This story is by Elizabeth Jones and was part of our 2018 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Becca felt the stress rising inside, like the inevitable rise of the sun at break of day. Her stress level hadn’t always been like this.
That morning had started better than usual for the family. Becca made sure her brother Jamie was awake. Jamie didn’t even make a fuss when Becca poked her head in his room and reminded him to get up and shower.
Becca’s dad smiled weakly at his daughter when she brought him some herbal tea. Since his cancer had recurred, Frank Springborn felt exhausted all the time. Becca’s heart broke every time she observed her dad, desperate to navigate the path between the living room and the bathroom on his own. It was a real success for Frank to make a complete circuit of the ranch house where they lived, in one go. And, getting rarer, too.
“How’s my girl today? Did you finish your homework last night?” her dad asked.
“Yes, Dad,” Becca nodded. She ate the quartered apple while she packed up her over-stuffed book bag.
“We should be getting back word on your ACT test scores soon,” he reminded her.
She agreed as she crammed the last of the apple in her mouth. “I know you’re hoping I did well. I always try my best, Dad,” Becca said earnestly, as she squeezed his thin hand. She checked out her father’s face and arms, which looked even more gaunt than they had for the past few weeks. Her heart sank. Again.
As Jamie came into the living room, he stopped in front of the hospital bed. Frank struggled to the edge of the bed and smiled. Jamie smiled back, the identical look mirrored on both faces. Like father, like son. Same facial features, same bright smile, and same dyslexia affecting both Springborn senior and junior.
Jamie hugged his dad in a hurry, almost as if he was ashamed of showing gushy emotions. Frank trailed his hand along his son’s cheek. “Do your best in school today, Jamie.”
Becca and Jamie left home at the same time, walking to the corner where Becca caught the bus to the high school. Jamie continued on three blocks to the middle school.
None of the family mentioned their wife and mother, Monica Springborn. Becca tried not to worry over her mom, either.
Becca juggled all of her various stressors, including three AP classes. She was coping very well, especially for a busy junior at an elite high school.
She looked forward to Chess Club on Thursdays. It was her only outlet for any kind of fun. She needed some kind of enjoyment, since she had taken a leave of absence from the Mathletes.
Focusing on the chess board, Becca blocked everything else out. The chess pieces and squares did their usual dance of permutations and combinations in her head as she plotted her tactics. She won, unsurprisingly. Pushing his glasses up on his nose, Todd shook hands after the match. “You’re getting ready for city competition, aren’t you,” he murmured. Becca shrugged. She hadn’t decided on competition for sure yet, because of her dad’s declining health.
Her dad was all-important right now. Of course, family came first.
Becca had heard all about her mom’s troubles at Acme Accounts, ever since Eddie Jr. inherited the company from his father, the long-time owner. Eddie Jr. had streamlined the company (a “new, improved” business model), reduced the number of employees, and still kept up the output for their accounting clients.
Becca knew her mom was stuck—stuck at a job where she was stretched to make ends meet, and where her husband’s cancer treatment was covered under health insurance.
As a middle manager, Monica tried really hard, but her 60-hour a week workload had her running ragged. She played catch-up with her frazzled staff, finding and correcting errors due to rushing and overwork, and doing a delicate balancing act for upper management. She tried to placate everyone. All of which problems she poured into Becca’s sympathetic ear.
Monica felt she deserved to relax after work and unwind with a beverage. Bringing home a bottle of Seagram’s, she enjoyed a Seven and Seven, with a healthy splash from the two-liter bottle of 7-Up in the back of the fridge. (Actually, she knocked back a number of beverages after a late dinner, until she fell into bed, to get up in the morning and start all over again.)
* * *
Even though annoying Ethan tried to monopolize the attention of the physics teacher after class, Dr. Green adroitly excused herself and crossed the classroom to see Becca.
The physics teacher smiled. “I noticed you won both your matches yesterday in Chess Club. Against two of our best players, too. Have you rethought about playing in City Competition?”
The physics teacher was also the sponsor of the Chess Club. Becca sincerely liked Dr. Green. Her request wasn’t totally unexpected. But, Becca felt stretched thin, like bread with not enough butter scraped on it. Her expression must have registered her discomfort, because Dr. Green got concerned.
“Becca, how is your father doing? He has been in hospice for two weeks….” Her voice trailed off as the teacher gave Becca’s hand a quick press, and fixed her bird-bright eyes on Becca’s strained face.
“Um, Dad’s kind of stable. The oncologist said he was okay with Dad’s condition right now. But, it can change any day.”
Dr. Green’s face showed her concern. “Let me know how his condition holds.” She nodded as she walked to the teacher’s desk.
The no-nonsense physics teacher was the last teacher Becca would have thought would want to know things about her students’ private lives. Yet, if Becca had to confide in anyone, Dr. Green would be the one. Maybe Becca ought to say something about her mom’s drinking. Maybe.
As Becca dragged herself up the back stairs and into the kitchen, Jamie came out of her parents’ bedroom with a paper bag. His face was pale as he put the bag on the table. It clinked.
“I found these behind the headboard on the floor when I changed Mom’s sheets,” he whispered. Five empty Seagrams bottles. Since just last week.
Expression unreadable, Becca made her voice gentle. “Could you take them out to the recycling? Thanks for cleaning up. And for making the beds.”
As she walked into the living room and looked at the too-thin figure covered with Jamie’s dinosaur comforter, Becca’s heart plummeted. She knew she needed to put up a cheerful front. “So good to see you, Dad.” She kissed him, and was gratified to see his eyes light up, almost in the old twinkling way. Precious time together. Not much time left.
Becca loved her father so much it hurt like a knife, deep inside. She wondered how aware her dad was of Mom’s drinking. What would that do to her father? Talk about walking on eggshells. She buried her face in her hands.
In her mind’s eye, she could see her recently-departed Grandma Springborn, arms folded, standing proudly in front of the old family house in Wisconsin. “Keep busybodies out of our business. Family is family. We look after our own.”
* * *
“Jamie, can you just tell your teachers to hold on a little longer? Maybe a week?” Becca pleaded. “Mom is almost done with tax-time craziness at work, you know that.”
Her brother’s crumpled midterm grade report sat on the kitchen table. Brother and sister looked at the computer-generated report. Good grades in math, gym and art. The rest, not so good. Angry tears squeezed out of his eyes. “I did tell my homeroom teacher so. But she’s not Mr. Taglia, my math teacher. He understands.”
Jamie put his head down on his arms and tried not to sob. Becca patted his arm. The dyslexia made things really difficult for Jamie, and even more so because his dad was no longer able to advocate for him.
Becca accompanied her mom to the conference with Jamie’s homeroom teacher. The special-ed teacher was there, too.
Monica’s brittle smile and heavy perfume did not mask her nervousness. The teachers were less than understanding. “Frankly, Jamie is not trying at all. He has not completed any of the longer English or history assignments since the beginning of the school year.”
Perversely, Becca wanted to spill everything to the seventh-grade teacher, telling her of their dad with cancer, now in hospice. Plus, Jamie’s dyslexia was getting worse. Plus plus, her mom’s out-of-control drinking was accelerating.
But, God, no! Besides, how much did the school know already?
With no relatives on either side able to pitch in and help the Springborn family, Becca guessed that Child Protective Services would get involved. At the bare minimum, intrusive social workers would stick their busybody noses into their family business.
Becca did not want to think about the possibility of her mom losing her job because of her drinking.
Of course, her family came first.