She's screaming at me again, like I'm deaf, like I'm stupid, like I don't know what day this is. I knew she'd be crazier than usual today -- that's why I got up early and went to work at the garage before she woke up this morning. I figured there was no sense taking a chance -- the more I'm around her today, the more likely I'll start seeing those pictures flashing in my mind again.
After work I stopped at the store to get some hamburg and a jar of pickles for dinner because she likes that. I thought maybe I could get her off the subject, get her quieted down with a full stomach. I'm not a great cook, but I can make decent hamburgers. Gramma showed me how. She usually does our cooking, but she's down to Quincy this week with my Aunt Suzanne, who just had another baby. Ma calls Suzanne a frigging baby machine, unless she calls her something worse.
It's bad timing that Gramma's gone this week because sometimes she can get Ma to calm down. I can't. I just make things worse. Which is what she always tells me I do. But I don't think that's fair because I have tried to help out. I quit school this year to work at the garage because she said we couldn't all live on what Gramma made answering the phones at that doctor's office. She said I was eating too much and we couldn't afford it. She bitches at me all the time, even though I help out around here more than she does.
But I know she can't really do anything. She's pretty much nuts most of the time. It didn't used to be like this. Before my sister Michelle died four years ago (four years ago tonight), we didn't live at Gramma's apartment. We still lived in Fenton, but in a regular house with my dad. He worked over at the power plant and Ma worked at a fabric store down on Russell Avenue. We weren't rich or anything, but we were all alive and nobody was insane.
After Michelle died, Dad turned into stone. The rest of us were more like glass, but he was stone. Just sat around the house all day, staring at the wallpaper like he could see down through all the layers. Pretty soon he got fired from the plant and he didn't even seem to care. Then he packed up a duffel bag and told us he was moving down to Kentucky.
"Why? Where?" Ma yelled at him. "You don't know anybody in Kentucky!"
"That's the point," he said. "I can't stand knowin' anybody anymore. I have to disappear." And that's what he did. Although he did send me a birthday card last year with fifty dollars in it, and the post office mark said Louisville, so I guess that's a clue. Maybe someday I'll drive down there and disappear too.
When I was a kid, Dad would take me down to the power plant and show it off to me and me off to the guys he worked with. He was proud of his whole life, it seemed like. But after Michelle died, the rest of us just turned into some broken-down mess. I can't even remember what any of us looked like without a picture.
"Leo! Where are you?" She's still screaming, but I'm downstairs in the basement storage room where she won't find me. I come down here lately when I need to get away -- it's a great hiding place. Somebody left an old couch sitting here and some dining room-type chairs. Stuff people aren't using anymore they put down here -- there's all kinds of crap: garden tools and suitcases and boxes of old clothes. There's a light in the corner so you can see to do stuff, although usually I don't have much to do, maybe read one of these old magazines people got piled up. It's hard to read, though, when I get Ma's crazy voice stuck in my head, noisy as a chain saw, slicing through my brains.
There's even a toilet behind this door in the back -- kind of filthy -- but I use it if I don't feel like going back upstairs yet. I bought some toilet paper and some root beer and saltines at the store this afternoon and brought them down here like this was my home. It's kind of cold in the basement, so the root beer doesn't even need to be in a fridge. I'm starting to think of this as my place, where I can escape from her and her damn voice. Ma doesn't know this room is here, even though Gramma's apartment is just one floor up. See, Ma never goes outside our apartment anymore; she never even answers the door, so, to her, going down into the basement of the building is like a normal person getting on the space shuttle. No way.
"Leo! Come here this minute! You worthless turd! Come here!" She's just getting wound up; she calls me worse than that when she really gets going. I know what she wants. She wants me to sit up there and talk to her, like she isn't a lunatic or something. And I know what she wants to talk about too, but I won't. I'm starting to have those nightmares again anyway -- I do every year around this time -- other times too, but always in March, and they always get real bad the closer it is to today, March 19. Sometimes the nightmares get so bad I think I might be as crazy as Ma. And sometimes it seems like there's this noise in the corner of my brain -- I can't stop listening to it, but I don't know what it is either.
I don't think anybody outside notices, though. I'm pretty careful when I talk to people. The guys at the garage think I'm just this quiet kid who's pretty good with cars. Sometimes I come into work and I feel so mad from the nightmares and from remembering and thinking too much, and my stomach is pitching around so bad I feel like I'm gonna puke, so I don't talk to anybody until I can swallow all that awful feeling way down. I try to joke around with the other guys, but it's hard. They're mostly older and they like to talk about women in ways that...well, ways that remind me of Novack.
Michelle was seventeen years old, just like I am now. She seemed so grown-up to me. She was the person who always made everything all right. When Michelle was around, nobody argued -- not me and Ma, or Ma and Dad -- she just knew how to get you in a good mood. She had plans to be a social worker, so she could get everybody else in Fenton to settle down too. It probably wasn't too realistic, but that was her hope.
I took Michelle's side against Ma the first time she spent the night at Novack's place. Ma said he was too old for her and a wiseass besides. I argued she was old enough to make up her own mind, even though I didn't like him much myself. I wasn't just arguing for Michelle, though -- I was also arguing for me, that I was getting old enough too and wanted to be allowed to make up my own mind. When you're thirteen, it never occurs to you there are people in the world rotten enough to kill your sister in a horrible way for no good reason.
Michelle never really had a boyfriend before Novack. She was kind of shy and just average pretty, but really nice. Not the type high school boys are in the market for. At least not around here. She had a job three nights a week working at the gift shop down at the hospital, and one night Novack came in to buy some flowers for his girlfriend, who was laid up in there. (With a broken jaw -- but we didn't put two and two together at the time.)
So he starts coming in and talking to Michelle, flirting, and before you know it he forgets all about the poor girl with the wired-shut jaw, which, as it turns out, is lucky for her. He goes in and buys flowers and gives them right to Michelle, right as soon as he buys them from her. Nobody had ever done stuff like that before, and she totally fell for it. I think she was shocked that a guy could really like her. Which was stupid because she was great, and somebody good would have liked her someday if she could have just waited. But I guess she didn't know that.
Right after it happened, I felt like a stick of dynamite with all that explosive powder stuffed in tight. I threw up all the time, but it didn't help; you can't get rid of poison that easy.
Last year on this night, it was pretty bad. Really bad. People keep saying how things will get better -- time heals your wounds, or some such crap -- but it's not true for me.
What happened last year is that Ma started crying and kept it up all day. Not just regular crying, but drunk crying, crazy crying, nonstop, put-me-out-of-my-misery crying. I was trying to read a book for English class, but I couldn't make any sense of it what with Ma's noise and the noise in my own head, buzzing away like a mad, stuck bee that's willing to sting everything in sight to get himself free.
The pictures that usually came to me in nightmares started flashing into my head, even though I was wide awake. Everything was just pumping inside me so bad I finally couldn't sit still. I knew if Michelle had been there she could have calmed me down -- she could do that even when we were kids -- she didn't let stuff get to her like I did, like Ma did. She knew how to talk to you so you didn't feel so bad.
Of course, thinking like that made it all the worse because Michelle could never calm us down anymore now. She was the reason we were all as crazy as we were. So finally I got so mad I didn't know what the hell I was doing -- I went crashing into Ma's bedroom like a blind man, and I hit her. I hit her hard, so her mouth started bleeding, but she still didn't stop crying. Gramma heard the noise, which was a good thing because she came in and stopped me. I swear, if she hadn't come in, I was ready to put my hands around Ma's neck and start squeezing off the noise -- I was that desperate.
Gramma's more like Michelle was -- she can get you to think about what you're doing. After I calmed down a little, she sent me outside and I spent all night just walking around Fenton. I even took my old pocketknife and made some cuts on my wrists, just to see what it looked like, just to feel myself bleed. Man, I hope I never feel that bad again.
I promised Gramma before she left that this year I'd stay down here in the cellar all night -- just leave Ma alone with her miserable booze. But even this is way too close.
"Leo! Damn you to hell! Where are you?"
I gotta get out of the house. Even a floor down, I can't stand the screaming. But I need my car keys and they're up there in the kitchen. Shit. She'll jump on me the minute I walk in. I'll just get my coat and my keys and go. I don't like to leave her all alone when she's this bad, but what choice have I got? Either I get out of here or I go loco too.
Text copyright © 2001 by Ellen Wittlinger
The Long Night of Leo and Bree
8:30 P.M.: It's been four years since Michelle was killed. Leo can't stand to be at home with his mom -- she's crazy with rage. He's got anger of his own and pictures of his dead sister he can't get out of his head.
9:00 P.M.: Bree parks her mom's car and locks the doors. She's in a bad part of town, but she knows the bar has to be around here somewhere. All she wants is to escape for a while and have a good time.
9:15 P.M.: Leo, out for a drive to get away from his mom, spots Bree. Why is this girl alive while Michelle's not?
By 6:30 A.M., when their long night is over, everything has changed
- Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers |
- 128 pages |
- ISBN 9781439116517 |
- July 2012 |
- Grades 7 and up