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I dragged myself downstairs around ten the next morning feeling like crap. I had two bruises on my arm where Terry had assaulted me, not that anyone cared. My mother was sitting at the kitchen table, smoking a cigarette and drinking her third cup of coffee. She had a book opened laying face down in front of her. I knew without looking it would be a mystery or romance novel.
“This what they taught you up in that fancy school? Sleep all hours, come and go as you please, mooch off your mother until she’s got nothin’ left for herself?”
I stopped. “Excuse me? What did I miss?” I said.
“You missed breakfast for one. I was hoping we could sit and talk a little, since you blew me off last night. You goin’ out to find a job today?” she asked.
“It’s Saturday. Can I sit down for five minutes first?” I snapped. She looked startled. And hurt. I dialed it back. “I’m sorry. I’m not feeling well this morning. Do we have any cereal?”
“Same place it’s always been. Milk’s still good, I think.”
I shuffled to the pantry and found a half empty box of Raisin Bran. I poured some in a bowl, added some milk and sat down across from her.
“How long’s Terry been back?” I asked.
She grunted. “Couple of weeks. Why?”
I shrugged. “I didn’t know he got out already, that’s all. I was surprised to see him.”
“Never mind about your brother. We need to talk about you. What are your plans?”
“About living here. Paying rent. Being an adult.”
I dropped my spoon into the bowl and milk splashed over the side. “Is Terry paying you rent?”
She lit another cigarette and looked away. She was hurt, and for once, I didn’t care. It was always like this, the double standard. She expected nothing from him and everything from me.
“I don’t deserve this,” she said. “You boys take and take and take, and all I do is give and give. I can’t keep doing this. Every time I turn around it’s something else one of you needs. What about me? When are you ever going to think about how your choices affect me?”
“What choices? I just got home last night. I haven’t asked you for a thing, except some cereal.”
“And a bed to sleep in. And someone to do your laundry and feed you while you come and go as you please.”
“You have me confused with your other son,” I said, crossing my arms and glaring at her.
She didn’t back down. “You be quiet. Terry doesn’t have all the advantages you have.”
“What advantages? He’s had everything the same since we were babies.”
“You know what I mean. Things aren’t as easy for him. School was hard and the teachers didn’t understand how to help him score better on tests and things. That’s why he dropped out.”
“Mom, be realistic. The only things Terry cares about scoring are drugs and girls.”
She threw her hands up in the air. “You see, that’s what I mean. You twist everything I say into an insult and judgement against your brother. Why are you so mean to him, Jack? What did he ever do to you?”
I sat back, stunned. She had to be joking, right? Surely she couldn’t be that blind, even as a mother.
She stood up and stubbed out her cigarette in the ever-present nasty ashtray. “You’ve got two weeks to find a job and start paying room and board.”
“Terry has a job. How much is he paying you?” I asked.
She walked out without answering me.
Starting Monday, I made a half-hearted effort to find a job in St. Louis. I borrowed my mom’s car and crossed the bridge to interview at a temp agency. They had nothing for me. Another agency only placed people in blue collar positions. The guy behind the desk took one look at me and my soft hands and suggested I look elsewhere.
The truth was I didn’t want to live with my mother and brother. Terry had disappeared all weekend, which for me was a blessing, but for my mother, it was a torment. The only thing she could talk about was how worried she was. I stayed in my room most of the time to avoid saying the wrong thing to her.
Terry showed up late Monday evening, totally wasted on something. He was mellow and sweet with my mother, who was relieved he wasn’t hurt. He took one look at me and his eyes darkened.
“What are you looking at, faggot?” he snarled.
“Jack, run to the store and get me another carton of cigarettes. There’s a twenty in the console in my car,” said my mother. She didn’t have to ask me twice. I pushed open the screen door and stepped onto the porch.
I was halfway across the yard when I heard the screen door slam behind me. “Don’t think you can run away from me, faggot. Come here,” Terry hissed. I kept walking, hoping I could get inside the car and lock the door.
He shoved me hard between my shoulders and my chest slammed up against the car, knocking the wind out of me. I slid down, twisting around as I slowly collapsed.
“Aw...did the little sissy get herself hurt?” he said. He slapped the side of my head, making my ear ring. “Stand up, faggot.” I continued to go down, still unable to breathe. He reached down and pulled me up from under my arms like I weighed nothing. I don’t know what he was on, but it gave him almost superhuman strength. I wet my pants a little, terrified.
The look in his eyes was something I had never seen before. They were dead. Totally devoid of light. Two black orbs bent on killing me. He put a forearm against my neck, cutting off what little air my bruised lungs could even take in. My peripheral vision faded into darkness.
“You think you can look at me like that, you stupid little faggot? I don’t have to take your shit anymore. It’s time you learned a valuable lesson.” He kneed me in the balls and I almost puked. He jumped back to avoid anything spewing from my mouth. I turned and ran. I made it six feet and he was on me, wrestling me to the ground.
Somehow I ended up on my back in the gravel driveway, looking up into those dead eyes. He wrapped his hands around my neck and squeezed. I pulled at them in vain, their vice grip on my carotid arteries starving my brain of oxygen. I slapped at his face as my vision faded. He squeezed tighter.
My flailing right hand hooked on the prized gold chain around his neck. I felt it snap as I pulled with all my remaining strength. Terry screamed and let go of my neck.
“I’ll kill you. I’ll fucking kill you, you motherfucker,” he screamed, searching frantically for the broken chain in the grass. I sucked oxygen through my battered throat in tight wheezes and scrambled into the car. I locked the doors, fired up the engine and tore out of the driveway, spraying gravel in all directions.
I drove ten miles to the next town over. My hands were still shaking so badly, it was a wonder I could turn the steering wheel when I parked the car at the Super Wal-Mart. Oh my God, he tried to kill me! My own brother tried to kill me. I thought about calling the police, but nixed the idea immediately. My mother would always take Terry’s side when it came to the law.
My left eye was swelling in the corner. It hurt to blink. I rubbed my sore throat. I could feel welts where his fingers had squeezed. I put my head on the steering wheel and sobbed as the tidal wave of adrenaline washed away, leaving me totally spent.
I sat there for over an hour. A security car patrolling the lot slowed down twice to look at me. I waved the second time and tried to smile. It hurt. Everything hurt, especially on the inside.
I knew I was stalling. I couldn’t go back home yet. I had to wait until I knew he was gone or passed out, anything to know I wasn’t in danger anymore. I thought about finding a place to park and just sleeping in the car.
In the end, I went inside and bought the cigarettes my mother wanted. I always did what my mother wanted. Because my brother did nothing she wanted. I wondered if she knew he tried to kill me on the front lawn. Would that be enough for her to put him out for good? Probably not. If anything, she would find a way to blame me for his actions.
I drove back home, utterly defeated. There was no way I could stay in the same house with Terry. It wasn’t safe. I got lucky this time. I couldn’t count on luck again. My only hope was to avoid him long enough to get my stuff out of the house.
I saw a body lying on the grass as I pulled into the driveway. My brother was lying there, arms outstretched, legs askew. He looked dead. My hand shook against the gear shift as I parked the car. I got out slowly, looking toward the house for signs of movement. I saw a curtain lift, then drop back into place from my mother’s bedroom window. Was it her? Or an intruder?
I crept up to Terry’s body. He was breathing. He didn’t look injured. He had thrown up all over himself and passed out in a pool of vomit. The smell was horrible. My own stomach lurched, so I stepped away. He could lay there in his mess all night for all I cared. And he could keep my ten dollars. I was done.
I went inside, straight to the kitchen and pulled the largest, sharpest knife from the wooden block on the counter next to the stove. I set it next to the sink while I filled a glass with water from the tap. The cool liquid soothed my ravaged throat.
I refilled the water glass and took it and the knife to my bedroom, closed the door and wedged a desk chair under the handle. I called Amtrak and reserved a one-way ticket for Chicago, leaving early the next morning. I silently thanked my aunt for the surprise graduation gift she had dropped off the day before. If not for her, I could not have afforded the train fare.
Before I could change my mind, I called the one cousin I could trust who agreed to pick me up and take me to the St. Louis station. My last call was to Fred, who was thrilled I was coming up for a visit. He reassured me his family was excited to have me stay with them. I wasn’t so sure.
I sat on my bed, sipped water and contemplated what I was about to do. I knew deep down if I left like this, there was no coming back. For all of her grousing about rent and free food, I knew my mother would be furious with my leaving. And hurt.
Ugh! This was where I always got hung up. I hated knowing I caused anyone pain, even if those very same people caused me pain all the time. But I couldn’t possibly live my life under this roof anymore. The dangers were too real—emotional and physical. I wasn’t safe. I had to leave. I had to believe it was for the best.
I got off the bed to pack. I was travelling light, which meant one bag. I didn’t even have luggage. Why spend money on such a frivolous thing when you don’t travel? I did have the old army duffel bag I used for dirty laundry in college. That would work.
I filled it with the nicest clothes I owned and a few other odds and ends I wanted to keep with me. My whole future, expressed as a collection of things, fit into one duffel bag. Sad. I cinched it closed as someone rattled the doorknob from the other side.
“Stay out. I’m warning you,” I said.
“Jack, open this door this instant,” said my mother.
“I have no idea. Not here. Open the door.”
I sighed and returned the desk chair to its usual place. I sat on the bed, still holding the big knife in my hand.
“Come in,” I said. The door opened and she stood there in the doorway, watching me.
“What are you doing with my chef’s knife?” she asked. I put it on the bed within easy reach.
I sighed and took a deep breath. “This isn’t going to work. I can’t be here with Terry and I need to find work. I have a friend from college up in Chicago. His family said I could stay with them until I find work. I’m leaving on the train tomorrow morning.”
“For how long?” she said.
“Mom...I...I’m not planning on coming back, at least not to live with you. I need to grow up and start taking care of myself.”
“And you have to go all the way to Chicago to do it? Your family lives here. There’s plenty of work in St. Louis. You’re just too lazy to find it, that’s your problem.”
“Mom, it won’t work. I can’t stay. Please try to understand.”
“Understand? I understand plenty. First you leave me to go off to college far away, where I never see you. You don’t call me, you hardly ever come home. Then you graduate and just a few days later you’re leaving me again. You’ve always been a selfish boy.”
My resolve to leave strengthened with every slur against my character. My brother assaulted my body. My mother battered my soul. They were the perfect tag team, but this time I was tapping out.
When I didn’t respond, she added a few more digs. “Fine, do what you want. I can’t stop you. But don’t you dare take anything out of this house that doesn’t belong to you. This whole thing’s a fool’s errand if you ask me. Wasting good money on a train ticket when you should be using it for gas to find a job around here. You’ll be back. You won’t last a week up in that big city all alone. Well, I have a mind to not let you come back. Think about that.” She turned with a huff and disappeared.
I slept with the big knife under my pillow. The chair remained firmly wedged under the door handle. I was taking no chances.
The next morning I awoke with an unfamiliar excitement. I was ready to venture out into the big bad world and find my place in it. My mother didn’t bother to wake up to say goodbye to me. Bye, Mom, thanks for the memories.
I was watching from the porch, knife in one hand behind my back, when my cousin arrived. I tossed the knife on the driver’s seat of my mother’s car as I passed. I threw my duffel bag in the back of his pickup and got in the passenger side.
“Thanks for picking me up, Brian,” I said.
“No problem. Hey, is that your brother passed out in the yard?” he asked, reversing out of the driveway.
“Yep,” I replied.
“Sweet. What a douche. Pitiful.” I grunted in agreement, thinking it best not to say too much. I never knew who was on whose side in the family.
When we crossed the Mississippi River twenty minutes later, Brian was still talking incessantly about the girl he’d met at a bar the night before and the many different positions they’d had sex in. It all sounded a little made up to me, but then again, I really had no interest in the subject and had nothing to contribute. His parting shot to me was, “Watch your backside up there in the big city. They have a lot of fags running around.”
He was still laughing as he took off in a squeal of tires. I watched the fading truck disappear into traffic and sighed deeply.