Authors: Debra Doxer
first strange thing I notice when I approach my building is the absence of a crowd. In the two years we’ve lived here, our front stoop has been home to a revolving bunch of drug dealers and pimps who congregate around one of the biggest underworld purveyors of both services, a guy by the name of Apollo. He lives on the first floor directly below us. Despite his unsavory lifestyle, he’s been decent to me since we moved here, and we have an odd sort of friendship.
I climb the deserted concrete steps with my heavy backpack knocking against my tailbone. When I reach the top, I check our mailbox. The floor is littered with the same junk mail I find piled inside. Pulling it out, I bunch it under my arm as I head through the main entrance, a fractured glass door with a useless lock. I’ve lived in lots of places over the years, but this is by far the worst with its unrelenting bug issues and the stale odor of sweat and cigarettes seeping from the walls. I spend as little time here as possible.
I look toward Apollo’s door as I pass. It’s cracked open, but there’s no sign of him. I briefly consider knocking and asking him where everyone disappeared to, but then I think better of it. I’ve never just dropped in on him before. The fact is, Apollo is unpredictable, and he can be downright scary at times. I don’t want to risk his wrath today.
As I continue past his apartment and begin climbing the narrow stairwell, there’s an unsettling prickle on the back of my neck. Something is off. I can sense it. But I move slowly, cautiously rounding the corner and glancing up at our door. It’s closed, and there’s nothing out of the ordinary apparent on the second floor landing. The burned out fluorescents and the scuffed doorways loom above me, silent and familiar. When I step out of the stairwell, I stand listening as I pull the key from my pocket. The entire building is unusually quiet this afternoon.
The deadbolt turns too easily, and I realize our door isn’t locked. Sometimes my mother forgets to lock it despite my constant reminders. I step inside and begin looking around. Our tiny one bedroom apartment seems the same as it did when I said goodbye to my mother this morning and left for school. I shake my head and chastise myself for my paranoia.
Ignoring my unease, I toss the mail and my backpack on the couch that also serves as my bed and head into the kitchen to find some food. I make a beeline for the refrigerator and quickly locate a plate of leftover pasta from last night. When I turn to put the pasta on the table, I freeze. The plate drops from my hand, hitting the floor with a clank as I gasp at the nightmare in front of me. I see my mother in one of the kitchen chairs. Her limp body is draped over the table. Her blonde hair is soaking in her pooling blood.
I’m pinned in place as my comprehension wars with my denial. When the horrific image doesn’t disappear, my legs start to tremble, and I fall to my knees before her. My gaze travels over her too still form as I reach out to place my fingers on her arm. Her skin is ice cold, but I grip it anyway. The only sound I hear is my ragged breathing as the floor seems to tilt beneath me. I’ve feared this moment for so long, but not this way. This makes no sense.
Slowing my breathing down, I draw it in as deeply as I can. I reach inside myself for the familiar energy, but it isn’t there. There’s nothing. I feel only emptiness. She’s gone, and this time it’s forever.
not sure how long I sat there in the kitchen before finally dialing 911. I didn’t want to make that call. I didn’t want this to be real. Right now, I can almost fool myself into believing that she’s disappeared again and will turn up when she’s ready. I want to pretend that’s the truth. I want to pretend hard enough that the images of her blood and her lifeless body disappear.
She’s been like a boomerang in my life, screwing up and losing me, then returning all bright and shiny with a mouthful of promises. I’ve spent most of my childhood hating my mother during her absences and fearing her abandonment during her brief stints of sobriety when she regained custody of me, pulled me out of foster care, and pretended we were going to be a family. It fucked me up, the constant upheaval. It forced me to shut down in order to cope. And now I don’t know how to react normally to this extreme situation, and the detectives are looking at me like I’m a puzzle they can’t seem to solve.
I’ve been at the police station for hours. I should be grief-stricken. Rivers of tears should be flowing out of me, but instead I feel numb and heavy, like all the gravity in this square, windowless room is concentrated on me.
After answering questions for the entire afternoon and into the evening, the detectives finally ask me if I have any family they can contact. When I shake my head, they talk about calling Social Services, and I’m left alone to wait.
Since I’ve been here, I’ve learned that my mother took a blow to the back of her head with an unknown object. I told them that I had no idea who would want to hurt her. It’s the truth. Two years ago, when she was still an alcoholic and a drug addict, that list would have been miles long. But she’s been clean since she got me back, and no one would know better than me if that fact had changed.
The police seem to believe that her death is the result of her old life coming back to haunt her. I don’t doubt that’s a possibility. I’m sure that Apollo and the rest of the building tenants know something. I wonder if the police questioned them. If so, I bet they learned nothing. The residents of our building are not the types who believe in cooperating with the authorities.
The door opens again, and the same detective I’ve spent most of the day with enters the room holding a thick file. His name is Brady. He’s very young for a detective, and he’s good-looking in a clean-cut
I iron my undershirts
kind of way. His dark hair is neatly trimmed, and his light brown eyes convey the perfect mix of concern and gravity. I get the impression he’s been assigned to me because he’s closer to my age than the rest of them. They probably think I’ll feel more comfortable around him. It’s foolish of them to think I’ll feel comfortable around anyone tonight. I feel nothing at all right now, and I’m glad for it.
“Your brother is on his way,” Detective Brady says.
My weary eyes widen. His non sequitur wakes me up like no alarm clock could. I wonder what kind of a joke he’s playing.
“He’s flying in from New York. He’ll be here tomorrow.”
He appears serious. I sit forward in my chair and calmly repeat myself. “I told you. I don’t have any family.”
His lips press together in a thin line. “I just learned that Social Services contacted him about an hour ago. He said he’s willing to take custody of you.”
I bark out a laugh and shake my head. He’s seriously confused. “I. Don’t. Have. A. Brother,” I say slowly, enunciating each word so he’ll understand.
Detective Brady lowers himself into the chair across from me and sets the thick file on the table between us. He looks almost as tired as I feel. “Actually, you do. He’s been petitioning the court for custody of you for the past two years.” He places his hand on top of the closed file.
My eyes travel from the file back to him. I shake my head at the certainty in his expression. “There must be some mistake.”
“Your mother never told you this?” he asks.
My stomach clenches as doubt starts to seep in.
“Did your mother tell you where she’s originally from?”
“Upstate New York,” I answer, gripping my hands together under the table.
He nods. “That’s where your brother still lives with his family. Your mother left when he was six years old. His father, your mother’s husband, still lives there, too. They had no idea where she was until a hospital here in San Diego contacted them about two and a half years ago. She was being treated for a drug overdose at the time and they found ID on her that led them to her husband in New York.”
My mind is processing what he’s telling me, fitting it into place with what I already know. I knew about the drug overdose and about the subsequent treatment, which finally succeeded. That’s when she regained custody of me for the last time. I knew she was from New York and that she was married there. I didn’t know she had a baby before me. I didn’t know she still had a husband there. I definitely didn’t know she was keeping such a big secret. All the goodwill she earned from me over the past two years begins to evaporate.
“It looks like your brother has been trying to gain custody since he found out about you. But because your mother was able to prove she was fit to care for you, they wouldn’t consider his petition.” He pauses. “You really didn’t know any of this?”
While he was speaking, my eyes shifted back to the thick file on the table, which obviously contains this information about my mother and me, information that she never bothered to share. Why didn’t she tell me I had a brother? Was that what kept her sober? The fear of losing custody of me to him? This threat was big enough to keep her sober when nothing else could? Suddenly, the idea of this brother feels threatening.
My head is spinning as I wrack my brain for anything my mother might have said that would hint at this. But there’s nothing. I glance over at the detective and shake my head. “I didn’t know.”
He eyes me with silent sympathy.
“Do I have to go with him?” I ask suddenly.
He raises his eyebrows at me.
“Do I get a choice?”
His lips form the tight straight line I’ve become accustomed to over the past few hours. “You’re a minor. He’s the only relative we’re aware of, and he’s willing to take you. What are your other options?”
I’m about to say foster care, but I know the system won’t want me back when I have a relative who is offering to take me off their hands.
When it’s obvious that I have no reply, he continues. “Social Services will be here soon. You’ll be placed somewhere temporarily while everything gets sorted out.”
I sit silently while a storm brews inside me. The numbness that got me through today is erased by a growing panic. We kept a secret together, my mother and me. But I didn’t know she had other secrets that she kept to herself. I was finally beginning to trust her, but she’d been keeping this from me all along. We celebrated my seventeenth birthday and the start of her second year sober just last spring. It was the first time she’d ever bought me a real birthday cake. She had my name written on it in pink icing. Her pale blue eyes shined so brightly in the candlelight as she told me to make a wish and blow them out.
Warm hands press down on my shoulders, startling me. “You’re shaking,” Detective Brady says. “Maybe you should lie down. I’ll get you some water.”
His concerned eyes hover before me. I take a deep breath, and I will myself to calm down. I open a drawer inside a familiar cabinet, and I force the breakdown my body craves deep within it. This is what I do. This is how I stay focused on what’s important. There are an infinite number of drawers in my imaginary cabinet, and I can only hope that it never crumbles under the weight of what’s hiding inside.
“What about a funeral?” I ask, my voice strained but strong now in the quiet room.
He straightens, eyeing me curiously. Then he rubs his hand along the back of his neck. When he answers, I can see he’s choosing his words carefully. “Once we’re done, you can make arrangements for her. If you don’t have enough funds, there are services that can help you take care of things.”
I interpret his vague statements to mean that the medical examiner still has her, and she can be buried along with the other indigent people once her body is released.
Then once again, I’m left alone with another cup of water. My muscles are tense. I don’t move despite how badly I want to bolt out of here right now. But I just sit, running the detective’s words through my head, not sure what they mean for me, not sure how to feel about this brother who has appeared out of thin air. My racing thoughts are a jumbled mess, and my mother’s betrayal feels like ice running through my veins. I need it all to stop. I want the numbness back.
There is no clock in here, and I don’t know how long I’ve been waiting before a short, squat woman with dull, dark hair abruptly pushes through the door. This is the woman from Social Services. I’ve never met this one, but they all have the same characteristics: tired eyes, a too bright smile, and a rushed demeanor which seems to signify that everything they’re doing is an emergency.
She sits across from me like a settling wind. She doesn’t mention my brother. Instead, she tells me that she’s taking me to a facility for the night. The police have brought some clothes for me from the apartment. She has those with her. I stop listening as I follow her out. I’ve been to this place before. I know the drill.
I passively allow myself to be placed in a car, driven across town, and then shuttled through a building where I’m served a dinner I don’t eat, and deposited into a room with four single beds, three of which are already occupied by other silent, sullen girls. I am afraid of the images I might see when I close my eyes that night. But thankfully, I’m so drained that sleep comes quickly, and it’s a temporary, but welcome break from reality.