March 18, 2017

Standard

Forever Changed

She never believed it would have happened to her. To anyone else, sure. To her neighbors. To her cousins. To her best friend, even. But never to her. Her parents’ marriage seemed perfect, something to aspire to, and then all of a sudden it had fallen apart. She didn’t know where it had come from. She hadn’t expected it. She hardly even believed it, yet here she stood, on the doorstep of her dad’s new house as she anxiously waited for him to answer. He had chosen to live in an unfamiliar neighborhood, and waiting alone in the dark made her nervous. If only her parents hadn’t decided that this was what would be best for everyone.

Finally, her dad opened the door and let her inside. Her younger siblings had arrived earlier than she had because she had an after school club meeting. They all seemed happy and fine. Like this was all a day in the life. They were sitting on the couch reading or at the table playing cards. No one seemed upset. No one seemed off. Everyone appeared comfortable, indifferent… normal.

Except for her.

One step into the new house, and she knew that things would never, ever be the same again. Her heart pounding in her tightened chest, she quietly excused herself to the bathroom, where she turned the shower on and sat on the floor to cry in peace, her knees tucked up to her chin, her arms hugging her legs to her chest, the tears falling silently onto her pants. This would be her new normal, and she hated it already. She didn’t want to live in two different houses, with two different sets of clothes and two different bedrooms. She didn’t want to have to tell her friends she would have to check with her parents to figure out who she would be with before asking if she could hang out with her friends. She didn’t want to celebrate Christmas and Easter and all the other major holidays twice. It took away from the magic and the joy and the familiarity. She didn’t want any of this.

When, months later, her mom asked her to babysit while she went out with friends, she gave the only answer she really could: yes. Back before the divorce, her dad would stay with them while her mom went out, playing games with them and watching movies with them, spending good, quality time with them. But now he couldn’t even properly parent them, or so she felt, because he lived halfway across town from them. Even though she didn’t want to babysit, even though she didn’t feel like she could handle the responsibility of watching her five younger siblings, she said yes because she didn’t want to disappoint her mom. It was the only answer she felt she could give. She would just have to suck it up and tackle the problem the same way she tackled every other problem, by scooting around it and hoping for the best.

Never did she expect what happened that night. Her mom had been out for a few hours. Her younger siblings were winding down, the youngest already half asleep on the couch in front of the blaring television. She herself started feeling tired, stifling her yawns, because she knew she couldn’t go to sleep until her siblings had gone to bed. As she sat in the front room, her eyes drooping as she read her book, a knock sounded on the front door. Sitting up straight, fully awake and alert now, she waited. She half hoped she was hearing things, but a second later the knock sounded again, this time louder and harsher. Slowly, she swung her legs out from underneath her and approached the front door. She peered through the peephole, which revealed a couple police officers standing on her front doorstep. Her heart jumped straight out of her chest as she pressed herself against the door, her mind racing at a mile a minute with anxiety after anxiety stepping into the light.

Another more urgent knock snapped her back to reality. With a deep breath, she opened the door. “Hello, officers,” she greeted them. Her mouth felt dry; she wished she had a glass of water handy. Willing her heart to stop pounding, she licked her lips before continuing, “How may I help you?”

“Theresa Williams?” the heavier set man asked, his voice deep and pleasant, soothing almost. She couldn’t find her voice to respond, so she merely nodded. “Are you the daughter of…” he looked at a name on his notepad. “Erin Williams?” If her heart had gone psychotic before, it completely died now. As a feeling of unreality settled over her, she nodded again. “Do you think we could come in?” The nods simply came without thought now. Her head felt like it was filled with cotton as she led the two officers inside and offered them seats at the kitchen table. “I think maybe you should be the one to take a seat, Theresa.”

Theresa dropped into the seat as heavily as her heart continued to do. For a moment, no one spoke. Fingering the tablecloth, Theresa asked, “Is something wrong with my mom?” She didn’t lift her eyes, couldn’t find the courage to. Even simply voicing her worries took more effort than she would have preferred. Her words came out soft and ragged, exactly how she felt as she held back tears for God knows what.

The two officers shared a brief look. “Theresa, I’m afraid that your mother was in an accident.” The air she sucked in didn’t make it past her throat, her lungs refusing to work. “She was taken to the hospital. She’s in poor condition. The doctors aren’t sure she’ll make it. Do you have anyone you can stay with?” Now that she had reason to cry, the tears didn’t come, but she simply nodded once again. “Why don’t you give them a call?”

Standing, Theresa felt her balance slip from underneath her feet as her world seemed to twist and turn, on the verge of falling apart. Hardly aware of what she was doing, she grabbed her phone from the coffee table where she had left it and dialed her dad’s phone number. It rang and rang, but no one answered. Hot, angry tears rose in her eyes, burning in her skull as she pounded the number in again and once again received no response. For the third time, she pressed the numbers, carefully with greater precision than necessary selecting each button and pushing it harder than she thought possible. The phone rang and rang and rang and she still faced the answering machine. Overwhelmed, Theresa threw her phone against the wall and it smashed to the ground in pieces, Theresa melting to the ground as the tears flowed freely and hotly down her cheeks.

The other officer, a strongly built woman with a kind face, came and sat next to her. “Do you want me to try?” she asked, her voice soft and musical like silk, somehow even more soothing than the man’s. Theresa shook her head and pointed to the phone fragments on the ground. “I have my own,” she chuckled, pulling out a cell phone. “Are you sure you don’t want to try again? You can’t stay here alone. Do you have anyone else? An aunt or an uncle maybe? Or even just a family friend?”

Theresa shook her head. “My mom… doesn’t exactly have very many friends that she let us talk to. And my dad just doesn’t really have friends at all, as far as I know. My aunts and uncles are all too far away.”

“What about your neighbors?”

“No. They don’t know us. They don’t talk to us. I don’t even think they like us.”

“Well, what are you going to do then?” the officer asked. “You need to find somewhere to stay.”

Theresa struggled to put her thoughts into words, struggling to understand them herself. “Maybe… maybe you could drive me to my dad’s? He’ll answer his door if he’s home. He’ll talk to me then.”

The two officers looked at each other, their eyes conversing more than Theresa could comprehend. The woman said, “Okay. I’ll take you over. Just tell me the address.”

Theresa pounded on her dad’s front door with a strength she didn’t know she had. Her anger burned inside her, spilling out of her every pore. Her dad had no excuse to refuse to answer her calls. She didn’t understand why he would ignore her. Just yesterday, when she had told him about a situation at school with one of her teachers, he had told her that she could call him whenever she needed him and he would always—always—pick up. And yet tonight when she absolutely needed him, he hadn’t. She called him three times and he didn’t answer a single one of her calls. What kind of dad did that, promised his daughter something and then turned around and broke it the very next day? Not her dad. She couldn’t believe her dad would do that to her, but reality said otherwise.

When her dad’s sleepy face poked out of the door as it creaked open, her heart broke for about the fifth time tonight. “Dad, I think we’re in trouble,” she said, her voice caught in her throat on a sob. Without waiting for an answer, she stepped closer to him and hugged him, taking comfort in his proximity and his warmth. He smelled like freshly baked bread and chicken noodle soup, a familiar smell which eased some of the aching in her chest.

Pulling her closer in to his chest, her dad planted a kiss on the top of her head. “What’s up, honey?”

She turned around and pointed to the officer waiting outside her car. “It’s mom.” Her voice broke, so she cleared her throat and willed herself to keep it together just this once. “She’s in the hospital. She was in a car accident. We need somewhere to stay while she’s there. I tried to call. I called three times, but you didn’t answer any of them and it made me really mad and frustrated and I felt abandoned and I got really upset and I threw my phone against the wall and it broke, so the officer offered to drive me here and I just couldn’t say no, because like she said, we can’t just stay at home on our own.” Once she started speaking, the words just spilled out of her mouth. She hardly even had to think about what she was saying.

“Of course you can stay. You’re my kids. This is your house, too.”

“Thanks, dad,” she mumbled. “Will you drive me home to pick up the others?”

As she lay in bed, even years later, she would always recall that night. She dubbed it the Nightmare Night, when her entire world came crashing down around her feet, hanging onto the thinnest thread as it dangled, just barely hanging on long enough to pull itself up and rebuild itself. Her life was never the same, but she had some sense of normalcy return and a greater sense of responsibility had grown inside her that night. She wasn’t just responsible when her mom was out. Her life was in her own hands, the lives of her siblings in her hands. She would do whatever it took to protect them and keep them safe.

***

Prompt: Genre, “coming of age” drama.

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