Curly Red Secrets
My older brother Casey and I were neck and neck, embroiled in the brutality of the final lap of Beetle Bug Racing on the Nintendo 64. We didn't look all that alike. He was slimmer and taller than me at that point, and his skin, a shade less pale than mine. Darker hair, too, and a not-as-chubby face. He paused the game and shouted back.
“Just a minute!”
He asked if I was ready to unpause, I said yes, but we didn’t get to.
“I didn’t say in a minute! Now, boys!”
So, we exchanged groans, and headed down the stairs where our mother stood, hands on her hips at the base of the steps.
“Yes?” I asked impatiently.
“Don’t get sassy with me, young man. You two need to pack your clothes and Gameboys today, tomorrow we’re driving up to Kentucky and you’re going to spend a couple weeks with your dad and Grandma Marilyn.”
“Is grandma taking us to the Smokies?” Casey asked.
“She does every year, dude, so probably,” I said, “but I hope dad doesn’t have Janet with him.”
“If that woman touches you or says anything rude to you, you boys call me immediately and I’ll pick you up. Got it?”
My mom thought we hated Janet because she was dating our dad, and she grabbed Casey’s arm once to talk to him after he had said something mean to me, but neither of us remembered what. She called our dad screaming that Janet had tried hitting her son, and that was something she never had any reason to do and that she would call the cops and get his visitation taken away. Really, though, we didn’t like Janet because she smelled like cigarettes, and our dad had started smelling like them, too.
“Okay mom, got it,” I said.
“I’m serious. I will never let you two near that man again if he tries anything like that. I’m sorry you two have to go see him.”
“OK, mom,” Casey said, looking down.
We went upstairs to finish our race, but our younger brother, Justice, had taken our game out and was trying to convince our youngest brother, Austin, that he found out a new secret move in the Wrestling game. “Whatever,” Casey sighed, and the two of us went to pack. We were full siblings then, the other four siblings having two different fathers between them.
We drove through the next day and night to get to our Grandma Ange’s in Illinois. We always went there first, and then my Grandma Ange and Grandpa Ric would drive me and Casey to meet my Grandma Marilyn halfway to Bowling Green, Kentucky.
The night we got to town, my mom would always take us to dinner with her friend, Mark, who always brought us Pokémon cards because he owned a comic shop called Turn 2. My mom would always joke that he was bald but called him sasquatch because he was so hairy everywhere else. He always said, “Jesus, Tammy, don’t say that stuff with kids around.” I was nine, my brother was 11. We knew they were dating. My mother always told us before we went off for the summer, “don’t you boys dare say a word about Mark to your grandmother or father.”
I haven’t seen or spoke to Casey and I’s dad, Tim, in years. Not since the death of my Granny Sledge, back in 2013 or 2014. Maybe one short “Happy Birthday” phone call since then. I don’t know how long it’s been for my older brother. Our dad never reaches out to us, and we never reach out to him. He never really did anything wrong, but my mother’s threats to him always kept him at bay, I learned. At my Granny’s funeral, I pulled him aside and we sat and talked for a while. I apologized to him for everything she had done to him, and that she used to tell us that he hit her, hit us when we were too young to remember, and only ever wanted us around to work in his garden for free during the summer. He started to cry, but still spoke reasonably.
“I’m so sorry, son. I know exactly how it is and how it feels living with her. The last thing I wanted for you two boys was to feel like you had to choose, or that you lived two places. I didn’t want you two to always be pulled back and forth between us, and your mom was always so quick to threaten to call the cops and tell them you two had been beaten while you were with me if I ever brought up more visitation, or even asked her to let me see you for Christmas. I haven’t seen my children on a Christmas once,” he began to choke up as he spoke, and I realized that his grandma’s funeral probably wasn’t the best place for this conversation, but at the same time, I hadn’t seen him the past few summers, so I didn’t know if I’d have the chance soon enough again.
“I love you, dad. It’s okay. I’m sorry. I know more now,” my 16-year-old self said, so sure I had wised up to the ways of the world, so sure what I had been through made me immune to any more secrets that our family held, “I was never angry at you, I understood, mostly. I have a scar on my hand from her.”
I showed him my hand, a white cut between the knuckles, “its okay though. I took her to court if you heard. I live with Grandma Ange now.”
“I’m sorry,” he hugged me. “I’m so sorry, Kevin.” He blew his nose, hugged my Grandma Marilyn and her husband Grandpa Paul, and left the funeral home.
When I lived in Florida with my mom, her husband Brian of nearly 10 years at the time, and my five siblings, I noticed on the beach and when I went out to play for a while, that my leg and arm hair, much thicker than everyone else’s, shone red in the sun, where it normally looked brown, like my brother’s hair, like my father’s hair. I knew how genes worked. I knew just because my grandma Marilyn had red hair, that it didn’t mean that I would. No one on my mother’s side had ever had red hair. But when I told my mother, she explained it that way. I was 13 and already my hair line had started to recede too, as I grew long and thick sideburns and chest and back hair. My brother Casey still hadn’t grown any hair anywhere but his head, that I knew of. I never brought it up to them. I was young, but I think I had been searching for an escape, or to understand why my mom treated me so differently for so long that I knew what it all meant at this point.
Nearly a year later, just before I turned 14, my mom left her husband in Florida and took us all up to Illinois to stay with Grandma Ange again. Of course, me, Casey, and my mom went to dinner with Mark, who never seemed quite comfortable to be sitting next to her. After this dinner at Steak ‘n’ Shake, my mom took my brother Casey home, but told me we were going shopping for my grandma’s birthday present. We drove to Mark’s house.
They sat me on the couch and pulled two kitchen chairs up to sit in front of me. Mark spoke first.
“Heya Fev, I’m not really sure how to say this, and I’m sorry I’m just now saying it. Your mom and I have something really important to say, so please don’t be mad.”
“Mark, I know what you’re going to say,” I said. I hated the awkward feeling, and just wanted to go home, “My hair is already halfway up my head, and my arm and leg hairs are curly and red like yours. Don’t worry about it. I’m not mad. I’ve been telling myself what you’re about to say for like, a year now.”
The look on their faces was not really satisfying, but shocked. My mom just smiled and called me her little genius. We talked a little bit, and Mark looked relieved, but kept apologizing that it took so long for them to decide to say anything. I told him I really didn’t mind; it didn’t change much in my life at this point; after all, it was far too late for me to not think of my brother’s father as my own, and beyond that, I didn’t think he could do anything to reconcile what I, and to a lesser extent my siblings, endured behind closed doors. Then, we watched a movie and went home.
I didn’t really expose all the things that had caused me to think about this at the time. And, there’s a part of me that doesn’t want to write about them, that wants it to be inferred, or maybe just dreamed about for a moment after reading the piece. Really, though, perhaps it’s best said explicitly—I knew I was his child, because my mother had called me a bastard for as long as I could remember, and once I started to notice how different I was from my older brother, Casey, it was the only thing that explained the harsh treatment. My mother had said so often that she had “never stopped loving Mark.” It’s important to mention now that she is a woman who had never lost at anything—she told any story, adopted any persona to get the things she wanted from someone. So when getting pregnant by Mark and then denying him any reality or proof that I was his child, gaslighting him into belief that she fled her last husband because he abused her and she wanted to protect me, her unborn child, from harm, didn’t make Mark grovel for her love and attention, she was confused, and hurt. On some level, I want to believe that I’m certain that she couldn’t bear my presence because I reminded her of what it felt like to fail at something.
I just got dinner with Mark last weekend. I’ve never called Mark dad, although he’s been a huge part of my life after I took my mom to court. One of our first conversations as father and son, and not just as mom's friend and me, was after I took my mom to court. I was crying in the passenger seat of his car, terrified that she would come to steal me away from my grandma before the court case finished so I would have to go back to Florida (she went back to her husband, Brian) to live with her again. We were on our way to a hotel, and he gave me a familiar speech. He apologized, said he never wanted me to feel like I was stuck living two places, between one and the next. He said that if he ever told me, that my mother would call the cops and tell them that he had fondled my older brother, Casey. He apologized again, and said he hopes that neither of us ever have to see her again.
The hotel gave me a suite on the top floor for free, letting me stay there due to their “Fugitive policy,” or something similar. I don’t remember exactly, but I remember the word “fugitive.” I only stayed for one day before we went back to the courtroom and I won my emancipation at 15.
Mark bought me my first car.
He let me live with him for a year.
But something in me that wants to honor the other people my mother has hurt still tells myself that I haven’t seen or spoke to my dad in years. I haven’t told him or my Grandma Marilyn, who I just called a couple days ago to talk about my new apartment. I’ll always feel guilty for that.
How could they have known?
Kevin is a senior at SIUE graduating with his Bachelor's in English. He has enjoyed a student career full of creative writing and is looking forward to a doing the same in pursuit of his Master's. He wants future submitters to know that less than half of his total submissions over the last four years have not been accepted for publication and encourages them to not get discouraged