by Lauren Ervin
“Why aren’t we having Christmas this
year?” I was 14 years old, caught in the
web of thinking like a child, but wanting desperately to be seen as an
adult. After all, I’d started shaving my
legs four years ago; how much more grown up could I get?
My parents sat in front of me. I looked at them, taking them in individually
and as a unit. Together they looked like
my parents, like normal. But when I
looked just at my father, I saw the strain of his brow, the melodic throbbing
of his cheek as he gritted his teeth. I
looked at my mother, noticing her small hands in her lap, the way she kept
twisting her wedding ring and avoiding my gaze.
When my father finally spoke, his
“Mommy and daddy can’t afford
Christmas this year”
I flinched as his childlike vocabulary. “You see, your
mother, she, uh—.”
His sentence was cut short by my
mother’s sob. Her face was nearly
unrecognizable, transformed by guilt and grief, exposing the broken mask she
desperately clung to. She wouldn’t stop
saying how sorry she was, her apology a mantra I didn’t understand. She looked like an animal, crazed and
ignorant, all primitive feelings with no calculated explanations.
My stomach dropped. Inside of me rose a feeling so great I
thought I might throw up. It was as if
something were alive inside me, squeezing my heart and forcing it into my
throat. My chest was tight; I didn’t
understand why I couldn’t breathe. I
didn’t even know what was wrong. Why was
my body one step ahead of my brain?
“There’s no money for Christmas this
year,” my father gently broke in, “because we used the money to bail your mom
out of jail. She got arrested for
stealing pain pills, using her boss’s DEA number to call in her own
He continued to explain the
situation but I had stopped listening.
Every now and then a word or phrase would break through my thoughts,
words like “drug addict” and “counseling.”
I didn’t care. I was too busy
keeping a mental tally of whose tears won the race down their respective
cheeks: mine or my mother’s.
wake up! I’m hungry. We should go to Cracker Barrel.” Emily, my cousin, threw a pillow at me. This, coupled with the idea of coffee and
bacon, finally made me stronger than the hold of my blankets.
I rose, intending to brush my teeth,
only to be intercepted by my father.
Emily waited in my room, reading the energy before I did.
I sat on the couch beside my sister,
across from my parents. This was all
becoming far too familiar. My stomach
dropped before my father even opened his mouth. I looked at my sister; Nicole was already crying. It seemed, like always, she was in the know
already. No one ever told me
anything. Dad worried that I would
disown my mother.
“So, what do you girls think about
moving?” His question hung in the air,
sickening in its forced cheer.
I protested. My sister continued to cry. My mother wouldn’t look away from her
lap. My father sighed. I demanded an explanation, though I didn’t
really want to hear the truth; I was sure I already knew the answer.
And I was right. The foreclosure we were facing was a result
of my mother’s continued drug use.
She took the bill money and bought pills.
She even slept with her dealer a time or two to settle her debt. Pain pills, it seemed, would always rule my
mother. It had been six years and still
my mother was drowning us with her, a riptide lurking beneath a calm
surface. I didn’t stick around for the end of the conversation. Cracker Barrel beckoned me, and it didn’t
mind when I sat quietly crying into my coffee cup.
My sister had always had such
beautiful eyes. They were a lot like my
own, but my sister was thinner, her face narrower, making her eyes that much
more noticeable. They were the color of
evergreen trees and smoke, that perfect mix of green and dark blue and
gray. In times of passion they clouded,
growing darker like the smoke of a forest fire as in consumes all within its
path. That was my sister: an inferno
Nicole had always been the prettier
sister. She knew it. She flaunted it. She teased me about it regularly when we were
growing up. But then she had a baby, and
she gained weight. And after her little
miracle was born, with eyes that shamed even his own mother’s, she took to
drinking and smoking weed. Her baby
weight was joined by a beer belly and a munchies gut, and she hated herself.
With my blazing sister, there was no
such thing as small-scale anything. So
instead of dieting or working out like most people, Nicole came up with her own
solution. She didn’t tell anyone. When she started dropping weight, she just
told people she had stopped drinking sodas and that her body was taking to it
It wasn’t until Nicole came home
sobbing one day that we learned the truth.
She was crying because her best friend was going to prison.
Prison, for making meth.
Meth, which my sister helped her
My sister: the meth addict.
It seemed counseling was again in
order. Her son wasn’t even a year old.
actually really easy, but it is a little dangerous. You just need some pseudoephedrine, some
Drain-o, some battery acid, some antifreeze…”
My sister’s voice droned on. I
sat at my computer, trying to write a paper, trying not to cry. I looked over my shoulder and watched my
sister sitting on my bed. She was
twitching and wouldn’t stop talking.
Turning back around, I laughed
bitterly to myself, a hard, metallic sound.
My sister could recite the recipe for crystal meth, but couldn’t
remember to take the trash out in the bathroom?
What a waste of that drug fueled energy if it couldn’t help me out a
Of course, that wasn’t the real
problem. But this problem was easy. It didn’t hurt me to think about the
overflowing trash can, spilling used q-tips and tampon wrappers on the floor,
which was sort of sick, considering how dirty that actually was. But no, dirty floors are easily mopped; a
dirty world is repaired effortlessly with a vacuum and some Windex.
My sister’s world, however, was covered in soot.
I understood why my sister had
turned her back on recovery. I could
recall with chilling accuracy the call I’d received early one Saturday morning
late in October. I had been irritated
that my mother was calling so early, snapping an accusation in the form of a
greeting. And then the phone line shook with
the sound of my mother’s rattling cry, sorrow in the form of snot in her voice,
her tears evident even before she spoke.
“Nicole was raped.”
The world darkened; I froze, closing
my shell around myself before I could allow the words to affect me. It was a process I had perfected. There was an increasingly short window of
time to hear bad news before feeling its effects, and it was within the veil of
this suspended time that I had learned to shut down before another facet of my
mask had the chance to crack.
This had been two years ago, though,
and while it wasn’t easy to forget, it was easy to refuse to feel. I wasn’t haunted by these demons; these were
my sister’s, exclusively. My sister
often woke in the middle of the night with a cry, sure she had seen the figure
of a man in her room, certain her attackers were back again. I understood my sister’s fear. When your own best friend offers you to drug
dealers as a payment for the debt you cannot repay for your coke habit (for her
best friend’s drug of choice at the time was cocaine—expensive to maintain,
insufferable not to sate), when all you thought to be true of life and
friendship was shaken, it’s easy to forget the logic of a locked door. When that kind of deception chars your life,
reason becomes unreasonable, security becomes impossible.
The sound of my sister’s listless
chatter brought me back to the present.
I looked at her, this broken girl sitting on my bed, twirling her curly
hair in her long sleeved shirt. The
shirt made little sense given the heat wave Memphis was suffering at the
moment, but I knew it was a shield to cover her scabbed arms more than to
protect her from an unwanted chill. It
was imperative to hide those marks. Our
father still didn’t know. I knew, but
couldn’t prove it. Our mother knew, but
didn’t care. Drugs were how my more and
sister bonded. They enabled one another,
a dynamic duo of deception as they lied to me and my father.
I thought of my three year old
nephew; that little smile, punctuated by random teeth, the natural, innocent
model that meth addicts adopt as their own given enough use. His laugh was a lullaby in and of itself, and
he lit up like the midday sky when his mother walked in the room.
If only she had the same
reaction. Instead she chose her other
baby, meth, over her biological son. She
was like our mother in that regard.
Counseling never worked.
I went back to my homework, bitter
in my youth, counting down the days until graduation and my move out of this
toxic home. Anger was easier than
father taught me that addiction comes in many forms. My mother’s weakness was pain pills. My sister’s was meth. My father’s was the deadliest of them all.
I tried not to cry with him,
knowing it would sap the remaining energy I had.
He sat on my bedroom floor, legs
crossed Indian style in a way indicative of a youth and innocence so far behind
him that it would have been comical if it weren’t so crushing. He wept with his elbows on his knees, his
head in his hands. His shoulders shook,
but I could do nothing more than stare.
His exhaustion rivaled my own; I felt them both at my core. It was late, around two in the morning, and I
had been trying to do homework when he knocked, silently entered, and sank to
He turned his face from the floor,
looking into my eyes, eyes that mimicked his own. “I don’t know what else to do. I’ve only been addicted to one thing in my
life, and she’s asleep at the other end of the house.”
He dropped his head again, slumped
his shoulders until his large front was more boulder than man. My father, my rock, reduced to a child from
the stone cold love of my mother.
threatened to divorce her with every relapse.
Every betrayal from her became a new resolve of his to leave this house,
this family, to escape and never return.
I didn’t want my parents to divorce,
but I knew her mother wasn’t done breaking my father’s heart. I supported his idea of leaving, fantasized
of a peaceful life away from my mother and sister. I imagined the happy home my father and I
could make together. But every time he
vowed to leave for good, to take me with him, he ended up right where he was
now, sitting on my bedroom floor, crying.
His cry was a surrender and an
apology all at once. When he finally
allowed himself to break down like this, he was allowing himself to be drawn
back into my mother’s world. The apology
was unspoken, intended only for me. We
would be staying.
I tried to be hard without becoming
brittle, lest this endless cycle finally break me. Love, it seemed, was more dangerous than
I grew. My 18th birthday had come and
went, awarding me a deadbolt lock for my bedroom door—“Happy birthday,
daughter. Maybe now people will stop
stealing your shit.”—and the start of my college career. It was there that I continued to learn; it
seemed like life wasn’t done teaching me yet.
I learned to wait tables. I learned to smile through the hard days,
because if I didn’t, my bills would go unpaid.
People don’t go to a restaurant and care if their server is suffering;
they pay for a smile and endless obedience.
I learned that early and never forgot.
Smiling was the key. Smiling fooled
them all, disarming any concern. And
eventually, people stopped worrying about me.
And that’s how I survived.
I watched as my family progressively became
more destructive, intervening only when my father or nephew needed me the
most. I avoided my sister; I distanced
myself from my mother. If I wasn’t
around, then they could do no more harm.
I became a ghost in my own home, floating in and out whenever I pleased;
only the squeak of the front door alerted my late night return. No one asked questions. I went to work. I went out.
I went to school. I held myself
accountable, maintaining my grades and retaining my scholarships simply because
it was what I wanted for myself. My
parents didn’t ask about school; it wasn’t until the second semester of my
sophomore year that they even asked my major.
Mom was too busy fighting the life she had built for herself, haunted by
her demons, attacking them only when they manifested in my father. My dad was too busy holding our family
together, like double sided tape, only there was dirt and grime coating
everything, resisting his hold. He took
care of my nephew, I took care of myself.
That was all that mattered.
We’re still broken, elements
extinguishing each other by our very nature.
But I can survive in all environments, oxygen in the water, wind through
the trees, air fueling the fire. I’m a
ghost, and I’ll be just fine. You can’t
kill what’s already dead.
This story originally appeared in the literary journal Castings