I wrote the following passage during a Covid-19-induced fever. It was intended to be the start of a young-adult piece of fiction. I recorded the voice of the computer reading it, then set the entire thing to a musical backdrop of acoustic and digital sounds. I have since written more of this story, but decided to limit the musical piece to this initial section. I like the unfinished nature of the passage, because it leaves so much up to the reader’s imagination. This story could go in many different directions.
I had expected to find glass, rusty metal, and rotting plastic. No surprises there. What I hadn’t expected was the paper. That was a surprise. But the sentence on the paper was more than a surprise. It was the first line of my new story, my new life.
We’d moved into the old farmhouse just after my fifth birthday. I turned fifteen in November, just a few weeks before I pulled that paper out of an old blue seltzer bottle. Apparently, the people who used to live in this house had a taste for Bromo Seltzer. I only learned later that it was probably because they suffered from frequent headaches like mine. When I found out that Bromo Selzer wasn’t just some sparkling water, but an old-fashioned medicine people used to take for all kinds of reasons, including soothing headaches, I made the connection.
Headaches. I’d been waking up from my headaches for months by the time I dug that bottle out of the hillside in the gully beside our little white house. My mom worried about them constantly. I didn’t worry. I just hated them. They made it impossible to think, and they’d robbed me of the sleep I so desperately needed. All my teachers said teenagers needed more sleep than other people. I couldn’t speak for all teenagers, but I could speak for myself, I definitely needed more sleep.
It was a frosty Saturday when I slid out of my bedroom hammock in the dark before dawn. I’d been awake longer than I wanted to be, twisting, thinking. My full bladder was all the pressure I needed to give up on sleep altogether.
By the time my mom joined me at the kitchen table, her bleary-eyes and frizzy hair complementing her “I Love Sleep” pajama pants and her “Coffee is Life” mug, I had already finished breakfast, cleaned the bathroom, and read the local sales ads from yesterday’s mail several times through.
“Garbage bags are on sale, Ma.” I announced.
“Uh huh” she grunted, cradling her mug to her like a tiny newborn.
“Can we get some?”
“Don’t we have some?”
“I just used the last one in the trash can this morning,” I replied. I’d recently taken to being productive in the early morning. It gave me a feeling that made up for being awake before daylight, a small, satisfied feeling that made the tiredness and the frustration just a little more bearable.
“Buddy don’t feel like you have to do all that cleaning in the morning. I really appreciate all you’ve been doing, but you need to try to sleep more—”
“I do try, Ma. I just can’t.”
“Maybe if you take a Melatonin and lay on the couch in the morning—”
“I’ve tried. It doesn’t work,” I retorted.
Mom always did this. I knew it was because she loved me so much and because my recurring headaches worried her, but, in the moment, it irked me.
She stared, motionless, at the curling wisps of steam rising off the surface of her black coffee as they disappeared into the shadow of the window sash bisecting the kitchen table. After a few minutes she said, weakly, “I’m sorry, V. I’m hoping the test results from the MRI come back soon.”
V, for Victor. My dad was the first one to call me that. He disappeared when I was ten. One day I came home from school to mom crying in the driveway. To be honest, I felt embarrassed when I saw her from the window of the bus, curled up with her face in her knees. The bus driver even called out to ask if everything was alright; I told him not to worry as I ran out the open door.
I’m ashamed that my first feeling was embarrassment. Wouldn’t a better person first feel concerned if his mother were crying in a heap in the driveway?
When she told me Dad wouldn’t be coming back, I didn’t understand. I knew what the words meant, but I couldn’t imagine it. Never coming back.
“I’ll go to the store today,” she added, gently. “I’ll get garbage bags, Okay?”
“Thanks.” I replied.
I felt bad for being so testy. I couldn’t help it recently. It wasn’t just because of the headaches—at least, I didn’t want to blame it only on the headaches. Everything felt like a disappointment all the time. School being boring and irrelevant wasn’t because of the headaches. My baby sister’s uncanny ability to intrude on anything private and important to me wasn’t because of the headaches. Mom’s new swing shift job wasn’t because of the headaches. Dad. He didn’t leave because of the headaches.
I decided I’d go outside. It had a way of clearing my mind that I needed right about then.
I stood up from the table and pulled my coat off the hook in the mudroom. After slipping it on, I walked over to mom and held out my arms.
“I’m sorry, Mom.”
She looked up at me. I could tell she was holding back tears as she placed her mug on the table and wrapped her arms around my waist. I stroked her hair.
I loved my Mom more than anything. Things were difficult right now, but I wanted her to know that. I just had a hard time saying it. I found it easier to show her.
We stood for a moment, mother, and son, still and quiet, while the morning sunlight draped its warmth over our embrace.
“I’m going to go outside for a bit,” I said. “Maybe explore the gully again, clean up some of the trash down there.”
“That sounds good,” she said with a sniffle. “Maybe you can find some more cool old bottles for your collection.”
“Yeah. Did you see the old milk jug I found the other day?” I asked, taking a step back and drawing up the zipper on my coat.
“I did! That’s such a cool find, buddy.”
Our house was built on a wooded hillside above a creek around 1930. The couple that built the house were a product of their time. For much of the early 20th century it was common for people to toss their trash over hillsides, along roadsides, beside waterways, anywhere, really. So much trash ended up in the creek winding past our house that, by 1970, it would have been more common to pull a shoe out of the water than a fish.
The practice eventually stopped, but not before a good five feet were added to the surface of the hill in bottles and cans alone.
I’d really began exploring the hillside after Dad left. Mom had never let me go down there on my own before then. But in the weeks after I came home to her crying in the driveway, things began to change. At first it was just a change in the way she talked to me. She’d bring up things she must have reserved for Dad before. Her job searches. The mechanic’s bill. Day Cares that might be good for Rachel.
Rachel was not quite two when Dad left. Mom needed my help with her more than ever. That was another thing that changed in those early weeks and months. I started to crawl into bed with Mom in the night whenever Rachel woke, crying. Really, I wanted her company, but there was also part of me that expected to find Dad there. It was during one of those restless nights, Rachel bawling as loudly as ever, that I realized Dad wasn’t going to come back. My face burned. My ears rang. I was so angry. In time, though, that passed.