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It took several tries of hitting his side table before Joel found the off button. Seven o’clock kept feeling earlier and earlier as his senior year dragged on, but he knew that no one else in the house gave a sh*t about what time he woke up or even if he graduated, so for now, this vexatious alarm clock would have to do. He peered out through groggy eyes, staring at the Beatles poster on his ceiling for a few seconds before emerging from the oasis of his bed. His feet landed on the floor with a thud as he reached down to grab the cleanest shirt in the room. Since his mom had been gone, laundry had just sat in piles around the house, waiting for responsibility to clean them. It seemed like life had just stopped, that the present was a dream and he could wake up and find his mom starting breakfast if he were to leave his room. She would be swaying around the kitchen with country music blaring; it always put her in a better mood in the morning. Dancing by the stove, she would smile at him as he emerged from his room. But he knew that the brain damage was far more serious than he’d hoped, serious enough to confine her to a nursing home.
His older brother Dean was already in the kitchen. “Are you the one that threw my wet laundry on the floor and stuck your own dirty sh*t in the wash?”
Joel smirked. “Yup.”
“What the hell is wrong with you?”
“Gotta get it done.”
“Yeah, when mine’s done. Not when it’s convenient for you.”
“Uh huh. I’m going to school,” Joel picked his backpack off the ground and headed towards the door.
“One day you’ll realize that other people live in this house, too.”
Joel considered this for a moment, but shrugged it off as he walked out the door.
For eight hours he moved from desk to desk, room to room, hearing lecture after lecture of things he believed were useless facts, facts he would never need in the real world. Eight hours of trudging on, knowing that all he had to come home to were selfish siblings and a cluttered house.
When he finally arrived at his doorstep, a grab for the handle drew a deep sigh from within him.
“What the hell… seriously?” he murmured, knowing that Dean had once again locked him out. Although there were three cars in the driveway, he knew pounding would draw no attention. Joel jumped from the porch and walked to the side window that lead into his room, unsurprised to see that he had once again left it unlocked. A small jump got him through the window and onto his bed, and one more leap set his feet on the floor. Oddly, he could hear voices coming from the hall. He pressed his right ear to the door, listening for familiarity. Dean was clearly speaking, and another soft voice, perhaps his younger sister Ally, was also in the room. But there was someone else, an older woman, a person he couldn’t make out.
Joel’s face cringed as the doors creak gave him away. Sure enough, Dean and Ally were sitting around the table. Something was wrong
“Joel,” Dean started, “I think we need to sit down and talk.”
Defensively, Joel crossed his arms but resumed his place at the table, scanning not one, but two unfamiliar faces. They carried solemn gazes, the woman with an overbearing nose and graying hair and the man with a large face, rounded and full. The man looked as if it were strange for him to carry such a somber expression. The woman reached to touch Joel’s arm, which he held tighter to his chest. She retracted quickly, touching her hand as if it had just been crushed.
“Son, this is of serious concern,” The old man said as he tried to keep Joel’s stare. His accent told Joel of his southern descent.
“Your mom, she’s not doing so well and I’m afraid that we just can’t care for her anymore at the rehabilitation center. You folks have insurance set up to cover only a little time period and, as of next week, that period is up. I’m sorry y’all have to find out this way, I wish that there was something more we could do…” he looked down at the table, a loss for words. The chair scratched against the floor as he moved around uncomfortably.
“We’re trying to figure out something we can do, Joel,” Dean added. “Trying to sit and brainstorm, get input from all of us.”
Joel looked over at Ally, her eyes welling up with tears but trying to keep a straight face. One brush of the back of her hand smeared the single tear ascending down her cheek.
“I think we should just ask Dad for help,” she said as she averted nervous eyes from Joel, “he’s got money, and we know he can get other people to help.”
Joel tried to keep his composure, but it was fading quickly. He could no longer keep still in this room; it was shrinking by the second; white walls encasing him in their blank misery, a wood floor tightening beneath his feet, the ceiling dropping inch by inch.
“What are we even talking about here, you’re just gonna kick her out?” his words sunk in and collided with those of his siblings. He knew he couldn’t take this much longer, but the man’s voice reminded him of his mom and convinced him to sit back and listen to this old man’s southern drawl.
“No, we’re trying not to see it like that, we’re seeing this as an opportunity to get your mom moving, to keep her on her feet, so to speak, and to get her closer to the point where she could come home with you,” the man said.
“She’s still in a bed at your nursing home! She can’t feed herself, walk, or grab the goddamn remote! Are you people out of your minds?” he was standing now, an outsider of their tightly knit circle.
“Sit down,” Dean said, “Try to take this seriously for once. You’re eighteen, try acting like it.”
Joel didn’t stay to hear the rest; he was out of that room, through the deserted kitchen, and out the door which slammed behind him. He couldn’t decide how to react; scream or kick or cry. He sat down in the middle of the driveway and just laid back to catch his breath. Inhale, exhale. Inhale, exhale. The pavement felt hot against his palms and the back of his head, but lying down was his only way of relaxing. His eyes seemed to blink in slow motion, the clouds above him halting their rotation so he could analyze the past five minutes without interruption. A car thundered down the street, shaking the earth beneath his back. Birds flew from branch to branch, their rhythmic chirping parallel to his breath. Footsteps faintly approached him, but he didn’t care to look up.
“It’s alright Joely, we’re gonna find a way to keep her safe,” Ally cooed.
“What do we have left to do Ally, we’ve been through hospitals and nursing homes and the time we can keep her there keeps getting shorter and shorter. We’re running out of options and she doesn’t have time for this.”
“Yeah I know but there’s not one easy answer.”
“It’s not fair that we’re even in this situation. We should have parents or family that can come in and help us with this, not some deadbeat dad and a mom that can’t even talk.”
“Well okay, you don’t think I understand that and think the same thing?”
“I don’t know, I just am tired of all this pressure on me.”
“On you! Joel, I’m younger than you and I have to deal with the same things. Seriously, the pressure is not all on you.”
“Exactly, you’re younger. You don’t hear it all, I do. And no one wants to help me fix it.”
“Look, we can’t just fix this. It’s gonna take time.”
“Do you think I’m stupid? I know that. I just can’t stand to sit here and do nothing.”
Ally sighed, frustrated with his responses. “Okay Joel, whatever you say. We all want to help, we all need to get out of this, and we do have a dad we can ask for help.”
“See, you just want to ask someone. You won’t do this with just me, you’re too scared.”
“Don’t be dumb. I’m trying to help.”
“Yeah and you already said you couldn’t do it on your own.”
“Alright, fine. Come get me when you’re done throwing your tantrum.”
Joel shot her a fierce look, picked himself off the pavement, and started to walk down the street to find another house where he could have comfort.
It wasn’t until an hour later that he returned, less angry but still empty of options. All but one: his dad. Being a police officer, his dad was very in tune with the community and Joel knew that he could easily help them out of this. But he had so much pent up aggression since his dad had been absent in his life until real terror stuck. A dad like that was worthless as far as Joel was concerned.
The front door opened with ease this time, and Joel took shelter in the abandoned computer chair. It was the one place where people didn’t have to know his real self, where he could pretend that all was light and cheerful. However, he only got a few peaceful minutes in before the front door’s handle turned.
“Hey little man!” his dad exclaimed, the usual unwanted greeting.
“What’s going on, Dad.”
“Never enough, trying to keep busy. You need to start doing the same, I’ve heard. Whatever happened to that job of yours?”
“I’ve still got it, just trying to get other stuff done, homework, yanno? Other things to worry about.”
“Well son, you better get back into the swing of things, gotta get that money.”
“Since when have you been interested in the family funds?” Joel said, finally turning to look his father in the eye.
“Now c’mon, you don’t need to push it, Joel. I’m just here for a quick checkup and to see how you’re doing.”
“Yeah, that’s all you’re ever here for,” Joel muttered beneath his breath.
“Excuse me, but I don’t need to put up with this teenage ‘I know everything’ attitude. You can at least show some respect to your old man while I’m standing right in front of you.”
“You would be more respected if you would have been around before the accident,” Joel replied more casually than he should have.
Silence struck the room. His dad stared at his shoelaces for a moment, turned up and opened his mouth to speak, but stopped himself.
“Alright, if that’s the way you want to be about things. I’ll see you later son,” and with that, he turned to walk out the door.
Joel knew he should have stopped him, apologized, said something. But he couldn’t; there wasn’t a bone in his body that didn’t feel proud of himself for finally releasing that tension. And although he spent the rest of the day lingering on the computer, his mind never stopped the contemplation of his ego versus his family’s needs.
It wasn’t until he lay in bed that night that Joel realized how complicated he was making things, because after all, people had been surrounding his family trying to give support. But people didn’t know how difficult it was to accept, that this family needed to keep its pride. This thought lingered, but then was replaced by uncertainty. Perhaps not only he, but his brother and sister needed to find a way to live on beyond this mess. And by no means was that giving up on their mom, but they needed to get through the next few weeks, at least. Take it slowly, day by day, moment by moment, and that is when his mind finally relaxed as he drifted off to sleep.
Without an alarm, Joel woke at noon on Saturday. He glanced around the room, pulled on some sweats, and headed out to the kitchen to pour himself cereal. Ally was already sitting at the table and her eyes seemed glued to her spoon.
“Heard you and Dad fight last night,” she said toward her cereal bowl. “You two got pretty loud.”
“Yeah, I figured. Sorry.”
“Think I should say that to him, too?”
Ally’s eyes perked up as she looked straight into his, her eyes still filled with the wonder and sparkle that their mom once had. “That’s the best thing I’ve heard come from your lips in weeks.”
Joel smirked at this comment and pulled a bowl from the cupboard. Before he joined her at the table, he strode over to the radio and turned it on. It was no surprise that it was already tuned in to a country station.
“Think you could get him to come over? I wanted to ask him if he could help us out with the financial stuff.”
“Yeah, sure,” Ally replied, “you’re not lying about this though, right? I mean, I know you’ve been pissed at dad, I am too, for the way he was before, so are you actually forgiving him?”
“I wouldn’t go that far, but, I mean, he is our dad. At least he’s here for us now.”
“I guess so. I’ll call him in a little while. Make sure you’re home.”
And with that, a pound was pushed off of Joel’s shoulders. By no means were all of his issues fixed, but this was one step in the right direction. At least now they had a better chance of getting the money to keep their mom where she can receive the help she needs when she needed it, something they themselves could not provide.
Ally scooted back from the table, lifted up her cereal bowl and put it in the sink before walking into the next room. She didn’t know, but Joel could hear her softly humming as she walked away. He was content alone with his thoughts, something he had not felt in a while. Just for this moment, he cherished the clarity of just a bowl of cereal in front of him.