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Here’s what happened in Chapter One:
Chapter Two is all about Jessica’s brother Stevie. Why did he leave her?
Stevie ran when he left us. He didn’t look back except to say to me, “Hang in there Jes, your time will come.” I watched his figure leave through the kitchen door, and saw his dark eyes and bitter face turn to me one last time, his hair hanging in front so I couldn’t see the whole Stevie. I wondered what would become of me. I didn’t get the chance to say to him, “Take me with you. I’ll go wherever you go.”
Something changed in Stevie as we grew. Like a slowly moving iceberg that’s broken away from land, it was a distinct separation from me and from Mom and Dad. And, it was permanent. As I got older and felt some of my own desire to break away, I still did not fully understand the fierceness with which he left me and Mom and the anger that had somehow built up in him until he exploded out of our house.
Stevie’s anger started with Dad, I think, for trying to make Stevie into something he wasn’t, but it took them both years before they knew Dad’s vision wasn’t going to happen. Maybe Dad saw a younger part of himself in Stevie and couldn’t help but think he could form his son to be the same. Tall and muscular, Dad was the ultimate athlete, always moving or posing in an assertion. His high school career boasted three letter sports and he could have played any one of those sports in college, he told us, but he made it clear to us that it was his choice. “I needed to concentrate on school,” he said, “so I could start making money for you guys.” But the way he talked about sports so much and how he’d sometimes say, “If I’d played football in college, the Eagles would have been after me come draft time,” it made me wonder if that was true or if my father felt safe bragging about something we could never confirm.
It didn’t matter much to me because Dad’s focus was on Stevie and I just watched. Make the boy into the man. Teach him how to throw and catch. Teach him how to compete. If Dad had looked a little closer, he might have noticed that I had a ball in my hand.
In the beginning, Stevie went along with Dad. They played in the back yard. Dad signed him up for teams. He played football, basketball, baseball. “Just like your old man,” Dad would say.
Stevie went along with the plan at first, but by the time he was in middle school, he started to withdraw. He didn’t want to do the same things anymore and Dad couldn’t find a way to connect with him. The harder Dad tried, the worse it got, until one day I heard him loading all the gloves, the bats, the footballs, the basketballs, the nets and cleats into the trunk of his car. He drove off with that gear in his trunk and came back acting as if nothing big had happened. I knew it had and I snuck out later and opened Dad’s trunk. When I saw the empty space, I knew I wouldn’t be using that bat or ball either. The magic link between father and son was broken, but there still wasn’t room for anyone else. I was still on the outside.
And then we all just moved on as if it didn’t matter.
By then, Stevie spent most of his time out of the house or up in his room. Dad worked more. If he couldn’t build his son into something, he would just build something else, by himself.
But he still postured himself and talked about his company’s softball league like it was the World Series or about his new passion, racquetball, a sport he told us was the perfect place to make business contacts. I was still a girl then and bought into what he said. I sat and listened to him talk and hoped he’d ask me about my softball team and how we were doing.
Once Dad left, Mom had to handle Stevie on her own. But Mom wasn’t assertive or a good fighter. Stevie knew it and he enjoyed going head-to-head with her. He knew he would win. They went days without talking after a blow-up and Stevie didn’t seem to care. He’d stand in the kitchen where Mom was making dinner and he’d jut out his chin and flip his long and scraggly hair out of his face when he looked at her. But it wasn’t to see her face. It was an act of aggression, a statement of war. He would watch her cook dinner and just when it was time to eat, he’d grab his keys and say he was going out. Mom couldn’t fight like that and she couldn’t pretend it didn’t bother her. I’d look at her and could see her face dropping, her eyes growing dark. Maybe she was lost in thought, but she did not know how to turn him around.
She tried to break him by refusing to cook for him. But Stevie didn’t break. He came banging home, challenging her with his noise, throwing his keys on the table. And he grabbed the things from the pantry like he owned them. He sat at the kitchen table and ate cereal and peanut butter sandwiches, eating quickly, staring across the table into an empty space, daring anyone to look at him or to speak. And then he bolted out of the house. Mom wanted him back in our fold so bad that she kept the pantry full of things he could grab, just like Stevie knew she would. And so the pattern formed. That’s how Stevie knew he had the upper hand.
Their arguments were always about control. “You can’t stay out all night, Stevie,” Mom would say. And Stevie would answer, with a disgusting snort, “Watch me.” With the naïve and false clarity of someone who didn’t understand the struggle was about more than a curfew, I wanted to say to Mom to just tell Stevie that if he stayed out late, she would take away his car keys. Mom argued weakly with a passive strategy that consistently handed away the victory and Stevie took it.
I felt empty and helpless during these times and jumped whenever Stevie raised his voice. I wanted Stevie to apologize to Mom for being so aggressive with her. How could he think that Mom, who was a foot shorter and had a tiny frame and who cowered when he was around, how could he think she could match what he had? I wanted to ask him that, in my wildest fantasy of talking about what was really going on in our family. But I knew the answer was that Stevie just wanted to crush someone with the force of an undefined anger and Mom was the perfect victim.
And I wanted Mom to see his side. Maybe she did remember that he was once a little boy with freckles and shaggy hair, who had only in the last few years begun to tower over Mom and me. Maybe he was still the same, but just in a different size and harder to reach. Maybe he had problems he didn’t talk about. I wanted Mom to consider these things. I wanted our small family to stay together. I didn’t think Mom was as mad as she was hurt and I didn’t think Stevie was as mad as he was misunderstood.
“You know Mom is buying that food in the pantry so you’ll have something to eat,” I told him one day.
“Yeah, so what?” Stevie answered, not looking at me, but listening, I hoped.
“Just that she’s doing it for you, Stevie.”
“Well, I didn’t ask her to do that and I don’t care either way, Jes. Stay out of it, okay?”
Sometimes I tried to talk to Mom. “I think Stevie likes that you’re putting food in the pantry. Maybe he wants to eat dinner with us tonight,” I said.
Mom’s face lifted at the suggestion and her blue eyes brightened and for a minute it looked like she was planning a dinner he might like. Then her face fell into sags. Maybe she was remembering the empty dinner tables before Dad left for good.
“No, that would mean I’m giving in to him and that’s not what I want to do.” I didn’t know how to break the pattern. I wanted Stevie with us. I was afraid of what was happening to our family.
And then he left for good and I was lonely for the brother I used to have, before he grew and broke from us. I wanted him to come in the door one more time to say, “Jes, I came back to get you. I forgot that you would want to come too.”
But Stevie never called and I hadn’t seen him since that first Christmas when he showed up. Maybe he came back then because he was homesick, but he was drunk and high when he blasted through the door. I was sitting in the kitchen and he said, “Hey Jes, kiddo,” like he had just seen me that morning. Mom came in the kitchen. “Stevie,” she croaked, emotions jumping out of nowhere.
For the six months Stevie had been gone Mom still made sure there was food for him in case he came back. And in the beginning she left his room the way it was, like he’d be right back. After he’d been gone a week, she changed the sheets and made up the bed, maybe hoping he’d know there were fresh sheets waiting for him.
She never talked to me about this change, never spoke Stevie’s name or acted like he had ever even lived here. I wanted her to explain to me why we were the only ones left in this house.
When Mom heard Stevie come in that Christmas, she walked into the kitchen and said, “Hello, Stephen. Are you home for Christmas?” And Stevie, pumped up with anger and pride, looked straight at Mom and, instead of saying, “Merry Christmas” all he said was, “I just came back for some of the stuff I left in my room.”
My stomach dropped because I, too had thought like Mom, that maybe Stevie was coming back to stay, even for a little while and that maybe we could somehow pull ourselves into a small group, even if it was without Dad.
But Stevie walked past me as I sat at the kitchen table, and towards Mom as she stood in the doorway. He had not said the right thing, but I still had hope. Instead, Stevie brushed right past her, half stumbling, half pushing, showing a force that was telling Mom to stay away. Fear passed over Mom’s face as she felt the violence of his movement past her. Stevie turned to look at her and saw her reach for the door frame to steady herself and he smirked at how easy it was to rankle her. He walked back through the living room and up the stairs and we listened while he banged his way around his room and stuffed things into a bag.
Stevie was gone fifteen minutes later and afterwards I wondered if he had even been there. I looked in his room and I saw a mess. He had pulled the covers off his bed and the sheets were thrown in a messy pile on the floor. The mattress was exposed in its hideous flowery pattern. It was bare and Stevie was gone. He ripped off those covers just to show Mom he didn’t care what she did to his room because it didn’t matter, he wasn’t coming back.
I went into Stevie’s room and I closed the door so Mom wouldn’t see and I took those sheets and covers and I made Stevie’s bed up just the way Mom had done. Maybe I hoped too that Stevie would come back. Or
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