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I sat down on my bed and pulled the sleeves of my sweatshirt over my hands, clenching my fists until I was sure my knuckles were turning white. The bed sagged down as Lauren sat. She pulled her legs to her chest and rested her chin on her knees. She could’ve said something, but she didn’t. She always told me that she knew exactly how I felt just by looking at me. I guess that’s what happens when you’ve been friends with someone for ten years.
I didn’t look at her, even though I knew she was looking at me, begging with her eyes for me to say something, anything. But, I didn’t. I couldn’t turn to look at her, and I definitely couldn’t say anything. Even if I wanted to, the words weren’t going to come out. They just got stuck in my throat. She scooted closer to me. “Hey,” she said softly. “Are you going to be okay?”
I shrugged my shoulders. “Aren’t I always?” I asked. It wasn’t that I was always okay, or that I always ended up just fine. I just knew how to hold it in. I knew how to keep everything to myself, so that nobody would know, so that nobody would even question if I was okay or not.
She gave me a half-smile. “Yeah, but this is different.” I didn’t say anything else. I decided to instead curl into a ball on the bed, squeezing my eyes closed as tightly as I could, until my head hurt. I could hear the TV going in the living room. It was late. My mom was probably still sitting in front of it, in my dad’s old button down T-shirt, a glass of wine in her hand.
I began to wonder when she would stop wearing that shirt. It didn’t smell like him anymore. She probably didn’t notice. It smelled like her now, because I’d washed it in an attempt to get her to stop wearing it.
My room was dark, the only light was the streetlight lighting the road outside my window, and the dim glow of my digital clock. I opened my eyes and stared at it, watching the number change until Lauren finally touched my arm. She lay down next to me. “What do you say we get out of here?” she asked.
I turned around so I was on my back, staring up at the ceiling. “What?”
“I mean, we could leave,” she said. She pushed her hair off her face and turned her head so she was staring into my eyes. “I think you need to get away.”
“I can’t leave,” I said, barely audible. I wanted to leave. I wanted to be away from all of this, but there were things holding me back.
“It’s Jacob, isn’t it?” Lauren asked of my little brother. She was right. He was the one keeping me here. He needed me. Mom was incompetent. She couldn’t possibly care for him in the state she was in. I had to be there for him, because if I didn’t, it’d haunt me for the rest of my life. He was the one person I couldn’t let down. I nodded in response to her question. “He’ll be fine,” she assured me. “He wants you to be happy. We wouldn’t be gone more than two days. I just…I miss you being happy.”
To be honest, I knew that I two day trip away from here wouldn’t really fix anything. It was an escape route. That’s all it was. “I don’t know,” I said. “Where would we even go?”
“We could just drive. Wherever you want.” She took a deep breath. “It could be fun. I know this whole thing has been so hard for you. You just need to forget for awhile. Walk away for a bit. Or in this case, drive.” She smiled. I tried to return it, but it turned out looking like more of a grimace. She stood up and held out her hand. I grabbed it and she pulled me up. “Please? Just do this for me.”
“I can’t leave Jacob, Lauren.”
She rolled her eyes, which kind of hurt. She didn’t understand. She didn’t have any siblings. I know she didn’t mean it though. “Listen to me.” She grabbed my shoulders. “He’s fine. I promise.” She let go of me and walked over to my closet. She grabbed a duffel bag and began filling it with clothes. “I just want you to feel better.”
I understood that Lauren was trying to be supportive. She knew me inside and out. Just the way she looked at me, I could tell what she wanted from a look. Once she finished she turned around, slinging the bag over her shoulder. “Are you in?” she asked me, begging with her eyes once again.
I crossed my arms over my chest and took a deep breath, thinking about it for a moment longer. Then, I nodded. “Yeah, okay. Just let me talk to Jacob first. I’ve got to make sure he’s okay.”
“Okay.” She dropped the bag and sat down on my bed. I left my room and walked slowly down the hallway, approaching my little brother’s door. I knocked softly, but got no response. When I opened the door, I saw he was sleeping, his hand curled under his cheek and his breathing soft and even. I kneeled down next to his bed and shook him gently. His eyes fluttered open, and he propped himself up on his elbow.
“Hey kiddo,” I whispered. “I have to talk to you.” He nodded, probably too tired to say anything. “I’m gonna go with Lauren for a day or two. Do you think you’ll be able to hold down the fort?” He sat up more, crossing his legs. I got up and sat down beside him, pulling him against me so he was leaning on me. “Jake, talk to me.”
“Mom’s too upset,” he said. “She’ll forget I’m even here.” He was straining his voice, obviously struggling hard not to cry. He never really liked to show emotion, especially not in front of me.
“No, she won’t. I won’t even be gone long. You’ll hardly have time to realize that I’m not here.” I heard him sniffling but I pretended not to notice. I pushed his hair off his forehead and took a deep breath. I didn’t want to leave Jake. If I could’ve, I would’ve brought him with me. But, this was for me. The trip was for me. Jake would be fine. Lauren believed that it was me who wasn’t fine. “I love you, Jake. I promise. You’ll be okay.”
He sighed. “Yeah, I know.” He pulled away from me and crossed his legs. “So you should probably get going then, right?”
I nodded. “Yeah,” I said. “I probably should.” I stood up and turned to face him, holding my arms out. “Are you going to say goodbye the right way?” He just stared at me a moment, but I kept my arms out. He then stood up and walked into them. I held him tightly against me, resting my chin on the top of his head. “Don’t forget how much I love you.”
“I promise I won’t,” he whispered. I felt a tear begin to fall down my cheek but I quickly brushed it away. I couldn’t show weakness in front of Jacob. I was supposed to be the strong one. “I’ll call you, and you can call me if you need anything. Got it?”
He stepped away from me and nodded. “Got it.”
“Alright, now go back to bed.” I headed towards the door and watched to make sure he was back in bed before I left. I stepped out of the room and went back down the hallway and into my own. When I got inside I closed the door and leaned against it, letting the tears I held back fall down my cheeks.
“He’s going to be okay, Sam. I promise you that.” Lauren got up off my bed and came over to me. She pulled her sleeve over her and gently brushed the tears off my cheeks. “Let’s go.” She grabbed my bag and handed it to me. I slung it over my shoulders and followed her out of my room and downstairs. The blue of the TV illuminated the living room, where my mom still sat. A bottle of wine was left on the coffee table, and she still had a glass in her hand.
She turned her head to look at us when we walked in. Her eyes were bloodshot, and she was still wearing dad’s shirt. Her hair was up in a bun on the top of her head, messy and in need of a wash. She noticed the bags we were carrying and frowned. “Where are you going?”
I was hoping she’d be asleep, so I could avoid arguing. I always seemed to be arguing with her. The arguments never went anywhere though. I’d say something I’d regret, and she’d break down in tears to make me feel guilty. Nobody ever really won. “I’m going with Lauren for a day or two,” I told her, staring down at the ground so I couldn’t see the look of anger her eyes probably held.
“You can’t just leave,” she slurred. “You have to stay with us.” She meant that I needed to take care of everything. Mom hadn’t been able to leave the house much. I couldn’t even remember the last time she went out. She stayed in the house where the memories of Dad were stored. She couldn’t bear the idea of going out into the world, to places where he wasn’t.
“Mom, it won’t be long,” I looked up. The light flickered on her face. “You can call me if you need something. I—“
She cut me off. “No. You’re not going anywhere.” I looked back at Lauren who just looked away. I bit my lip and turned back to my mother, who was still staring at me intently.
“Well I have to. I already talked to Jake. He’s fine.” The bag was starting to get heavy and I wanted to avoid this stupid argument. I didn’t want to leave having said something that I’d regret. “What am I supposed to do while you’re gone?” she snapped.
“I don’t know,” I said, trying hard not to sound angry, but the fact that I was saying it through gritted teeth made it impossible. “Be a parent? Work? I don’t know. You figure it out.”
“Don’t talk to me like that.” She reached forward and grabbed the wine bottle off the table, then refilled her glass. I heard Lauren sigh behind me. I knew I had to get out of here. I knew I had to finish this.
“Don’t you think you’ve had enough?” I asked her as she took a sip of the wine.
“Just go back in your room,” she said.
“No, I’m leaving.”
“If you walk out that door I swear to God…” She was beginning to stand up now. I had to cringe at how skinny she was getting. You could see so many of her veins in her legs. It made me want to cry, how much she had changed. The light of the TV illuminated her skin, that was so pale it seemed translucent. I kept a straight face, and grabbed Lauren’s arm, dragging her towards the door with me.
Just as I began to open the door I heard a crash behind me. I turned around sharply and saw red liquid spilling down the wall onto the carpet, tainting it dark, the color of blood. I looked up at my mom, who stared back at me, wide-eyed. “Don’t leave,” she whispered. She looked like a child, shaking and scared. I just didn’t have any sympathy left in me. She’d left me alone so many times after dad died. “What am I supposed to do?”
“I don’t know, Mom,” I said softly. “Why don’t you just keep locking yourself in your damn house?” I grabbed Lauren’s wrist again and pulled her outside into the cold, shutting the door behind me.
I let go of Lauren’s hand and stormed towards her car without saying anything. I threw my bag into the back seat and got into the passenger’s seat. She got in beside me and started the car, blasting the heat. We remained silent as she pulled out of the driveway and began driving out of my neighborhood.
Lauren turns on the radio, some song that neither of us knows. Usually Laurens plays a CD with songs we both know, so we can sing along. But, she knew that it wasn’t the time to feel happy. I didn’t like the thought of only permitting Lauren to feel sorry for me, but I couldn’t pretend to be happy if I tried.
We stayed silent for a few minutes, until Lauren said, “Don’t let her get to you.”
I looked over at her and she continued to stare straight ahead at the road. I looked away and leaned my head against the cool glass of the window. “I’m not,” I said softly. She reached over and squeezed my shoulder. “Can we just not talk about her?”
“Yeah, we won’t talk about her,” she replied. I nodded and went back to staring out the window in silence. I felt sick to my stomach at the thought of what my mother could be doing back at home. I wasn’t worried about Jacob, because I knew she’d never take her anger out on him. He’d stay asleep in his room until morning. My mom, though, was impulsive. There was no telling what she was capable. The scariest part of it was that people always told me I was just like her.
I felt myself getting tired. My eyes felt heavy, and staring at the orange illuminated clock in Lauren’s car wasn’t making me feel any more awake. She had ceased trying to talk to me, figuring that if I had anything to say I’d say it. I tried to pull my knees up to my chest on the small leather seat, and managed to find a small bit of comfort. I felt Lauren reach over and tuck a piece of my hair behind my ear. It was something she commonly did, and it made me feel a little better. I drifted off to sleep, as the streetlights flashed across the moon roof, signifying how far we’d gone from trouble.
When I woke up, it was darker than before. I sat up and tried to relieve the pain from my neck by moving it from side to side. I stared out the front window, watching cars approach, the bright headlights burning my eyes. “Feeling better?” Lauren asked. From the glow of the street lights I could see that she looked extremely tired, with purple bags under her eyes.
“Yeah,” I said, my voice cracking as if I hadn’t used it in years.
“Good, I think I’m going to stop for gas up here.” I looked ahead and saw a sign for a gas station. I settled back in my seat and took a few deep breaths, trying not to think about what was going on back at home. “We’re almost to where I wanted to go.”
“I didn’t know you had a plan.”
“I didn’t either. I thought of it while you were sleeping.” She looked over at me and smiled weakly. I felt bad for being such a burden. She must’ve been exhausted. She would never show it though. She always told me she’d do anything for me, and I knew she meant it. I didn’t know if it was selfish for me to take advantage of the fact that’d she’d never leave, or if I was just lucky to have someone who would always be there.
We pulled into the parking lot of the gas station and I unbuckled my seat belt. “Wanna go get some food? I’m gonna fill ‘er up.” I nodded and tried to smile at her. She returned it and we both got out of the car. As I got out of the car my knees cracked. Every joint in my body had a dull ache that wouldn’t seem to go away. I pulled my hood over my head and pulled my sweatshirt closer around my body. I trudged up to the gas station and walked inside.
The fluorescent lights made my eyes and head hurt. I glanced over and the man at the counter smiles at me. He was kind of pudgy, and his hair was greasy. Acne still marked his face, but I didn’t think he was a teenager. He looked much older. It wasn’t exactly a friendly smile, but I returned it nonetheless.
.I started walking down the candy isle, tracing my fingers over the wrappers of the candy bars. I felt my phone vibrate and slid it out of my pocket.
My mom’s name flashed across the screen, and my stomach dropped. I bit my lip and held the phone up to my ear. “Hello?” I probably shouldn’t have answered, but the thought of what she could do if she worried too much scared me into it.
“Please just come home, baby. I’m so sorry.” I could hear in her voice that she’d been crying and that made me feel even worse about myself.
“Mom, I’m going to be home soon,” I said softly, grabbing a candy bar off the shelf. I wasn’t hungry and the thought of eating it made me sick, but I was going to buy it anyways. I turned around saw Lauren walk in. She gave a half smile and approached me.
“I know, but I need to talk to you. I need—we need to stop this. This fighting, it’s tearing us apart.” I could barely hear her, because the reception wasn’t very good, but I knew exactly what she said. A tear welled up in my eye and I felt Lauren’s hand immediately come to my shoulder.
The buzzing of the store drilled into my mind making my headache worse, and I knew I had to get off the phone with her. “Mom, you need to stop. You do you and I’ll do me. I’ll see you later.” I hung up the phone and took a deep breath. My chest ached. Lauren grabbed some food off the shelf and led me to the counter where we paid. She didn’t say anything about my mom.
We got back into the car and back onto the road. The smell of chips immediately filled the air as Lauren dug into them. The leather seat was cold against me now, and I pulled my knees to my chest. “It’s only five minutes away,” Lauren told me. “I’m sorry for making you do this.”
“I’m glad to be away. Really.” She shrugged. I knew she didn’t believe me, but I really was grateful. Staying at home wouldn’t have done anything.
I didn’t realize where we were until we pulled into the drive. “Why did you take me here?” I said, panic in my voice. The trees lined the pathway, leaving space in the middle of the field for all the headstones. The cemetery. The cemetery where my father was buried. I shook my head back and forth. I hadn’t been here in months, because the last time that I had I’d broken down. I could bear the thought of my father being buried six feet under, with nothing but bugs to keep him company. “Lauren please…” I realized it sounded like I was whining. “I can’t be here. Don’t make me. Please.”
“It’ll help. I promise.” She parked and turned off the car. My hands were shaking and the tears were already pooling my eyes. “Sam, listen to me.” She turned awkwardly in her seat to face me. It was hard to see, but I could see her bright blue eyes piercing through the darkness. She took my hands in hers and gave them a squeeze. “I just want you to see…I want to talk to you. I want you to talk to him.”
I shook my head, trying to clear my throat. “I can’t.”
“Yes, you can.” She got out of the car and walked over to my side, then opened it. She pulled on my arm until I got out of the car and lead me through the grass. I didn’t look at any of the headstones as we passed, but I could see that Lauren was looking, investigating each one.
She stopped and turned to face one. My father’s. I looked down and stared at the letters engraved on the gray rock. I felt the tears begin spilling down my cheeks. I covered my mouth with my hands and tried to stop myself from crying. It was the worst kind of crying. When your lips tremble and the tears come fast and flow easy. I tried to suck it in and keep from making any noise, but it was impossible. It hurt too much, and I let out a yelp, and a cry came from loss of breath. It was terrible because not only was I crying out loud, I sounded dumb for not breathing too. It was such a mess. “I’m sorry. I can’t.” I say, even though it came out not sounding anything like that.
She touched my shoulder and pushed me down so I was kneeling in front of the gravestone. I reached over and ran my finger over the cool stone. She kneeled down next to me and tucked my hair behind my ears. “Your dad loved you. I could tell. I loved him, too. He was great.” I couldn’t stop crying. She rubbed my back, trying to calm me down. “I remember in second grade, I was having problems with my mom. I didn’t have a dad like you did. I wanted to run away and I asked you to go with me. You told your dad. You said that you needed to help me. You said we were going to run away.” I could tell she’s beginning to cry as well. “I remember we were standing there and he led us to the couch and we all sat down. Him in the middle. He put his arm around us and said, ‘Lauren, you know that you can stay here as long as you need. You’re my daughter, too. I would never want anything to happen you. Why don’t you stay the weekend? I can set up the pool. Besides, you could never survive out in the wilderness.” She laughed, but I knew she was upset. “Your dad was the most caring man I ever met.”
“He was amazing,” I whispered, staring at his name.
“I know, sweetheart,” she said. “I know. I brought you here because I wanted you to know that you’re not alone. I loved him, too. Everyone did. And he loved you. He loved you more than anybody else on this planet. You and Jacob.” She leaned her head on my shoulder, her arms around me. “You have to remember, Sam. This isn’t about you. This isn’t about your mom. It’s about your dad. He wouldn’t want it to be like this. You have to help your mom for him. You have to make it right for him. That’s why I took you here. I want you to talk to him. He’s the only one that could ever really talk you down. I know he can’t reply, but it might help to just talk, right? I just needed you to realize what really matters here. Your dad.”
“I’ll talk to him,” I said shakily. She was right. This wasn’t about me.
“Do you want me to leave?”
“No, stay.” Her arms didn’t move, but I felt her nod. I took a deep breath and stared at the gravestone like it was my dad himself. “Hi Dad,” I said softly, feeling slightly embarrassed. But I was comforted by the fact that Lauren was with me. “I know that I haven’t been here in awhile, but I think you’d understand. It’s just really hard.” I brushed away the tears and let Lauren’s heat radiate throughout my body. “Mom and I haven’t been getting along. I know she’s very vulnerable right now, but I am too. I wish she’d understand that. I’m not as strong as I always appear to be. I break down, too. I know she needs me to take care of Jake, but he’s her kid. He’s not mine.” I cleared my throat and lifted a shaky hand to my forehead. “I don’t know why I’m telling you this. But Lauren’s here with me, and she said it’d help. You always said she was the voice of reason.” I felt Lauren laugh against me.
“I know I can take care of Jake, but I need to take care of myself right now. I need Mom to be able to help herself, too.” I stifled a sob and tried to continue. “I just need you, and I need Mom to be okay. I always said that I could live without you, and I really just didn’t want to have to. And now I do. I know what I have to do. I have to make things right? I thought I could live without you. I know I can. I think that if I can makes thing right, I’d make you proud. That’s all I ever really wanted.”
I couldn’t take it anymore and I broke down. I buried my head in my arms and let Lauren rub my back and run her fingers through my hair. “He heard you, Sam. I promise you he did.” I knew he did, too. I knew that my dad heard me because he was the only one who ever seemed to really listen. The only one that ever seemed to really hear.
“I love you,” I whispered. To Lauren, and to my dad. To my mom, and to Jacob. I wanted everyone to know how much that I cared. How much I wanted to make things right. I looked up into Lauren’s eyes. “I have to go back, Lauren. I have to fix things.”
“That’s what I wanted to do,” she said, again tucking my hair behind me ear. “I knew he would give you the power to do it.” We stood up and she hugged me close to her. As we walked back towards the car, I knew it would be okay. I knew that I could fix things, and I knew that I’d survive.
My dad taught me that. He taught me how to survive. The most important people in our lives will always leave footprints on your heart. He’s not here to hug me, or to let me lean on him when I can’t sit up on my own. But, he’s everywhere else. He’s in my heart. He’s helped form me. I couldn’t forget that if I tried.
As we drove towards home, I kept the thought of my father alive in my heart. In my head. I knew that with him watching over me, there was nothing I couldn’t do. If I could convince my mom that he was here with us, maybe we’d both be okay. I believed we could make it through it, and I wouldn’t let that sense of hope go. Ever.