Everyone loves pizza night. Stevie gets to have stuffed crust, Mom doesn’t have to cook and, for me, Pizza Hut has some delicious wings. Stevie is already gnawing on his first piece crust-first before Mom comes to the table. She picks up her knife while taking out the Granny Smith apple hiding under her apron and quickly cuts it into pieces. She gives Stevie and I each half before he has time to finish chewing his two mouthfuls of food.
She stands up with her empty glass and puts her hands on her hips. “Now, Stevie, you have to eat that apple too, not just cheese.” He scowls and nods his head; I laugh and diligently pick the drum sticks out of the box of hot wings. They’re the best. A low hum starts to build until it covers the sound of chewing. “Ugh. The fridge is acting up again. We just had someone come look at it this afternoon and he didn’t find anything wrong with it. I think he might have taken the stuff I bought for a salad tonight, too,” Mom says while banging on the side of the fridge. “Oh, it stopped. Well, you still won’t get away without me making you eat something green, will you Stevie?”
Stevie looks startled and, for the first time since the boxes were set down, didn’t have a mouth full of cheese. “What?”
“You’re going to have to— Oh, you already ate it, what a big boy you are tonight.”
Stevie mumbles something about always being a big boy and I ruffle his head. “Hey, I’ve got ten years on you and I didn’t even eat my fruit yet.”
“You do not, John! When I turn nine tomorrow you will be only be seven point one-two-zero-five-four-seven-nine-four-five-two-zero-five-four-seven-nine-five years older than me.”
“Did you memorize that little bro?” I say while laughing.
“I didn’t need to—” Stevie starts to look down at the ground. “Yeah. I went online and memorized it.”
“Don’t be embarrassed, sweetie,” says Mom with her face lit up, “it’s cute. My little boy is so smart.”
The front door slams open. “And what the fuck do you think you were doing?” That’s the first thing he says when he comes home from work.
“Kids, go upstairs.” In that moment, Mom’s face lost all of its light. We do as we are told and hurry into the living room and up the stairs while his footsteps move through the hallway and into the kitchen.
“How high were you to think that you could just kill my fucking dog?”
“God, how much whiskey did you drink toni—”
“Don’t interrupt me, junkie.”
“You know I stopped.”
“You didn’t say shit. You just went behind my back and murdered my best friend.”
There was a short pause before Mom said, “I ‘didn’t say shit?’ I’ve been saying for two years, every time he tried to stand up, that he is suffering…”
I close the door to Stevie’s room and all we can hear is a dulled rumbling. Stevie is already curled up on his bed with his eyes wide open. I sit next to him and we wait in relative silence.
The sounds from downstairs pick up and things start to break. I move closer to Stevie. “It’s okay little bro, He’s just,” I pause while Stevie’s eyes burn into me with expectation, “upset.”
Stevie’s face drops. “John,” he says quietly while I put an arm around him, “why do we let bad things happen?” There was another thud from downstairs followed by shattering glass; Mom had just cut the season’s first bright red tulips for the vase yesterday, too. Stevie’s fingers press into my arm hard, but I didn’t ask him to stop. “Why don’t we stop bad people?”
I look down at him and, after searching desperately for a reason, tell him, “Bad things aren’t always done by bad people, Stevie. It’s complicated.” Stevie slips out of my arms and shrinks to the corner of his bed. I stand up and look back. He’s only 9, but still, he looks so small. “Sometimes good people do bad things because they don’t know how to show they care, but they still do. You’re still young. You’ll understand things more when you’re older.”
“NO.” My face is splattered with spittle when Stevie screams and jumps off of his bed. He destroys his well-made bed and rips off the sheets that hang low over the side. Stevie’s face scrunches into a ball as he hauls out a long cardboard box. He glares at me until I look inside: books on HTML and Haskell, Euclidian Geometry and Fibonacci numbers, theoretical physics and quantum mechanics. “I understand a lot more than you think, big brother, and good people shouldn’t do bad things.”
My mouth hangs open. There is no way. “Have you read these?”
“All of them.”
“Well, then why did you ask me?”
“Because they don’t answer my question,” says Stevie as he looks me directly in the eye with an intensity I’ve never seen before. “I figured out how it works.”
“How what works?”
“Everything. The universe. The source code. But I can’t figure out bad things: there is no reason for them. I think it is an error.”
“There are no errors, Stevie. God made everything the way it is: perfect. And we can’t change that. We just have to bear the trials we are given.”
“Maybe you can’t change anything big brother, but I can.” Stevie darts out of the room and I jump towards the partly open door. I see his ankle disappear into the bathroom and follow slowly. I try not to make noise, but there isn’t much point: raised voices, breaking glass and hollow thuds fill the house. I find Stevie kneeling on the floor looking through an air vent. We can just barely make out Mom softly sobbing in the corner of the living room. She is covering her face. God dammit; He’s never been this bad before. We shouldn’t be seeing this, or hearing it.
“If you loved him so goddamn much then why didn’t you care that he was miserable and in pain? It was mercy, Jim. You let him suffer.” Mom’s voice was muffled by her hands, but the words still carried through the vent. “Lord, this family needs mercy now.”
“Shut the fuck up.”
Mom responds with sobs. A large, muscular hand swings into view firing a silver candlestick towards her. The world slows down as I watch the candlestick traveling through the spaces between grates, and I shut my eyes. A low-pitch hum starts soft and grows until its hurting my ear drums. Swathes of yellow, pink and red decorate the darkness of my eyelids, and then the humming stops. I can hear the same soft sobs. Nothing else. After a moment, the front door downstairs is slammed shut, and the truck pulls out of the driveway. I ask, “What happened? Where is the candlestick?”
“I deleted an error,” says Stevie.
“What the hell did you—”
“—I told you. I can change things. I understand how it works; I can delete errors.”
“You can… delete.”
“Anything, I think.” Stevie looks around and grabs his toothbrush. He sets it on the ground between us. “Don’t close your eyes.” I don’t. Both of us are staring at the toothbrush on the floor of our bathroom. Stevie’s face muscles loosen and his eyes glaze over. A soft, low-pitch hum steadily builds for about ten seconds.
Then, suddenly, it stops, and we are staring at the dirty yellow tile. I stand up without a word and walk to bed.
No one in the house did much of anything yesterday. Mom didn’t leave her room at all. Stevie did the same, except during lunch, when I microwaved him two pieces of pizza, and even then we didn’t talk.
He never came back; it isn’t the first time. No one minds when he stays out all night, but today is Stevie’s birthday. Whatever. It’s probably better this way.
When I shuffle into the kitchen for breakfast, Stevie is already sitting at the table with a fork and knife at the ready: breakfast is the traditional chocolate chip birthday waffles. Mom asks if I can come help her out, but when I get close to her she doesn’t look up. Her hair isn’t put up like it usually is; I can barely see her face at all. “Please give these to your brother, dear.”
I walk over to him, set the plate down and smile. “Happy birthday, Stevie!” He smiles, but won’t stop looking at Mom. She makes me a waffle, puts away dishes, gets the mail and reads it before she is forced to sit with us, and that’s when we both see: her top eyelid is split open and still shining. Her bottom eyelid is swollen to the point red and purple overcome the green in her eyes. Stevie’s face hardens. his eyes don’t leave her face and his lips press tightly together. He grips his fork even tighter, until color drains from his knuckles. After a minute of Stevie’s scrutiny, Mom brings up a hand for cover. “Can you walk Stevie to school today? I’m busy.”
When I pick Stevie up in the afternoon, I don’t ask how his day has been: his eyes have swollen red to match the red lightning bolts in his eyes, and his face is stained from snot and tears. “Mom’s probably making something special for you right now.”
Rain starts around five o’clock. An hour later, Mom calls us both downstairs for dinner. Lightning strikes at the ground closeby, which is evidenced by a booming crack quickly chasing each flash. The lights keep flickering so Mom decides to eat by the light of our nearly one dozen half-used tea candles. She threw away the candlesticks. Mom flourishes a plate of chicken that is battered, covered in Goldfish crumbs and deep fried (the Goldfish add a familiar crunch to the fried chicken, with some added oomph from the cheddar).
The next thunderclap is accompanied with three hard smacks on the door. “You changed the locks you bitch. This is my house. Open the goddamn door.” He’s back.
Mom whips around and stares at the shaking door. The color drains from her face and she walks towards the door like a zombie. I can barely hear her tell him, “No.” He isn’t used to that one, and he really doesn’t like it. She tries to raise her voice against his unintelligible threats and screams. “I’m calling the police, Jim. You should leave.”
Nearly half of our tea lights go out while he pounds on the door, then we hear the loudest crack yet: our door frame breaks and the door violently swings in. Stevie never averts his gaze from the door, and he’s the only one that doesn’t jump. As he approaches, sirens can be heard in the distance. They’re getting closer, but are still over a mile away. “You need to go, Jim,” Mom says as her whole body shakes. “You can’t get arrested without violating your parole. Leave, please, and stop making us suffer.” He clenches his fists and teeth; she pleads quietly, “The children are here.”
He stands in the living room, close enough for the fading yellow candle light to illuminate his work boots, but his body is occasionally silhouetted by the storm’s flashing lights coming in from the open door. “You win,” he says coldly as the door bangs against the broken frame with a strong gust of wind. “But I’m not going to leave until I hear you tell those nice police officers that everything is fine.” He pulls a suitcase out of the closet under the stairs and walks up to his room.
Mom lies to the police when they arrive. She blocks the broken door with her body and uses the darkness to play down her eye, and then they just leave. A couple minutes later he comes down with a suitcase and a trash bag full of his things. He glares at Mom and walks out the door. She follows, and before I can say anything Stevie gets up and runs to the door frame to watch. She is standing in the front yard as he walks to his rust-colored pickup across the street. The ignition growls, the headlights flash on and then the car lurches forward. Halfway down the block the truck stops and switches to reverse. It does a three-point turn and then stops. It creeps forward, then the high beams flash on and He picks up speed towards Mom, but she slips on the concrete walkway as she turns to run. Stevie walks out in front of her. “It’s going to be okay.” A low-pitch hum quickly crescendos until Mom and I have our fingers in our ears and can’t hear the pickup truck rattling towards us.
Suddenly, the hum stops. I can’t see anything but a torrent of rain lit up by the high beams, and their approach is slowing down. A tire pops as the truck rolls into the corner of the curb and it shakes to a halt half on the sidewalk. I squint my eyes and walk into the rain slowly. Mom is on the ground crying, and Stevie is holding her hand. “It’s okay now, Mom.”
I approach the truck hesitantly. When I get to the door, I see the truck is running but no one is inside. I look every direction, but no one is there. Mom and Stevie follow a couple minutes later and, upon seeing the empty car, she breaks into hysterics and stares at me, then Stevie. “Don’t cry, Mom, I told you: it’s okay now.”
“Not at all,” I say softly as I look at the truck’s empty cab. My mouth hangs open and my eyes drift to Stevie. When he notices, I look down. “Why don’t you take Mom inside and I’ll park the car.”
Stevie nods and pulls on Mom’s hand, but she tears it away from him and walks inside.
I wake up, four days later, to the phone ringing. “Hello, this is John.”
“Hi. This is Tim Lorton. Is your father there?”
“No, sir.” My heart skips a beat. “He… hasn’t been here for a few days. May I ask who this is?”
“I see. This is his parole officer. Do you know when he’s going to be home?”
“I’m sorry,” I begin to panic, “I’m not sure.”
“That’s okay, son. Is your Mom home?”
I bring the phone to Mom’s room, but she doesn’t answer when I knock. I turn the handle and open the door slowly to see her laying in a pile on the bed. As I approach, I see a syringe sitting on the bed next to her. I can’t believe it’s there. When I turned sixteen, she told me about drugs and sex, and she said she made some bad decisions. She also said she’s been making good decisions for years now, and I should too.
“Mom,” I say as I shake her gently, “wake up.”
She groans and waves her hand at me.
“Jim Lorton is on the phone and wants to talk to you.”
“What?” she says while whipping her head towards me.That got her attention; sort of. Her eyes are sunken and red. I just woke her up, but she still looks like she hasn’t slept in days. I hand her the phone.
“Hey,” she says before spacing out, “Hey Jim, it’s been a while.” She trails off at the end of her sentence and looks to be struggling to keep up with what he is saying. “No, no. I haven’t seen him for a few days.” She presses two fingers to the bridge of her nose. “No, it’s not necessary for you to come by. We’re fine,” she pleads, “Really, please, don’t go out of your way.” Mom waves at me to leave the room.
I leave and close the door, but don’t move an inch farther. “Why wouldn’t I be fine?” she says louder, scared. “Of course I’m not— Dammit!” I hear the sound of the the phone breaking against the wall and go to check on Stevie.
Mom still isn’t coming out, she’s been staying in her room while we are at home all week, so I’m stuck doing just about everything. Even though I am keeping track of Stevie and myself, this is the first time we have actually had time to talk. “So,” I say in an attempt to break the ice that’s been building up since Tuesday night, “how are you feeling?”
“I’m fine,” Stevie says without a second thought, “but… confused.”
“That’s… understandable.” How can he just be fine? “My head is rushing too; it’s been a really long week. Is there anything you want to talk to me about?”
“No. I mean, my head isn’t rushing. But I don’t understand why Mom is still upset.”
I guess this is as good a time as any. “Stevie, on Monday night, did you—”
“She was suffering so I deleted the error.”
I look down at the floor. What is this thing, and how long can I pretend that I know how to take care of it?
“John,” Stevie says quietly in a voice I actually recognize as a child’s, “are you going to hide now, too?”
I look Stevie in the face. This is still my little brother; but he is still scary as all hell. I reach out and grab his shoulder firmly. “They will have to kill me before I leave you.” Will they? I hope I didn’t just lie to him.
Stevie smiles weakly and then goes to his room. While he is walking up the stairs, there is a strong knock at the door. “Police. Is anyone home?”
I jump up and open the door. “Hello, sir.”
“Hello. Is your father here?”
There are two police officers. Officer Jones is standing at the door, and a second uniformed officer is looking at the pickup truck. Jones comes in around six feet, but everything he wears is a little small. He’s fit, but spends too much time making sure his mustache runs parallel to his lip. He looks down at his notepad and then back at the pickup truck. “Right. Do you know where he is?”
“No, sir, he hasn’t been here for a couple of days.”
“I see. Is your mother home?”
“She’s home,” I say while scratching the back of my neck. “I will go see if she is awake.”
Officer Jones displays a sheet of paper and starts to walk inside. “We have a warrant to search this domicile.”
I hurry upstairs to get Mom, but she is already in the bathroom getting dressed. “Mom, there is a police officer in the living room.” She doesn’t say anything, but I can hear the sink running as she gets ready.
Mom’s face is covered with makeup when she comes out, but it still looks swollen. She must’ve been crying all day. Stevie and I peep from the top of the stairs until Officer Jones calls us outside a few minutes later.
“Hey kids,” he says while kneeling down, “we’re going to need you to wait out here with your Mom while we search the house.”
Another car and two more police officers come to assist in the search while we wait for nearly an hour. One of the other officers comes out with a bag in his hand. “Hey, Jones, come here.”
Mom starts to fidget and pulls her sleeves down low. All four of the police officers approach us and two of them start to usher Stevie and I away from her.
Officer Jones shows Mom the bag, and then begins to read her rights while she is handcuffed. The sadness and anger fall off of Stevie’s face to be replaced by a glazed stare.
Jones kneels down in front of us, “We have to take your mother into the station to ask her some questions. There’s no one else to watch you, so you two are going to have to come with us too. But don’t worry, you’re not in trouble.”
“Please, you don’t have to take my children—”
“Ma’am,” Officer Jones says as Mom is brought to his car, “you have already been advised of your rights. I suggest you take advantage of your right to remain silent.”
Mom begins to sob and Jones opens the car door. Stevie’s nose flares, and he steps forward. The officer’s hand is pushing down on her head to force her onto the seat.
I hear a low-pitch hum starting to build. “Stevie, NO.” I grab him by the shoulder and spin him around. The sound stops. “There are no errors!”
“They are just doing their jobs, Stevie, they aren’t doing anything bad. You can’t just—” I glance towards the second officer, who is now walking towards us, and start to whisper, “You can’t just kill people because you don’t like what they’re doing, Stevie.”
Stevie hangs his head and Officer Simmons, according to his nametag, tells us to come with him to the station.
“Do you understand?” I ask quietly.
Stevie glares at me, but nods. This is not good.
The police station is much dingier than I expected. No nice desks, fancy whiteboards or giant computer screens. Just small desks shoved together in a room bathed with flickering fluorescent light. Stevie and I are sitting in foldout chairs set up against a beige cinderblock wall. No sign of our Mom.
An older woman with a burgundy pantsuit approaches us. “Hello,” she says with a disconcerting smile, “I’m Margaret. Are you John and Stevie?”
“Mm, you must be John.” She bends down and gets very close to Stevie. “I’m going to talk to your big brother for a couple minutes, okay?”
Stevie shrinks away from her and nods.
Margaret brings me into a room with two chairs on either side of a table. “Take a seat.” We sit across from each other in a room lit just as poorly as the previous one. “I’m just going to cut to the chase, John: Do you know where your father is?”
“No, ma’am.” A solid ball drops into my stomach and continues to sink lower.
“I thought as much,” says Margaret as she shuffles some papers in front of her. “Well, the police are looking into his whereabouts,” she taps her pen and looks down at a clipboard, “and normally that would be that. However, the police found something illegal in your house and and they have to hold your mother.” She pauses to write something down. “That’s why I’m here. I work with Social Services, and I have found homes for Stevie and yourself while there is no one to watch after you.”
“Well, I can watch after us. It won’t be very long, right?”
“Unfortunately, we have no idea how long it will be, and since both of you are minors, and must go to school, the state can not allow you to watch over him, or yourself for that matter. I talked to a nice family and they are happy to take Stevie, and there is an assisted living and housing program for older children such as yourself.”
“Wait, what? You can’t—”
“—I know it’s hard, John, but there aren’t a lot of options. This is the only thing we can do right now, and the alternative is that you are both sent to different state-run facilities.”
I look towards the door. Stevie is sitting just a few feet from the other side. I love him, but with every second I’m more scared of him. She’s right: I can’t take care of that. I can barely bring myself to look at him. Perhaps this is for the best.
Margaret interrupts my thoughts saying, “I can tell Stevie what’s going to happen if you’d like, but I think it might be easier if he hears it from you.”
“Please,” I nod my head, “let me talk to him.”
“Of course. I’ll go get him and you two can talk in here privately.”
Margaret comes back with Stevie and says she’ll be back to get us in about ten minutes.
“Hey, Stevie, there’s something I need to tell you.” My eyes begin to blur and I look down. “That woman is from Social Services, and she found us somewhere to stay, while they ask Mom some questions.”
“I think it’s going to be longer than that.” I sigh and wipe a tear from my eye. “It could be a lot longer.” I can’t hold back the tears from this hellish week any more. I let out a sob and Stevie comes over to me.
“It’s okay, big brother. We can protect each other.” He rubs my back gently with his tiny hand. “I can protect us from anything.”
I shake my head. “I’m sorry, Stevie,” now I know I’m lying to him this time, “this isn’t what I want. They’re going to take you away from me Stevie. They said I can’t keep care of you, because we’re both minors—” I choke on a sob and bury my face in my hands, “they don’t have anywhere for both of us to stay.”
Stevie continues to rub my back as I cry. “It’s okay, big brother. We won’t suffer.”
A low-pitch hum starts to build until