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Dean’s tantrums were seasonal typhoons. We could predict when his rage would come, but when he unleashed his seven-year-old’s vengeance upon us, there wasn’t much we could prepare for, and even less we could do to stem the tides of his screaming and flinging.
It was all about winning or losing. Either we threw up our weapons in despair, or the weather calmed as suddenly as it had begun.
Anna and I crept toward the havoc of markers whose caps had long deserted them; bowls of lukewarm ice cream destined for the drain; the lonely heads of dolls without their bodies; and at the center of this mayhem, Dean, our monster of a little brother.
“Dean, Mom is on a trip. It’s part of her job.”
“Dean, you don’t need Mom anymore. You’re seven now.”
Ten years ago, I was seven too, and Anna was six. After making three bowls of cereal—one for Anna, one for me, one for Mom—I would run into Mom’s room. If she was still in bed, I would wake Anna for breakfast and catch the school bus. If the bed was made, the extra cornflakes would go back in the box, the third bowl rinsed and dried, and a phone call made to Dad. Yes, Mom isn’t here. No, she didn’t leave a note. Yes, the bus is here. Bye Dad, love you, see you later. And ten years later, things were no different, except now I was old enough to make hard-boiled eggs. I remember rolling out of bed three months ago and stopping by her room to find folded sheets and stacked pillows.
“Dean, don’t worry about Mom. She’ll be back.”
“Dean, you’re too old for tantrums. Grow up.”
This last assertion inspired a spark of indignant defiance, and sent him sprawling face first, beating his tiny fists into the carpet.
“Dean, Dean,” Anna said, inching her way toward him. She grabbed the porcelain bowl which held a pyramid of sugar cubes. Imminent defeat: if she couldn’t calm Dean, she would have to feed him.
* * * * *
“You can’t feed him carrots and hard-boiled eggs, Rex. He’s only seven.”
So Dean sat at the head of the table, spooning the sugar cubes into his mouth and waiting for us to discipline him
“I’ll handle it,” Dad had said.
Dad, we had told him. Dean—no one understands him better than we do.
“I’m the parent here,” he had responded and immediately launched into his campaign to pacify Dean.
"I just called Mom," he boomed, amplifying authority that would disappear as quickly as he had harnessed it. He strained his neck to look up at Dean, who had shot up to his feet. "She’s in China right now and wants you all to get good grades—"
First mistake: Mom could have cared less about school. There had been the time when I failed to show up to several examinations at the end of the seventh grade. The teacher had threatened to contact my guardians, to which I demonstrated no reaction. On arriving home, I had seen the calendar newly marked with scribbles, legible only to Mom. The appointment date came and went, with not a word spoken of my misbehavior. Anna, who had struggled even in the fourth grade, had given up altogether in middle school. And Dean?
“—Mom is getting you presents at the airport in China.”
“I thought China was make-believe,” was his response.
Could anyone blame him? He had attended kindergarten for a total seventy-two days; that is, on the seventy-two days Mom was gone. The rest of his time was probably spent keeping Mom company in cafes and causing havoc when she left him unattended in search of shoes for her collection.
“No, sweetie, China is real.” Dad sat down and unfolded his napkin. “Sit down and eat your sugar cubes, Dean.”
Dean stared at Dad, perplexed. He lowered himself into a squat only to straighten back up. The chair wobbled. “Why didn’t she want to talk to me? When will she back?”
“Dean, please lower your voice.”
Dean bellowed, “Why can’t I call her?”
“She promised to talk to you next time. Dean, I need you to sit down.”
“But she said that last time!”
Dad slammed his fist down on the table. “Dean!”
The bowl of sugar cubes hurtled in Dad’s direction, and Dean’s chair was empty. The slam of his bedroom door was all we heard from him.
“Dad,” I said, “just leave him alone.”
The scarlet dissolved from his face, and he retreated to his study, where he stayed the rest of the night.
Only the fittest survive in this household.
* * * * *
At 8 PM, Dad was still in his study, and Dean was dozing on the sofa, an assortment of broken toys orbiting him.
“You know,” Anna whispered as she stroked Dean’s bird’s nest of hair. “He’s like an angel when he sleeps.”
I turned away. “All children look sweet when they sleep.”
“Look at him—he’s just a baby. You expect too much out of him, and too much out of yourself. Just give him space, and we’ll hold tight till Mom is home.”
“Mom will never be home.”
She cradled Dean on her lap, as if protecting him from the thought. “If Mom were here, she’d just want him to be happy. So what if he eats more sugar than carrots? So what if—”
I stood up. “You want Dean to grow up like Mom? He’s more spoiled than either of us, and if we let this nonsense go on any further, he’ll be king of the house. You said he’s just a baby, but you’re wrong. He’s a Napoleon, and he’s making a battlefield of our home.”
Anna frowned, Dean still in her arms. “Rex, we’re talking about tantrums, not war.”
“No, but it’s essentially war.”
Even Napoleon Bonaparte lost wars. And after that, he spent the rest of his life in prison.
* * * * *
“Anna? What happened?”
Remnants of childhood dolls were scattered across the floor, missing arms and legs, corpses of soldiers on the frontline. Amid the cotton explosion was Anna, gathering wisps of stuffing.
But among the most mangled of bodies was Anna’s beloved purple unicorn—only a macabre leftover. Its mane was a trail of fluff. The plastic eyes had been ripped out and the spiral horn hastily chopped off.
“Seven year olds. Not much you can do. Anyway—” Her words were drowned out by a crash from the bathroom. “—And it’s about time I threw them away.”
She swept the tattered pieces of her childhood into a trash bag.
“Anna, we’ll get you a new unicorn.”
Nine years ago, when Dean still hadn’t existed, our family had walked through a mall festooned with wreaths, bells, twinkling lights. We saw a small, pricey shop with dollhouses crafted in Sweden, alphabet blocks carved in Russia, and—sprawled in the middle of the display—a giant, stuffed unicorn sewn in England. Five-year-old Anna bolted behind the window and refused to leave without the unicorn, the only time she had exhibited such unabashed desire. So we pulled them both out of the display and piled into the van with Anna and her new companion. It was irreplaceable. Present at every tea party ever hosted by Anna, every battle my toy soldiers waged against her stuffed animals, every night when I had to tuck Anna in.
“Anna, we’ll get you a new unicorn. I promise.”
Another crash, and the offender flew down the hall.
“Dean!” I scrambled after him, ducking from flying toothbrushes and leaping over tipped chairs. “If you don’t stop in three—”
What would happen in three? What had happened in the past three months?
Dean crawled underneath the dining table. His face was pinned into a gruesome grin.
“Dean, this is not a game. Dean!”
He hopped up on a chair and hurled a tube of toothpaste in my direction.
Three. A mad dash for his feet, and a kick in the face.
Two. Pounding of feet, and pain.
I opened my eyes again. The door to the laundry room swung shut.
I dimmed the lights of the laundry room and locked the door. A rustling sound from behind the walls was all I needed to hear.
* * * * *
Operation Cake of Submission underwent a series of preparations. Anna and I mixed the batter, preheated the oven, and planted the cake in 350-degree heat before acknowledging Dean’s pleas for us to free him.
I unlocked the door, and a frenzied Dean tumbled out. His knee was gashed, streaks of blood on his leg. “Wash your knee and go to your room.”
“Are you making cake?” he asked . “If I wash my knee, will you give me cake?”
Anna stepped out, eager to make amends. “Maybe if you—”
“Hey Anna, grab me the spatula. It’s in the second drawer.”
Dean stormed into the kitchen, his face a medley of emotions—anger, confusion, eagerness. But not shame. “If I wash my knee and go to my room, can I have cake? With ice cream?”
“Anna, what kind of frosting do you want?”
Dean hopped up the first step. “Blue!”
“Rex, frosting is fattening.”
From the sixth step, he shouted, “I want blue frosting on my cake.”
“The cake isn’t for you. It’s for Anna.”
Dean raced back down, ready to fight for his dessert rights. “That’s not fair! What did Anna do?”
“Anna was kind. You wrecked her unicorn, and she could have gouged your eyes out, but she didn’t. She cleaned up for you, stood up for you, lost the toy she’s had since she was younger than you. Is that fair?”
He was the worst kind of child. Disgraced, and still unaware of his disgrace.
“You are a shame, you know? You know what that is? Remember when Mom and Dad got into a fight at T.G.I.F. and everyone was staring? And we had to leave the restaurant with everyone’s eyes on us?”
Dean had to know now.
“That’s shame. I don’t want you. Anna doesn’t want you. But you’re still our brother. And we can’t change that, even if we hate it.”
That evening, as we shared the sweet taste of victory, Dean was ever so quiet in his room.
* * * * *
The next several days were spent towering over Dean as he scrubbed tiles, wiped windows, and dusted shelves.
“Dean, your room is unspeakable.”
He had trembled beneath my disgust at the Legos decorating his carpet and the dirty laundry strung along the furniture. With utmost patience, I showed him the glory of labeled storage boxes and color-coded drawers, and the joy of living as a minimalist. Tubs of toys were donated to charity, and stacks of coloring books were tossed out for garbage collection. At the end of the day, his shelves were stacked with the indicated boxes, and I was proud to call his room a part of my house.
Dad and Anna rejoiced with me at the purging of Dean’s room, and that evening, we held a celebration and a showing of Toy Story 3. The days to follow were just as productive, if not more so. Dad had formally relinquished the title of “man of the house” to me, and Anna eagerly pitched in to make Dean a better citizen of the household.
On one morning that had begun especially blissfully, Dean was constructing a fortress of balled socks amid an immaculate living room that belonged in Home Living. Anna and I were moving pawns and chasing bishops, and Dad was flipping through the TV Guide, looking for Deadliest Catch. The phone rang twice.
“Hello?” Dad said. He rolled off the couch, bewildered, and turned off the television. “Honey?”
Her laughter—reckless, empty, unmistakable.
Dean and Anna lunged at the telephone. “Mommy?” Dean screamed, clawing for the receiver and forgetting all his hard-taught manners. “Mommy, are you in China?”
Anna and Dad huddled around Dean.
“New York? Did you get me a present? I miss you, why aren’t you here?”
All three of them bounced up and down like happy idiots. I focused on the chessboard—rook to D7—and knocked Anna’s queen off its square. No matter what Mom said, she’d never be here for us. How quickly they forget.
“We just cleaned the house. Where will you be tomorrow?”
They strained to hear her voice. Anything, anything to hear her voice!
“When will you be back? Can we call you?”
I ripped the phone out of Dean’s hands and out of the wall. The mood immediately shifted, and Dean shrieked a battle cry. He scrambled for ammunition of balled socks, but I seized his arm.
“Dean, Mom has her own life, we have to live ours.”
Anna snatched his other arm and yanked away from me. “What have you done? We need Mom! She was going to tell us when she would come back!”
“Do we want her back? Anna, I know it, you know it, everyone knows it. Mom is no one. We can operate just fine without her. We’re healthier, we’re happier, we’re functional!”
“By twelve, our clothes were in the dryer, and by one, we had swept the driveway—”
“I know what functional means, but this isn’t a factory, and this isn’t the military. This is a house, Rex.”
“We don’t need her.”
Anna bundled Dean in her arms and backed away from me. As if I were dangerous. Anna—the Brutus to my Julius Caesar.
“What is she in our little game of ‘house’? The ‘Mom’? I do the laundry. I make breakfast.”
Dean exploded into a muddle of snot and tears. “You’re not Mom!”
He was right. I was better.
* * * * *
Anna executed Plan Sugar Cubes; she and Dad complied with Dean’s wishes, and were sucked into a never-ending schedule of Twister and War. I couldn’t bear watching him spill popcorn, oblivious to the mess, so I exiled myself to the sanctuary of my room.
And now, Dean was once again the sole dictator of the house, with Anna as his right hand man.
“Dean, want to watch a movie now?”
“How about pizza, would you like that?”
She was just like Mom. Her actions without the burden of consequence, her words without the weight of reality.
“Dean, it’s getting late. How about a bedtime story? Let’s brush our teeth, okay?”
But Anna had control, and she was selfless in a way that Mom was selfish.
“Once upon a time, there were three bears: Papa Bear, Mama Bear, and Baby Bear…”
While Mom spoiled Dean to no abandon before disappearing on her own whims, Anna rushed to Dean’s needs and loved both Mom and Dean with a certain foolishness drawn from innocence.
Anna was better than Mom. With all her weaknesses, Anna was still stronger than Mom. She was responsible, that was why, and Mom was not. To Anna, Dean was a whole world to be cared for. To Mom, Dean was an object of affection.
“…And Goldilocks said, ‘This chair is just right!’…”
* * * * *
I scrambled down the stairs, still groggy from sleep, but with the resolve to apologize to Anna and swear my loyalty to her pure intentions.
The smell of burnt waffles pervaded the house—Dean couldn’t even fill a bowl with cereal properly to begin with. Making waffles seemed too big of an obstacle for him.
At the base of the steps, I saw, with a bit of disgust, Dean perched on his chair in the kitchen, a cheery grin carved into his face. Indeed, a pile of burnt waffles, mere smudges of charcoal in a spotless kitchen, lured him in from a clean, white plate. He grabbed a pitcher of syrup and drowned his waffles in viscous sweetness.
This was all too much. Someone had to stop him.
But I shrunk back as a silhouette—Anna—danced out from the corner of the kitchen and swept another plate of charred waffles in front of Dean. She set an overflowing glass of orange juice next to the plate. Juice cascaded down edge of the glass, stranding bits of pulp behind. Dean beamed at her and daintily chewed the soggy waffles. A trail of syrup dripped onto the counter, only for Dean to wipe up carefully with a square of napkin.
Anna certainly knew what she was doing, teaching Dean manners in just a fortnight
“Anna,” I rushed over to apologize to—
“Rex, join us!”
—not Anna. The voice was not Anna’s.
She heard the jab in my reaction, and didn’t answer.
“Did you have a good trip?”
She smiled faintly and ushered me to a seat between hers and Anna’s. She offered a single hard-boiled egg to me. Overcooked, no doubt.
“Would you like tea?” she asked. “I peeled the egg for you. Or did you want waffles, or toast?”
You’ll ruin it, I wanted to say, like you ruin this house.
But instead, I shook my head and bit into the egg. Predictable: it was the texture and taste of rubber. Anna and Dean, appeased by my lack of aggression, began chattering—“Mom, I’m so glad you’re back,” “Mom, I’ve missed you,” “Mom, we love you.”
Their babbling drifted by me. Mom took her seat next to me and answered their murmurs over my head. “It’s good to be home.”
Good to be home: just words to her. I stole out of my seat, hard-boiled egg in hand, and upstairs to my room. I slid the window open just a crack and tossed the egg out the window.
I waited for the thunk, for the sound of it hitting the cement, her car, the lawn, anything. But everything was drowned out by the laughter downstairs.