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The Family We're Not
When you think of your parents, what do you think of? Do you think of people you can talk to all the time, no matter what it’s about? Do you think of people that lay down the rules of your life? Do you think of laughter and good times you’ve shared with them?
Or does the word ‘hate’ immediately pop into your mind?
That’s how it is for me. My parents don’t even know I’m there. They’re too busy yelling at each other for stupid things, like my mom burning the dinner the slightest bit, or my dad having the TV turned a little too loud. They seem to love torturing each other.
But they don’t realize that the people they’re really torturing is their kids. That is, my two siblings and I. We have gone our whole life missing the love that kids normally get from their parents.
Over time, I’ve learned to patch up the places in my heart that hurt whenever the yells from my parents wander upstairs. I’ve learned to pretend that things are the way I imagine. That maybe, just maybe, they will get better in the future.
But of course, even I don’t
“Reese?” I hear a small voice ask from my bedroom door. I sit up and squint against the light shining from the hallway. “It’s me, Mikaylee.” My little 10-year-old sister’s sweet voice floats into the room. I scoot over and pat the spot next to me.
“Come on in.” I say softly. Mikaylee scampers across my room and climbs into my bed next to me. It takes a moment for her to settle in. Then she heaves a sigh.
“Why do they always gotta be so loud?” she whispers. I put a comforting arm around her and shake my head.
“Dunno. Maybe they think that they can’t hear each other, even though they’re standing right next to each other.” I try for a smile. It works. Mikaylee’s face briefly lights up, but soon vanishes when a crash comes from downstairs.
“I don’t understand why they can’t get along.” She whimpers. I don’t say anything. There’s nothing to say.
“Reese? Mikaylee?” a little voice calls from the hallway. I sigh and scoot over even more to let my little brother Ben in too. This is how most of our nights go. My siblings and I end up in my room. I think it gives us comfort, knowing that even if we don’t have my parents, we have each other.
“I can’t sleep.” Ben mumbles.
“Neither can we.” I say. Ben looks up at me with his bright blue eyes. Everyone always says he looks exactly like me. It’s true. We both have blonde hair so light it’s almost white, china blue eyes, and big lips. Mikaylee, on the other hand, had blonde hair so straight and thin, it’s almost not there. Her green eyes seem to pierce through you if you hold her gaze for too long.
“Reese?” Ben asks softly. I look at him. His big clear eyes stare at me, filled with hurt and misunderstanding. After all, he’s only 4. He doesn’t know why my parents always fight. I don’t even know why they fight, and I’m 13!
“Yes?” I whisper back.
“Are Mom and Dad yelling cuz of me?” he asks. I can see fear welling up in his eyes. I shake my head violently.
“Oh no Ben!” I say forcefully. “Never think that! They’re not fighting for any reason!” Ben relaxes.
“Then why do they?” Mikaylee asks. I push my hair out of my eyes, giving me an extra two seconds to think about how to respond.
“That,” I say, “is a question I have been asking myself forever.” Mikaylee smiles that sweet smile of hers, the one that makes you wanna stop what you’re doing and give her a hug. So I do. I hug her close and grab Ben in too. I pretend that our Mom and Dad are hugging us too, one big group hug. I pretend that we all love each other and Mom and Dad don’t yell at each other and they love each other.
I pretend that we’re the family we’re not, the family we’ll never be.
After a while, Ben and Mikaylee fall asleep, leaning against each other. I listen to their soft breathing. I focus on that instead of the bangs and screams coming from downstairs. And soon, I fall asleep.
Funny, how something so quiet can drown out something so loud.
On a Saturday morning, it’s typical for my parents to get into a fight around 12, when they have both woken up enough to point out some ridiculous flaw that the other has. But today, it starts much earlier, right when Dad wakes up. I can hear the thumps of his feet coming down the stairs. He enters the kitchen, grunts a “Mornin” to Mikaylee, Ben, and me, and sits down at the table. He leans against it, trying to clear the sleep from his eyes. Mom turns around to say something to him, but her eyes wander to his elbows. Her eyes narrow.
“George!” Mom cries. “Get your elbows off the table!”
“Oh for God’s sake Tina! Everything I do is wrong!” he roars, not taking his elbows off the table.
“Well it’s rude!” Mom yells, turning away from the stove to glare at him.
“Do you think I really care? There’s no one to impress! Just you and them.” He says, jerking his thumb in Ben, Mikaylee, and my direction. He talks about us like we’re some kind of thing, not a person.
I guess I should be happy he even acknowledged us.
“Well the least you could do is try to be polite for me! After all, I am your wife!” she screams.
“I don’t have to be polite for you! You’re not even important to me!” he yells, getting to his feet. If I was my mom, those words would sting me like a slap across the face. Mom’s eyes are wild. She looks the angriest I’ve ever seen her. Dad hesitates, like he figured out he shouldn’t have said that. But then his face is back to looking the way it always does, full of hatred and discontent. Mikaylee looks like she’s about to cry. Ben has stopped eating his cereal and is looking back and forth between my mom and dad.
“Well if I’m so unimportant, then why did you marry me?” she shrieks so loudly, I’m afraid all the glass in my house will shatter. But somehow, it doesn’t.
“Because I was stupid back then! Now I see the error of my ways!” he yells, advancing on my mom. I can feel something in the back of my throat start to tighten. I know what’s going to happen.
Once, when I was only five years old, my parents got into a violent fight. It was late, almost 11 o’clock. They were screaming at each other. I was huddled on the couch with Mikaylee, who at the time was only three. My eyes were huge and teary. I hated seeing my parents fight. It scared me. My dad was so angry. His face was purple with rage.
It seemed like slow motion when he did it. He picked up his hand, balled it into a fist, and swung. He whaled my mom so hard, it nearly knocked her out. She fell to the floor, gasping and clutching her face. She was crying. I was crying. Mikaylee was crying.
My dad? He just walked upstairs and slammed the bedroom door.
That memory is the earliest memory I have of my parents. Kinda sad, huh? Most kids remember their parents smiling at them or taking them on vacation or something.
I remember my dad punching my mom.
Now, as I sit at the kitchen table, I will not let the same thing happen. I will not let my siblings be scarred with the same memory as me.
As Dad nears closer to Mom, I leap out of my chair and run fill tilt at them.
As he raises his fist, I plow in between them.
As he swings, I block my mom. I get hit full force on the cheek and go down hard, slapping the kitchen floor like shoes on the pavement. Mikaylee screams. I clutch my burning cheek and squeeze my eyes shut. The pain is blinding.
“Stupid girl!” Dad screams. “You idiot!” He storms out of the kitchen to God knows where. I can hear Mom breathing hard above me. I don’t want to open my eyes. I don’t think I can.
“Reese!” Mom whispers finally. I don’t say a word. She kneels down beside me. I open my eyes a crack and see her pale blue eyes peering into mine. She looks at me with tears in her eyes before covering her mouth and running out of the kitchen, sobbing. I open my eyes a little more and see Mikaylee hugging Ben, trying not to let him see me. I know my mouth is bleeding. I can taste it.
I push myself up ever so slowly. I look down and nearly faint when I see a puddle of blood on the floor. The red liquid stands out against the white tiles. I take a deep breath, even that hurts, and turn to face my sister. Ben’s head is buried in her shirt so he can’t see anything. But Mikaylee is facing me. She can see the blood dripping down the side of my face, my bruised cheek, the tears in my eyes.
Her face crumples. Tears begin falling out of her eyes. But she’s silent, so Ben can’t hear her. She looks at me with the most sorrowful expression I have ever seen. Then she shakes her head, ever so slightly, as if to say, “Why? Why did you do it?” Then she holds Ben tighter and looks away. I stand up, gripping the counter for support. I wipe my mouth and nearly scream when my sleeve comes away red. I stagger to the bathroom and shut the door and lock it.
Then, I turn to the mirror.
I am a mess.
My left eye is swollen and black. My cheek is puffed up, like a marshmallow that’s been roasted for too long. Blood is dripping out of my mouth, making me look like a vampire. My white hair is stuck together with the blood that ran off my face.
For some reason, the only emotion that comes to me right now is complete and total anger. Not sadness, not pain. Just… anger. None of this would have happened if my parents didn’t fight all day, every day. None of this would have happened if my dad didn’t walk into the kitchen and put his stupid elbows on the table. All these feelings welled up inside of me until…
“WHY COULDN’T HE HAVE KEPT HIS STUPID ELBOWS OFF THE TABLE?!” I scream, hot tears pressing against my eyes. “WHY COULDN’T HE HAVE STAYED AWAY FROM HER?! WHY COULDN’T HE HAVE NEVER EVEN MARRIED HER IN THE FIRST PLACE?! WHY?!” I slam my hand onto the sink in frustration. “NOTHING’S FAIR!” I yell. I look down and see my handprint on the sink, outlined in red blood.
All the anger drains out of me. I’m overcome with dizziness. Maybe it’s the pain. I don’t know. But now, I just feel helpless.
That’s when I know I have to get out of here. Today is a perfect example. I can’t keep living this way. I used to only be hurt on the inside, the pain from watching my parents destroy each other. But now, it’s gotten physical. And I can’t put myself or my siblings in the line of fire anymore.
I open the door and sprint to the kitchen. Mikaylee is still clutching Ben. She looks worried, probably because she heard me screaming in the bathroom.
“C’mon.” I say, grabbing her away from Ben, who screams when he sees me. “We’re leaving.” Mikaylee doesn’t say a word, just follows me out the door. We all knew that was gonna happen sooner or later. It’s like death. It’s inevitable.
I don’t bother to muffle the sound of the door as it slams against the doorframe. I want them to know we’re leaving. I want them to know what they’ve done to us, how they’ve chased us away.
I doubt they even care anyway.
“Where are we going?” Ben asks nervously. I’m silent, chewing my lip, which I always do when I don’t know the answer to a difficult question or when I’m scared. Right now, it’s a combination both of both.
“Zeekie’s house.” I say suddenly. It’s like the answer popped into my head without me even knowing it, but it feels so right.
Zeekie and I have been best friends for as long as I can remember. She’s not exactly what you would call pretty. She’s… average. She has long, frizzy, jet black hair and tan skin. But there is something totally not average about Zeekie. She is 100% Hispanic, and she had bright green eyes. This is weird for two reasons. One: Most Hispanics have brown or black eyes. Two: Both of her parents have brown eyes. Her eyes make her stand out from the rest of crowd, but that’s just the way she likes it. She’s bold, confident, reckless… everything I’m not. That’s why we make such a great team.
Ben nods. I start to walk faster, urging them to pick up their pace. I know it’ll only be a matter of time before Mom or Dad realizes we’re gone.
What am I saying? They might never realize we’re gone. They’ll just find another reason to start fighting again. It never ends!
That’s when I hear a small whimper beside me. I look down and see Mikaylee. Her eyes are shimmery with tears. I can tell she’s trying to hold them back. But I know she’s failing. She looks up and for a minute, our eyes lock. I know what she’s feeling, because I’m feeling the same thing. Hurt, confusion, anger, grief… every emotion that could possibly make a person crazy, we’re feeling it. She shakes her head and turns away, her lip quivering uncontrollably. I clamp down on mine to keep it from doing the same.
I have to be strong. I have to be strong…
The warm spring air floats in our faces as we trudge through our small suburban neighborhood. I know the way to Zeekie’s house by heart. I could find my way there with my eyes closed. I know she and her mom Jenna will be sympathetic. I know they’ll take us in…
But then what? It’s not like we can live with them for the rest of our lives. Sooner or later, whether they want to or not, my parents are going to come after us. I try and push the thought out of my mind and focus on getting to Zeekie’s house without breaking down. The physical and emotion pain running through me right now is powerful enough to make even the toughest man cry. Yet somehow, I’m not.
“Reese, we’re here.” Mikaylee whispers. I snap out of my train of thought and find myself staring at the large, Victorian house that has become my second home. I take a deep breath, wipe some of the blood dripping out of my mouth away, and walk up the walkway. Ben and Mikaylee’s hand tighten around my own almost simultaneously. I give them both a reassuring squeeze before knocking on the door loudly.
There is a moment of echoing silence as the knock bounces around the hallway. I know what Zeekie’s reaction will be when she sees me. I just don’t want it to happen.
“Coming!” Jenna’s voice floats to us. I close my eyes, which hurts beyond words, and pray that Jenna won’t have a heart attack when she sees me. The door swings open, and Jenna inhales sharply. I open my eyes just in time to see her hand fly to her mouth, her brown eyes wide open with disbelief. For a moment, no one says a word. Then Jenna breaks the silence.
“Oh…my…God…” she whispers. “Reese…”
“Jenna, please help-” Before I can finish the sentence, Jenna is ushering us into the house, calling for Zeekie to get down here right now. Jenna takes Mikaylee and Ben to the kitchen to get them settled down. Zeekie comes bounding down the stairs, smiling widely… until she sees me.
“Reese!” she yells, flying at me. “What happened?” I open my mouth to explain the whole story, but I can’t. I’m not strong enough. Instead, I start crying. Zeekie rushes towards me, hugging me and telling me everything will be alright. But it’s not.
I stopped believing in miracles a long time ago.
“Shh… It’s okay…” Zeekie’s whispers, close to tears herself. I lift my head off her shoulder and try to get a hold of myself.
“He hit me…” I sob. “He meant to hit my Mom, but he hit me.” Zeekie’s eyes narrow, a sign that she’s furious. Though she would never admit it, I know she hates my parents.
To be honest, I’m not even quite sure what I think of them.
“You have to get in the kitchen. My mom will help you… God, you’re a mess.” Zeekie grabs my arm and yanks me into the kitchen, where Jenna is talking to my siblings, trying to comfort them. She sees me and motions for Zeekie to take over while she handles me.
“You are falling apart…Good God… Alright let’s get you cleaned off so we can see where the real damage is.” She begins wiping my face with a washcloth. Everything hurts. It’s like my face is on fire.
“Well you have a black eye, your cheek is bruised pretty badly, and your mouth is bleeding.” She states, leaning back to get a better look at me. “You’ll live, but you’re gonna need to hold a cloth against your mouth for a while- Zeekie get an icepack!- and you’ll need some ice for your cheek and eye.” I nod because talking is too painful.
Zeekie comes rushing in bearing a few ice cubes wrapped in a paper towel. I press them against my cheek, loving the numbing feeling. I close my eyes and take a deep breath.
“You’re gonna be okay.” Jenna whispers, more to herself than to me. My tears are still trickling out, but barely. I open my eyes again and smile weakly at Jenna and Zeekie.
“Thank you.” I whisper. They nod.
“You, Mikaylee, and Ben can stay the night. We’ll get this whole mess sorted out in the morning.” Jenna says with a sigh. She gets up and walks into the kitchen. Zeekie looks at me, an expression of pity on her face.
“I’m sorry.” She says slowly.
“Me too.” I say.
When the doorbell rings the next day, nobody expects it. We were eating breakfast, trying to erase yesterday’s memories.
“Did you hear that?” Zeekie asks groggily. “I think the door just rang.” Jenna sighs and gets to her feet
sleepily. She trudges to the door and opens it.
Then, everything falls silent. No, “Oh hey!” or “Come right in!” Nothing. Who could possibly be at the door…?
“Reese?” Jenna says, her voice tense. I get to my feet, now thoroughly alarmed. Zeekie is wide awake now, following my every move to the door with her eyes. I walk down the hallway, the possibilities of who is at the door running through my head.
Could it be the police, come to arrest me for running away from my parents? Could it be DYFS, coming to take Mikaylee, Ben, and I away from our house?
No. It’s worse than that.
It’s my mother. She’s standing there, her light blonde hair in curls and her pale blue eyes nervously flicking around the hallway. I stop dead in my tracks.
“Mom.” I whisper, hardly daring to believe it.
“Reese!” she says, the weight of her gaze coming to rest on me. She winces slightly at the sight of my cheek, but doesn’t say anything. I stand in the hallway, staring at my mother with unblinking eyes. I knew that sooner or later somebody was going to come and get us, but I never expected it to be this soon.
“What are you doing here?” I ask, my words sounding harsh.
“I’ve come to tell you… tell you that your father and I are… getting a divorce.” Divorce. She says the word like it’s some kind of foul tasting food that she wants to spit out as soon as possible. I am shocked beyond words.
“A… divorce?” I repeat. Mom nods, stepping into the threshold of the house. Jenna backs away ever so slightly, as if Mom is some kind of untamed animal.
“I thought it would be best.” She says softly. “After what he did to you… Well, I could never love a man who hits his daughter. Even if it was an accident.” I don’t say anything.
“But there’s something else.” She says quickly. “Something… more important.” I feel a hand grab mine from behind. It’s Mikaylee, looking at Mom with wide eyes. Ben is clinging to my leg on the other side, like a child clinging to his mother when he’s meeting someone new.
Well, he is sort of meeting someone new. My mom, it seems, has changed.
“What is it?” I ask. Mom takes a deep breath, her eyes welling up.
“When your father and I fought… I never liked it. Don’t think that we did it because we hated you! We just… didn’t get along. Nothing we said agreed. Everything was falling apart. I just couldn’t find the time to notice you kids between the time it took to patch my life together.” She stops, looking at Mikaylee, Ben and me. “I love you kids more than anything in the world. There. I said what I’ve been meaning to tell you for a long time. I know, it’s long overdue. I should’ve been there for you… I should have done what a real mother would have done. I guess what I’m trying to say is… I’m sorry.”
The words are like a long needed medicine for a disease that’s been plaguing my family for far too long. It soothes my hurting heart. It cures the ache for love that I have.
“And I wanted to ask you if you three would come live with me. Your father’s moving out. We can start over.” She says hopefully.
When I was little, I used to see other kids hold their mother’s hands as they skipped to their cars after school was over. I remember wanting so badly to hold my mother’s hand, to know what it felt like to cling to someone who actually cared about you. I wanted to have a mother just like everyone else’s.
Now, there she is, standing in the door of my best friend’s house, asking us to start over with her.
“Yes.” I whisper. That one word shatters the barrier that stood between my mom and me and finally relinquishes the love hidden on the other side. My mother starts to cry, but it’s a happy cry. Ben and Mikaylee run at her, hugging her tight. Jenna is smiling, looking close to tears herself. I walk towards my mother and wrap my arms around Ben and Mikaylee and her. I think, so this is what a family feels like. I smile like I’ve never smiled before.
So what if we weren’t the picture perfect family before? So what if my parents fought and shoved us to the side? So what if nothing seemed right until now?
Now is what matters most. And now, we’re a family.
We just got a little bit of a late start.
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