This story is by Sam Black and was part of our 2016 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the Winter Writing Contest stories here.
The alarm is set for 6 a.m. Like most days, I am awake before it rings. The first thing I do is check on my parents, on my mother. Father travels for work. Once he is gone, Mother hits the bars.
During times they are home together, Father thinks drinking with Mother will make things better. He is wrong, but there is no telling him. He will not hear it.
When Mother is back after a long night out, I want to see if she is all right. If she is here, and sleeping it off, I hold a mirror under her nose to be sure she is breathing.
Once the mirror fogs up, I know she is alive. After heavy drinking, her sleep is nearly motionless. I can’t see her chest move, so I use the mirror.
If both are home, I leave them alone.
Next, it’s time to wake my little sister, Netty, and get her ready for school. She doesn’t yet fully understand about Mother and Father. The longer, the better, as I see it.
Though I never let on, the first few times Netty and I were left alone, it was scary. Then, I realized how peaceful it is with just the two of us. There is no yelling, no loud TV to drown out the yelling, no walking on egg shells after our parents pass out.
To help Netty, I create a party when both parents are gone. We tell goofy stories and laugh. We wear silly paper hats made from newspaper while we cook, eat, and do our homework.
When both parents are home, and drinking, I tell her it is a grown-up game they play, and find ways to keep her entertained. It is a good thing that at her age she goes to bed early, and is a sound sleeper.
To be sure no one finds out, and sends us away to Child Services, I tell her our home world is a secret one only we share, and she must never let anyone at school, etc., know about it.
At this point, it seems the best way for us to cope. The last thing we want is to be separated.
This morning it is Mother alone in bed, and as usual, very sound asleep. For the first time ever, Netty sees me checking on Mother. Before she notices it, I drop the mirror on the rug, and push it out of sight with my foot.
She thinks Mother isn’t moving at all, and starts to cry.
I tell her Mother is not feeling well, and has taken some cold medicine. It is making her sleep this way. There is no reason to worry. To further distract her, I calmly lead Netty off to get dressed for school.
Being in school is paradise, for us both. We are out of the chaos at home, and into a more structured world where we are not invisible to those around us.
At school, I see my favorite teacher in the hall, Ms. Haley. I like to think of her as Ms. Halo. She is an angel to me. Her English class is the best, and the one I look forward to all day. As I walk past her, to get Netty to her classroom, we smile and nod at each other.
Netty is still a bit upset over this morning, so I reassure her everything is okay. I explain again how Mother is sleeping hard due to the cold medicine. By the time we get home, she will be up.
I’m going to be late for my first class, so I leave Netty with her teacher, hoping she will think nothing more of it. She loves her teacher, Ms. Glassy, and is always happy when I pick her up at the end of the day, filled with stories about what happened in class.
Halfway through Ms. Haley’s session, Ms. Glassy knocks on the door, asking Ms. Haley to come out into the hall. I can hear whispers, but can’t make out what they are saying. A moment later, and Ms. Haley motions for me to join them.
It seems Netty was found crying at lunch, and muttering something about our mother being quite ill.
The principal wants to see us right now. Ms. Glassy and Ms. Haley send me to his office where Netty is waiting for me.
We sit on the hard, high-backed wooden bench in the hall. It is the same as pews in some churches. It’s very uncomfortable. I try to sit up straight, but the seat part is narrow so I am slipping on it.
With my arm around Netty, I remind her there is nothing serious going on with Mother, of our special world at home we must never discuss with others.
The principal asks to meet each of us alone, so I must make sure she has the story straight on Mother this morning.
Poor Netty. I feel awful lying to her, and then making her lie. I hope one day I can make it up to her, and make her understand why it had to be this way.
We both love this school, it is our haven, so I gently tell her letting the principal know it is all a misunderstanding will allow us to stay here, and to stay together.
The principal calls me in first, and I prepare myself to tell him the story. He is concerned to learn about Netty’s crying, and talk of something wrong with our mother. He asks lots of questions to be certain I am telling the whole truth.
With my crossed fingers hidden in my lap, I tell him it is a mix-up. Netty saw Mother after taking the cold medicine which makes her sleep like a log, and she is confused thinking it is something much worse.
He lets me go, and then says it is time for him to see Netty alone. I give her a big hug, whisper in her ear Mother is fine, and send her into the office.
While waiting for her on the stiff bench I manage to sit as tall and still as possible. In case anyone is watching, I must look calm and carefree. Above all, I have to protect Netty and me from being taken from this school, from being pulled apart.
It feels like ages, but after only five minutes she is done, and back with me on the bench. She looks better, and the principal seems satisfied.
I give Netty another hug, and make a silent vow these are the only lies I will ever tell, as they are for a good cause. For now, our two worlds are safe. We are safe. She and I return to our classes. A few hours later, I get her to head home.
Mother is not there when we return. For an instant, I dread the moment when someday I must tell Netty the truth. My heart jumps at the thought, but I shake it off.
Turning to her, I say Mother is with a friend who will make her feel better.
When I ask her what she wants for dinner, she says peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, with apple slices on the side. Normally, I would protest and cook something hot, but after today I let her choose. We don our paper hats to eat, and then do our homework.
Most nights we play games, or watch a movie. Tonight Netty wants to take a bath and go to bed.
After she is asleep, I fix our lunches for the next day, clean the kitchen, get our clothes ready for tomorrow, shower, and see that all doors and windows are locked.
Checking to make sure my alarm is set for 6 a.m., I go to bed.