking the knife with her. I heard the mumbled exchanges and Jamie stepped out into the hallway; he gave me a glare. I shrugged and he did too, he even nodded. Whatever that meant.
The next night was Dad’s turn to scream. “Honey, we have a problem.”
Mom’s feet pound the floor as she raced to the kitchen. A woman already frantically trying to put out the flame of another crisis. It was after dark and I had already heard that familiar click of the cabinet.
“What is that? In the bottom there?”
“Sand? Powder? What is it?”
“I don’t know, that’s why I called you.” Dad’s voice was shaky, it was never shaky. He was never shaky. I wonder what it felt like to be a lion scared of a twig. He’s more of a housecat I suppose.
The wannabe lion stomped to Jamie’s room. “What did you put in my drink, in the bottle?” I imagined him shaking Jamie by the shoulders in his bed, Jamie would have pretended to be asleep, of course. I would have too.
“I didn’t do anything,” Jamie said. His voice didn’t sound the least bit tired.
“Bullshit, what did you put in the whiskey?”
Mom’s whispers broke the rising tension between lion and monster.
“What is it?” Dad asked.
I cracked my door. Dad’s eyes were wide, Jamie’s matched his look of shock.
“I can’t do this anymore.” Dad said.
“What is that smell?” Mom asked. Something tugged at the corner of her mouth and I found myself reaching for the knife under my pillow, forgetting it was gone until my hand found nothing.
“You know I have allergies.” Dad sniffed loud, as if that was enough to explain his blocked sinuses, maybe its blocked part of his brain too.
I retreat to my closet, I finger the much thinner sack of bills, just a few dollars now, the biggest bill a five. The feeling of letting the hundred go made my eyes well up, I had the most memories attached to that one. I let the bills and box now empty of its jewelry burn the tips of my fingers.
“I asked you to check his room. What is it, Jamie? What did you do?”
“I didn’t do anything!”
Dad barreled past Jamie, searching his closet, under the bed too. “Oh my God,” Dad wailed.
A banshee screamed, it was Jamie, “I swear it wasn’t me! I was going to get rid of it!”
“Is that the stray dog? Oh my god, the cat.” Mom wailed, “Not again.”
“Don’t come in. It’s dead. I don’t know how long. It’s partially skinned. Oh God,” Dad wretched, “did we interrupt your playtime with this animal? Go call the facility. Now.”
And then they left, leaving me alone in that house with that rotting cat. I wandered over to it, breathing in that awful scent of rotting flesh. The top half was skinned, the fur matted in dried blood. I kick it with my bare foot.
I find the little camera I hid on Jamie’s desk, it pointed at his door. That one cost me 238 dollars, and one of my favorite memories, the time I swiped a twenty from a homeless man.
I trot down the hall, the smell of the decaying cat finally clearing from my nose. I grab Dad’s hidden keys, pull a stool from the kitchen island, and open the liquor cabinet. I let that click hit my ears and reach around in the back, ripping the camera taped to the top. That one cost all the jewelry. Even that necklace from that redhead from the park.
I lay on Jamie’s bed, it feels right to do it here, surrounded by his soft baby blanket and rotting cat. I play the videos, their content sent straight to an app on my secret phone. I ignore the stench of the rotting animal and instead watch as crushed pills were poured and mixed into Dad’s bottles. Every single one. The screen is blank for a long while, Jamie entering and exiting his room. He used to sneak out too. I never heard him; I wonder where he went. Then the cat comes in, already dead, and skinned. There was always trouble with the arms and legs. The last cat looked like that too. I still smell the pee that seemed into Jamie’s mattress.
I call the number, “I have the evidence you need.” And the cops finally pick up my mother.
“Munchhausen by proxy,” some social worker says. Dad doesn’t believe it, of course he wouldn’t. I know he dreams of shoving oxycontin down Jamie’s throat. We all know Mom will come back home at some point, new pills in hand, the precarious veil of peace a shadow on our lives. At least I get my brother back, for a time. My fingers burn, and I search for an earring to steal.