Debbie Maxwell Allen is a novelist and freelance writer living in a small town high in the Rocky Mounains--a far cry from her Brooklyn, NY roots. Along with her husband and four children, she is involved in local single-parent ministry. Debbie divides her time betwen finishing her second novel, homeschooling her four teenagers and encouraging both teen writers and moms trying to find the time to write. She blogs at WritingWhileTheRiceBoils.blogspot.com.
There. I wrote something. Seven words down and ninety-three to go. What kind of English teacher makes you write for a whole week on the topic “After”? I mean, just last week I turned in eight freakin’ pages—eight!—on some dead guy who wrote stuff, like, a hundred years ago.
You’ll probably never read this, anyway, Ms. Juarez. Thirty-five students times five journal entries tells me you don’t have the time. Now that I think about it, you’ve probably got four other English classes where you’re pulling the same stunt.
I’m done right now. (100 words exactly)
Okay. Yesterday was practice. Don’t worry—I’ll address the topic today. My dad will kill me if I get a B.
So, the topic “After.” After what? After class? That would be lunch.
After prom? Now there’s a thought, not that I want to talk to a teacher about it. Anyway, it’s not like I’m even going—not that I couldn’t get a date. Seriously, I’ve got guys throwing themselves at me in the hallway.
They can flirt all they want. I’ve got plans for prom night. Besides, I don’t do relationships. (105 words)
Come on. Do we have to journal about “After” all week? (Maybe I’ll write about what topic you’ll pick after this week.)
After. Well, after I graduate (which my dad will make freakin’ sure of), I’m outta here.
I’ll move out of this stupid small town where everyone else knows way too much about you and looks away when you walk by, because they remember. They glance away, but not before you see a certain expression, and it makes you wonder if they feel sorry for you, or if they’re repulsed by you.
And when I move away, I won’t have to see the look in my dad’s eyes, either. Lots of my friends say they can’t measure up to their dads’ expectations.
Their dads will still love them even when they wreck the Escalade.
Me? I nixed the possibility of my dad’s forgiveness over ten years ago.
And even though I won’t come visit, I’ll call my little brother every week. Phone calls are good because people don’t feel like you’re avoiding them, even if you are.
Phone calls mean I won’t see Caleb’s hero worship when he looks at me. Looks up to me. He shouldn’t forgive me, either, but he doesn’t know it. He was way too little to remember.
Wow—I seriously went over a hundred words. I’m not even gonna count, ’cause it smells like pizza in the cafeteria.
Man. I tried so hard to stay home today, mainly to avoid this lame assignment, but Dad didn’t care. I swear, I could have, like, a ruptured appendix and he’d call the attendance office to make sure I showed up.
Why do I need a lousy education?
All my relatives dance around the truth when they give me advice. “Make something of yourself. Your mother would have wanted that for you.”
How do they freakin’ know what she would want? She’s not here to speak for herself. She’s not here to cushion dad’s razor edges. She’s not here to say, “I forgive you.”
She’s just not here.
I don’t care what anyone says. The problem is they don’t say much. And what they don’t say echoes like sneakers squeaking on an empty gym floor.
It’s all my fault.
The last day for “After.” I can’t wait till Monday—is the next topic “Before”?
All right. “After” I left the house today, I walked Caleb to the middle school. He’s usually a chatterbox, making me wish I could afford an iPod, or even a cell phone or something to tune him out, but I’ve got to remember I’m paying a penance—and the price goes up like gasoline with every year that passes without her.
Every year that drags by without her mega-watt smile.
Every month without her silly made-up songs.
Every week with burned spaghetti sauce instead of pasta a la Jill.
So, anyway, Caleb is shuffling along the sidewalk, kicking any stray pebbles he finds, avoiding every crack, and—get this—totally silent. His mouth is pressed into this straight line, like he grabbed for the Carmax tube and used superglue by mistake.
I bump him with my shoulder. “What’s up, bro?”
He looks at me out of the corner of his eye, and then glances away.
And that’s when my morning bagel hits the bottom of my stomach like a dropped barbell.
My mind starts spinning like Caleb’s stupid hamster on his little wheel. Going fast, but heading nowhere. Caleb is the last family member in my corner. If I lose him, what have I got?
I look at him, his head bent like he’s totally obsessed with his scuffed-up Converse shoes. He looks just like her, of course. He has no idea—no possible way of knowing—the knife in my heart every time he’s flashed a grin at me for the last ten years.
Is there any way I can stack up his house of cards that’s just been blown apart? I think I need some of that superglue.
I don’t sling my arm around him. I don’t ruffle his hair. I don’t touch him at all. Just in case he shrinks away from me.
See, even here I’m being selfish. Protecting myself from how he’ll look at me now that he knows. Now that he’s figured out why no one talks about mom—especially when I’m around.
Silence. A black hole that’s sucked everything down, down deep somewhere. Someplace where the people you love go and never come back. Someplace where the people who loved you forget that they did, though they try to pretend they still do.
But then, there’s a little squeak, like he’s trying to keep from crying. His eyes are still glued to his toes, but his lips move. Just a little.
“Danny showed me a newspaper article he found.”
The words hit me in the gut, reminding me of the time in gym class when I looked away for a second and the weight bag swung into my middle. That bagel ricochets around like a BB in a metal box, looking for a quick way out.
Am I still standing? I’m not sure, because my world has exploded. I’m six again, and the walls of my universe have disappeared.
“So what happened?” Now his eyes are locked on mine, and I can’t look away. Caleb’s words, so quiet, sound like they’re coming from the two-year-old he was back then. And they slice away at the scar tissue I’ve covered myself with for the last decade. See, no one’s ever asked me those three little words. They didn’t dare, weren’t sure, couldn’t take the risk.
And if they had?
I would have looked away. But I can’t take my eyes from Caleb’s.
I’ve lain awake more than three thousand nights, planning my answer to this very question. You’d think with all that preparation, it would slide off my tongue like butter on a hot ear of corn. It was Dad’s idea to practice—he’s the big-time hunter.
I was only six. I shouldn’t have had my own .22. I wasn’t paying attention to where it was pointing when I cocked it.
But out of all the things I could say, all the excuses I could muster, all the blame I could lay, there’s only one truth. And it comes to me now, for the first time. So I stop. Right on a crack. I face him, rest my hands on his shoulders, and lean in to peer into his clear blue eyes—Mom’s eyes.
“It was an accident, Caleb. And I wish to God I could take it back.”
He blinks—really slow—as he swallows my words, and it dawns on me that the words I just said for the first time in all these years are a sledgehammer, breaking apart at my self-imposed prison. The prison whose bars are made of people’s glances when they don’t think I’m looking, whispers behind my back when they think I can’t hear, and silence that suffocates the life out of me.
And no matter what Caleb thinks of me now, I just might be okay. I’ve taken myself off the giant hook I’ve been dangling from more than half my life. It’s like a flashflood washing away the giant boulders clogging a narrow canyon.
Then the miracle happens. Caleb’s hands grip my arms, and his eyes drill into mine. “You’re right. It was an accident.”
And though there’s no whoosh, like when you break the vacuum seal on a jar of peanuts, all the sounds that were sucked into the black hole comes singing back—the birds, the leaves rubbing together, the car horns honking.
And now I finally know what “after” means.