The Nuclear Family

Kaylee Garrett

           “I’ll race you home,” she said, as she took off from the bus stop. Her backpack bounced with every stride, her torn up shoes hit the pavement with speed. The slight chill in the air mixed with the scent of future rain hit her in the face. 

           “C’mon, Lucy!” she said. Fifty feet behind her, her sister was focused intently on her phone.

           “Sam, I’m not racing you,” Lucy said. Sam slowed to a walk. Lucy was too busy for her now that she was in high school and had friends. Sam used to be her best friend, her only friend. They used to love to race home from the bus stop, panting and giggling as they both reached for the doorknob at the same time. 

           Sam grabbed the doorknob, glancing back at Lucy, halfway down the street with her eyes glued to her phone screen. The TV blared some sports game rerun from the living room.

           “Hey, Dad!” she said, as she tossed her backpack to the side. The fridge was almost empty, save for a half-eaten loaf of bread, condiments, and some shredded cheese. This was the new normal. 

           She sulked into the living room and plopped down on the ground. Her father was a handsome man, underneath all of the scruff. His jaw was square, and his eyes were a beautiful shade of green. Those green eyes were the one feature Sam saw in herself as well. 

           The living room was a pale yellow; maybe from the cigarettes her mother smoked, but was the room ever white? Sam couldn’t remember. The carpet was flat against the ground after years of angry stomping and children playing. Her dad’s feet were propped up on the coffee table next to an ashtray and a newspaper with red marker circling job’s hiring. 

           Sam grabbed the newspaper. Without ever taking his eyes off the TV, her father said, “Don’t start. I get enough crap from your mom.”

           When her father was laid off three months ago, he searched for jobs every day, he would put on his best suit, shave his face, and put on a masculine cologne. He hadn’t searched for a job in almost two weeks now. He wore a white t-shirt with a toothpaste stain on it, torn blue jeans, and smelled like he hadn’t showered that week.

           She set down the newspaper and asked, “Where’s Ollie?” Again, without looking at her, he grabbed the baby monitor from beside him and set it on top of the newspaper. 

           Ollie is one-and-a-half years old. A complete accident her mother would always say. But then again, she said that about all three of her children. He was a smiley baby who loved pulling Sam’s hair. She was excited for the day he could get up and race her down the street, although she worried about turning out like Lucy and feeling too old to race Ollie. 

           Sam crept up to the bedroom she shared with him. He was standing up in his crib and started bouncing up and down when he saw her. 

           “My Ollie Pop!” Sam said, scooping him up into her arms.

       

           Their mom came home a few hours later with pizza boxes in hand. She was still wearing her black apron around her waist, a few dollars sticking out of the pocket. Her face was flushed; her eyes surrounded by dark bags, and her hair was pulled back into a bun with baby hairs poking out in every direction.

           Everyone grabbed a slice of pizza and went their separate ways, except Sam, who held Ollie in her lap.

           “How was work?” Sam asked.

           Her mom let out a long sigh as she sank into a chair. She put her hands over her face and took a deep breath before answering, “Long. I have to work with Mrs. Clark this evening, so I need you to put Ollie down tonight.”

           Sam nodded; she already knew the drill. Her mom had taken a second job as a caregiver for some old lady when her dad was laid off. It was supposed to be temporary, but then again so was his job search. 

       

           As Sam went to put Ollie to bed, she heard the hushed voices of her father and sister coming from the living room. This had been happening a lot and it put a pit in Sam’s stomach. There was always something that Lucy and her father shared, that they didn’t share with Sam; she was an outsider in her own home.

           Lucy glanced up when she saw Sam out of the corner of her eye and immediately stopped speaking. The pit grew even bigger, she felt like she could have gotten sick right then and there. As soon as Sam walked down the hall, the hushed voices in the living room began again. 

           The pit in her stomach was relentless; it was spreading up to her chest where it felt like someone was pushing down, preventing her from taking a full breath. Lately, Sam felt all alone, Lucy had changed so quickly when she started high school. They went from giggling late at night in their shared room, to Lucy “wanting her own space” and Sam being relocated to Ollie’s room. 

       Things were all out of place, but once her dad got a new job, all the pieces of the puzzle would fall into place. Right now, life felt like a puzzle with no edge pieces, nothing to ground Sam, no one to turn to. Mom was always working, Dad and Lucy were always whispering or leaving the house, all Sam had was Ollie.

       

           The next day at school, Sam could barely keep her eyes open. On the bus ride home, she nodded off and woke up to the bus driver calling her name and yelling for her to pay attention. Usually, Sam waited for Lucy’s high school bus to arrive a few minutes later, but she chose to walk alone. No racing, no giggling, no childhood fun. 

           “Hey, Dad!” she said, as she tossed her backpack to the side, like every day before. There was no TV noise coming from the living room. Sam poked her head into the room; her dad wasn’t in there. In fact, he wasn’t in the house, only Ollie was asleep in his crib. 

           On the kitchen table was the baby monitor and a piece of folded up notebook paper. The door opened and closed from the entryway. 

           “Dad?” Sam asked, as she opened the piece of paper. Her heart dropped, her breathing stopped, she felt the blood in her veins turn to ice. 

           “Just me,” Lucy said. She slumped into a chair, holding a piece of leftover pizza. “What’s that?” Sam silently handed her the paper, needing to sit down, but could not find the strength to move. I can’t do this anymore. I can’t wake up and look at your faces and see the failure I’ve become.

           Lucy’s chair screeched backward, the pizza slammed onto the table.

           “What the hell is this?” Lucy asked. “Sam, did he give this to you?”

           Sam couldn’t find the words. What were they going to do? How could he do this? Does this mean he didn’t love them? Did he ever? What was mom going to do?

           “Stop it, Sam! Answer me! Did you see him? Did he say anything else?” Lucy asked.

           Sam looked up at her, her vision blurred from the tears threatening to spill over. She had to swallow the lump in her throat before she could speak.

           “He left us,” she said.

           “But did he hand this to you? Or did you find it?”

           “I found it. Right here. What does it matter?”

           “Damnit!” Lucy said. “He promised he wouldn’t leave me behind!”

           “Leave you behind?” Sam asked, as she looked up at her sister. “You knew he wanted to leave?”

           They were both on their feet; Lucy pulled at her hair from the roots, Sam stared at her own sister, as if she were a stranger.

           “Yes! Of course, he wanted to leave, you saw how much mom yelled at him every day! But he said he would take me with, I could finally get away from this stupid town,” Lucy said. 

           The kitchen suddenly felt very small, and Sam felt claustrophobic. The pale blue walls seemed to be closing in with each breath Sam couldn’t fully take. Sam’s legs couldn’t support her, and she sank onto the wooden ground, the letter clutched in her hand. The fluorescent lights were too bright, the sound of the fridge running was too loud, and it was all too much. 

           Sam debated whether or not to tell her mom. Telling her would mean calling her in the middle of her shift and ruining her day, not telling her meant that she could have one last day where she thought the man she once loved was waiting for her to come home.

           She decided not to tell her mom, at least not until she came home for dinner. Lucy stormed into her room, slamming the door as she went, and consequently waking up the baby. His high-pitched crying snapped Sam out of her daze of self-pity. 

           

           Lucy was right. They had been fighting a lot. It started out as little things, like ‘you didn’t put your socks in the hamper,’ or ‘you didn’t take out the chicken for dinner.’ But it turned into mom screaming about turning the lights off because they couldn’t afford the electricity bill, it seemed Mom had finally snapped.

           “How many times do I have to tell you, Dan? How do I get through to your little pea-sized brain?” Mom said.

           “Don’t come at me like this, there aren’t many jobs right now. I’m trying,” Dad said.

           “You’re trying? What a load of crap, all you do is sit your ass right in front of that TV from the moment I leave until the moment I come back.”

           “Hey! I take care of Ollie all day, you wouldn’t know what being a stay-at-home dad is like,” Dad said.

           “Oh, so you finally accept that he’s your kid now? Sam takes care of that baby more than you do, don’t even lie,” Mom said. This was a daily argument, most of the time they would storm off in opposite directions when Lucy or Sam walked in, but towards the end they didn’t even bother. 

       Sam knew it was bad, how could she not? None of her friend’s parents had screaming matches in the

       middle of the night, only hers. But leaving? How could he leave? Why couldn’t he just find a job and put their puzzle back together?

       

           When her mom finally walked through the front door, the house was silent. Lucy was no longer throwing her belongings around her room and screaming at God. The baby was quiet and sucked on a pacifier. Sam calmly walked into the kitchen where her mother stood with two unmarked white paper bags of delicious smelling food.

           “Mom,” said Sam. 

           “Lucy! Come get dinner!” her mom said. “Where is everyone? C’mon food’s gonna get cold!”

           “Something happened today,” Sam said. She held her hands together for fear that she could not keep them still and calm if they were at her side. 

           “Food! Cold!” her mother said. “What are you saying, Samantha? What did you do?”

           Sam pulled the wrinkled, folded piece of paper from her pocket, the words engrained forever on her brain. That was all that was left of her father. All his things had been packed up, nothing remained, not even his stupid fishing picture that he insisted on hanging on the fridge.

           Her mother stared at the paper, swallowed hard, and shoved the note into her apron. She started pulling fries and burgers out of the bags. “Lucy! Let’s go! Dinner!”

           Lucy wasn’t in her room; she was on the back porch with a lit cigarette in between her pointer and middle finger. Their mother didn’t notice until later in the night when she was leaving for work and went to check on Lucy.

           There was no yelling, Sam strained herself to hear, but they were speaking in hushed voices and Sam couldn’t quite make out their words. A few minutes later, a drizzle started to fall and then a heavier pitter-patter, but mother and eldest daughter remained outside speaking in whispers. She pressed her ear to the back door and looked through a window trying to make out the words their lips were saying. What could they be saying? Why wasn’t her mom talking to Sam, as well? It put a pit in Sam’s stomach that she couldn’t get rid of the rest of the night. 

           Sam took to taking care of Ollie and reading him a story before he closed his eyes for the night. She couldn’t shake the feeling that everyone was in on something, except for her. Why didn’t her mom comfort her? Sure, she wasn’t as close to her dad as Lucy was, but he was still her dad, and it tore her heart out thinking that their puzzle would never be complete. Why couldn’t anyone see that?

       

           Three months passed and Sam carried the family; there was never any word from her father. The only time he was ever brought up was when her mom was cursing his name while reading bills. She waited for Lucy’s bus that came and went without dropping off any students, so Sam walked home alone. She stood and stared at the barren shelves in the kitchen, mapping out the easiest path to walk to the grocery store, when she heard the muffled sound of catchy music and laughter. Outside the kitchen window, on the back porch were three high school girls, including Lucy, gathered around an ashtray. Lucy held a small cigarette between her fingers again.

           When Sam opened the window to say something, the stench like skunk spray came flooding into the kitchen with the smoke.     

           “Ew!” said Sam. “What are you doing? How did you get home?”

           Lucy looked at her friends and let out a small laugh, another secret Sam wasn’t in on. “I never left home this morning,” Lucy said as she took another drag of the small cigarette.

       “You ditched school?” said Sam.

       “Ugh, leave me alone, Mom. I’m with my friends.”

       Sam shut the window, but still stared at her sister. Who was this girl out there, laughing at inside jokes with high school girls she replaced Sam with? 

       

           Her mom wasn’t a bad mom; she just didn’t act like a mom anymore. She was always at work or in her room chain-smoking cigarettes, no matter how much Sam begged her to stop. Lucy followed right behind in her footsteps, always out with friends or ditching school. She didn’t even have to sneak out like a normal teenager; she just walked out the front door because their mom would never say a word. 

           There wasn’t the same freedom for Sam, she was trapped; she couldn’t stop taking care of the household. Everything would fall apart without her. She was sure that her mom appreciated her even though she never showed it; at least that’s what Sam told herself to sleep at night. 

           When Sam’s dad first left, her mom seemed to hold herself together, but as the weeks passed and they all lost hope that he was coming back she started drinking. She only drinks after work because she says she couldn’t risk losing her job, but she goes in to work almost every day hung over and irritable. Sam did all of the suggestions that the pamphlet she printed online told her to do. She practiced her speech in the mirror about how she didn’t blame her mom, she just wanted her to stop numbing the pain. Sam’s mom just laughed and denied having a problem, later passing out drunk in her bed. Sam felt stuck, she couldn’t tell anyone because then her mom might be taken away, she just had to carry the weight of the family that her mom couldn’t. Lately that has been feeling like a lot of weight for a middle schooler. 

       

       After she picked up Ollie from the neighbor’s house and completed her homework, her mother walked in later than usual. She came home empty-handed, threw her apron on the kitchen table, and disappeared into her room. 

           Ollie was out of his mashed food, so Sam walked down to the corner store. She returned with baby food, two bags of chips, fruit snacks, and two blue Gatorades she had bought using money from her mom’s apron. 

           Lucy was outside until Sam went to sleep, the scent of skunk and loneliness permeating off her. Sam wished her dad would come back without scruff, with a job, and put their family back together again. She wanted to see her mom and sister as the family they were a year ago when they all sat down for a home-cooked dinner together. They used to play games like trivia and monopoly or make up fun bedtime stories for Ollie. When her dad lost his job, he and mom tried to stay strong, but they looked so tired and were always bickering. Dad even slept on the couch most nights. Soon the games stopped, and mom started putting greasy fast food on the kitchen table. 

       The only thing Sam had for herself were her drawings. They started as little doodles in the margins of her notebook, but now they were her escape from the reality she was imprisoned in. Last year she had spent all of her birthday money on different sized sketchbooks, most of which were now filled. When everyone fell asleep and the house was still, she pulled out her last fresh sketchbook and let go of everything she was feeling. She dreamt of selling her drawings or even making illustrations in books, but she always reminded herself that they were only dreams. 

           She drew a self-portrait with shades of blue and purple; the lines faded into a blur. The longer she stared at it the more she pitied who she was drawing; she wanted to free that person. Sam mentally counted how much money she would need to save herself from this life she hated, probably a few hundred bucks would get her out of town. Maybe she would live with another relative, maybe she would try and find her dad, or maybe she was better off on her own; her mom and Lucy were too far gone, she had to rescue herself and protect Ollie. 

       

       On Saturday morning everyone slept in, besides Sam and Ollie. Sam woke up early to feed Ollie and then spent her morning playing with him and watching cartoons in the living room, the one time a week when she was able to act like a child. It was around 11:30 when her sister finally emerged from her bedroom. She was in worn, blue pajamas, her hair was all matted into a ponytail, and the mascara she wore the night before had settled underneath her eyes. 

       “Where’s Mom? I need to go babysit next door in an hour,” Sam said. Lucy shrugged and continued eating a bagel. “Ugh, you’re useless!”

       “What do you want from me? I don’t know where she is,” Lucy said.

       “Could you do literally anything? Watch Ollie? Find mom? Do something other than smoke?”

       “Leave me alone, I’m not in the mood,” Lucy said, sinking down into the couch.

       “Not in the mood? I’m never in the mood! I want to sleep in on Saturday mornings, but instead I’m taking care of a baby that isn’t even mine.”

       “What the hell do you want me to do? Ollie’s not mine, either.”

       “Why do I have to be the only one who does anything around here? We all lost dad, not just you and mom,” Sam said, walking out the front door. She had nowhere to go, no friends to run to. She just sat on the front porch and stared at the falling leaves. She inhaled slowly, smelling her neighbor’s freshly cut grass. The wind blew the chimes hanging from the roof, the clouds covered the sun just enough to make the day seem later than it really was.

       It was too much: schoolwork, trying to be a child, taking care of a child, being the glue for the family. Sam felt she was losing herself to adult stress; she shouldn’t have to be her own mom. She should be able to come home and eat fruit snacks and watch cartoons, like all her friends at school do. She wanted to ride her bike around the neighborhood with all the kids in her class or go to sleepovers she was invited to. But she couldn’t do any of this because she had to make sure her mother was still breathing after drinking half a bottle of tequila and take care of helpless Ollie. 

       Ollie was the only reason she stayed. Sam wanted him to do all of the things she couldn’t do with her friends. Maybe it was better if her mom was taken away, or maybe Sam could just take Ollie and leave. Their grandma used to visit them quite often, but then Sam’s dad called her “overbearing” and she only came by every couple of years. She was in Colorado, no, Connecticut, California? It started with a “C” for sure. All Sam needed was to get there, or even get her grandma’s phone number and ask for help. Sam couldn’t be the adult of the family anymore, the pit in her stomach was taking over, making Sam shut down.

       

       “I’m done,” Sam said, walking into her mom’s room. Her mom was still in bed, sprawled out on the sheets half asleep.

       “What?” her mom said.

       “Take care of your own baby. Stock the fridge and pantry by yourself. Act like the mother you’re supposed to be,” Sam said.

       “What the hell are you talking about?”

       “I’m talking about how you have given up on everything since dad left.”

       “Don’t bring up your father, Samantha. Stop speaking to me this way, I’m your mother.”

       “Then act like it! Why am I the child and doing everything you’re supposed to be doing?” Sam slammed the door on her way out of the house. She exhaled slowly, trying to return her heartbeat to a normal pace before going next door.

       

       It was late when Sam walked back home, the neighbors had gone to a birthday party that was too much fun to leave so early. She counted out half of her money and shoved the other half in her pocket before walking through the front door.

       The TV was playing some comedy show at a low volume; her mom was lying on the couch waiting for her. Sam prayed for the apology from her mother that would never come.

       “How was babysitting?” she asked. Sam shrugged. “How much did you make? I need some for groceries since I missed my shift today.” Sam handed her the money she held in her hand.

       “That’s it?” her mom asked. “They really screwed you, kid. All that time over there and you made 30 bucks?”

       “I did it to help them out, not make a salary off of it,” Sam said. She made sure her bedroom door was locked before she opened her dresser and pulled out a crayon box hidden in her underwear drawer. She shoved the hidden half of her cash into the box. Every night from then on when the house was all asleep, Sam took out her crayon box and counted her money, hoping the day would come when she could finally get out of that house.

Contributor's Note

Kaylee Garrett is a senior studying English and Creative Writing. She does not know what the future will hold for her, however, she is excited to find a career that she loves and to spend quality time with her cat, Oscar.

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