I could avoid Adam at school. That was easy enough because he was avoiding me. But given the cramped square footage of the Courtyard campus, I knew couldn't avoid Adam and avoid Teek and avoid Mr. Bodoni. That was too much to ask.
On Wednesday morning, I decided I only had one option. Avoid school entirely.
When my alarm went off, I hit Off instead of Snooze and pulled the covers back up over my head. I fell asleep again almost immediately, and dreamed I was talking with someone who was hiding his face. The someone in my dream had been saying my name, but as I was jerked from the dream I realized the voice was really my mother's.
"Dillon, Dillon, wake up!" She stood over me shaking my shoulder, a look of panic on her face.
"What?" I said. My mind clogged with sleep, I thought I might still be dreaming. My mother hardly ever came into my room. But it was her all right, in her pink robe, shaking me awake.
"You overslept!" she exclaimed. She seemed oddly animated, and it took me a second to realize that was because I hadn't seen her get excited about anything in over a month. "It's eight-thirty—school is starting already!"
"Oh," I said, though it didn't come out very audibly. Her hand was still gripping my shoulder, but I buried my face back into the pillow.
"I'm not going." I reached up to fold my pillow over my exposed ear. "I'm sick."
"You're sick?" Even through the pillow, even through my drowsy haze, I could tell she didn't believe me. "You don't seem sick. You were fine yesterday."
"I have a sore throat," I said. I considered coughing for effect, but I knew that wouldn't convince her.
"Dillon, don't be ridiculous." For a second, she sounded like my mom again. My old mom. "You're going to get up, get dressed, and catch the next bus to school."
I opened my eyes just a little to look at her face. She was trying to look stern, but it was a poor imitation of the mean-Mom face I'd grown used to. The real mean-Mom face that kept me in line since I was a little kid gave me chills. This one I couldn't take seriously. "I'm not going," I said.
"I'm sick," I said. And I laid there, waiting for her to respond. I almost wished she would get angry; her current efforts were depressing. Maybe it would be good for her to really just lose it on me. For her to scream at me like she meant it, for her to use the strength she'd cultivated as a nurse to rip me from the bed, her authoritarian tones to order me into my clothes. I didn't want to go to school, I really didn't want to, but in that moment, I wondered if it would be worth it, just to see her act liked she still had the capacity to give a damn.
But she didn't scream. She didn't say anything. She left my room. I could hear her footsteps down the hall, then silence. A few minutes later, I heard the muted tones of her voice, a one-sided conversation: she was calling the school. She was calling Courtyard to tell them I'd come down with a cold, that I wasn't coming in today.
I closed my eyes and gathered the comforter around my shoulders, but I didn't sleep. I just laid there in my bed, thinking about what a perfectly awful joke my life had become: Adam hated me, my mother had given up, and Ken was coming back to Courtyard.
I'd been trying not to think about that last one, but when you're lying in bed, doing nothing, it's hard to come up with sufficient distractions. So I found myself thinking about Ken, and as much as I hated to admit it, I had kinda mixed feelings about Ken coming back. The thing was, if you'd told ninth-grade-me that Ken was coming back to Courtyard—even though I was so mad at him—a large part of me would have been thrilled. This had been one of my foolish fantasies: that Ken would quickly see the true awfulness of being a whole country away from me and return, beg me for forgiveness, then things would be like they were before. Deep down, I think, I knew it was never going to happen that way. But in ninth grade, I could have pretended.
Now, not so much. Maybe it was because I was a couple years older—and allegedly wiser, though that was a joke— but mostly, I now knew I'd fucked up. Ken's excessive phone calls, his I Really Need to Talk to You letter—those made sense now, now that I knew he was coming back. He'd been trying to tell me, maybe even to warn me, and I was too stubborn to let him.
Ken wasn't the asshole; it had been me all along.
Eventually, when I could no longer stand to lie in bed feeling sorry for myself, I got up. Maybe food would make me feel better. Mom wasn't on the couch, so the coast to the kitchen was clear. I was unreasonably relieved to find our fridge filled with groceries; it must have been Richard's doing, but I wasn't going to think about that. I put together a sandwich and ate it over the kitchen sink, watching the closed door to my mom's room. If she wasn't on the couch, she must have been back in there. I didn't like this new development—at least before, I hadn't felt like she was hiding from me.
Maybe she really was avoiding me. I hadn't made myself particularly likable this morning, and she had to be at least annoyed with me for making her call in a fake sick day. I swallowed the last bite of my sandwich and cringed; maybe I should go apologize. My next thought was that that was kind of silly, but then no, no it wasn't. I didn't want to be thinking about Richard, but I couldn't shake what he'd said to me the previous night. What had I done to help my mother out? Not much, according to Richard, and I was beginning to worry he was right.
I stalled by pouring myself a glass of orange juice and drinking it slowly in front of the last ten minutes of a Family Feud re-run. I wondered if the siren song of TV programming might summon Mom from her bedroom, but it didn't. The credits rolled and her door was still closed.
But my orange juice was gone, so I walked the glass to the kitchen sink, took a deep breath, and headed down the hall to Mom's bedroom. I knocked before I could change my mind. I tried to think of something to say—Mom? Are you in there? Is everything okay?—but all of that sounded stupid in my head so I didn't say anything. When I didn't get a response, I moved my hand to the knob and that's when I heard, "Dillon, wait!" through the door.
"Just a second!" Mom's voice called. I let go of the doorknob and waited.
When she did open the door, she greeted me with a, "What?"
For a second I thought she was angry, but she really just seemed frazzled. Her hair was a mess, half-up, half-down and she must have been changing clothes. She was wearing an off-white blouse I'd never seen and a black skirt she seemed to be holding up in the back. "What do you want?" she asked.
"I just, um…" I looked down at my feet and caught a glimpse of the floor of Mom's bedroom. Clothes were strewn and piled all around, like her closet had thrown-up or something. "I wanted to, you know…apologize. I guess I'm not that sick."
When I looked up, her face was hard to read. "I knew you weren't sick," she said.
Her expression softened a little. "It's okay.” Then she let go of her skirt to cover her face with her hands.
"Mom?" A small grip of panic seized my stomach. Was she going to cry? "Mom, are you okay?"
She'd started to turn away, but she stopped, her body in profile, and dropped her hands. I could see where her skirt was unzipped in the back. "I don't know," she said. "I don't know, Dillon."
I'd been expecting a "yes"—she always said yes, and my stomach dropped another story as I watched her turn away again and pick up a couple pieces of clothes from the floor. I watched her drape them over the foot of the bed, then sit down beside them. She looked down at her hands in her lap. I wasn't sure what to do. But I couldn't just stand there watching her.
"Can I come in?" I asked.
"Yeah." She laughed, but it came out harsh. "Try not to step on anything."
I wove a path around the clothes and sat down beside her on the bed.
"Is it because of me?" she asked suddenly.
"That you don't want to go to school."
"Oh," I said. "No."
She had this weird look on her face, this half-smile that wasn't a smile. "Then why?"
"There was just some drama with some people," I said. That was vague, but at least it was the truth.
"With your friends?"
"Sort of." Already, I was getting antsy to change the subject. I looked down the wrinkled orange dress by my feet. "What are you doing with all these clothes?"
"I need something to wear. For the hearing." She let out a long sigh that left her shoulders slumped, as if she'd deflated. "I'm not having any luck."
"That looks nice," I offered.
Her laugh was almost a huff. "The blouse is two sizes too big and I can't even get the skirt zipped." Her eyebrows furrowed as she gathered the excess fabric from her blouse in her fist. "I don't want to do this. I wish they would just take away my license and get it over with."
"Mom—" I started to say, but as soon as I opened my mouth, she looked mortified.
"Dillon, I'm so sorry," she said. “That was completely inappropriate."
"No, it's okay. Really. But you don't know that you're for sure losing your license, right? You said it was an accident and Richard said…"
Mom was shaking her head. "Richard doesn't know the whole story," she said.
"What's the whole story?"
She frowned again. "I didn't tell you what happened," she said, like she'd only just realized it.
"No. But I didn't really ask."
"What did you think?"
"I don't know," I said. "I guess I figured you mixed up someone's meds or something."
“Really?” she asked. My guess was probably stupid. "Well, all right. I don't know what you were supposed to think."
“Then what really happened?"
Mom puffed out her cheeks and blew out a long stream of air. "I had this one patient. An older gentleman with his share of health and mobility problems who needed regular care. But he…complained a lot. About every little ache and pain—he always thought something was wrong with him. We used to joke about it even, how every headache was a brain tumor to him."
"So he was a hypochondriac?" I asked.
"Just about. But given his age and his other health problems…" She trailed off. She was either staring at a spot on the far wall or off into space.
"What happened, Mom?"
She pressed her lips together. "It was the second half of my shift, almost time for my break. I was ready to get out of there. He'd been doing fine all afternoon and then right before I was supposed to leave, he started complaining about a pain in his chest. But instead of doing my job and checking his vitals, I told him that it was probably just heartburn—it always was—and that I'd check him after my break." She paused to look at me. "He had a heart attack. When I got back, it was too late to help him."
"Wow," I said. I had no idea what I was supposed to say. That sucks? I'm sorry? I tried to come up with something reassuring. "But you didn't, like, ignore him on purpose. You couldn't have known—"
"He was complaining of chest pains," she snapped. "That's never something you ignore, never—it was just stupid. Completely thoughtless. Terrible."
I was sure if I gave her the chance, Mom would continue to find words to flog herself with. "So what doesn't Richard know?" I asked.
"You said he didn't know the whole story?"
Mom looked at me and sighed again. She pulled the clip out of her hair and what was left of her bun fell down around her shoulders. She looked down at the hair-clip in her hand when she said, ”I told Richard I was exhausted and overworked. But I don't think that's why it happened. I was distracted. I've been distracted for most of the year."
"What do you mean?" I asked.
She hesitated. "I've been…Dillon, I shouldn't be worrying you with this."
"No, tell me," I said. This was the longest conversation we'd had in months and the closest I'd felt to my mother in a long time. I didn't want her to back out.
She closed her eyes for a moment, then looked up at the ceiling. "I haven't been dealing very well with your father and brother being back."
"Really?" I said. I said it like I didn't believe her, though she'd just caught me off guard. I couldn't conceal my surprise; I hadn't been expecting that, not in a million years. "Dealing with it how? I thought you were fine with it."
"I was trying to be. But I couldn't. Having them here again was like…" She gestured with a rigid hand. "Having my mistakes, all my bad decisions thrown back in my face."
I found myself frowning. "What do you mean, your mistakes?"
"Oh, honey…it's hard to explain. I don't expect you to understand."
"Why wouldn't I understand?" I asked, almost annoyed. "It's my family too."
"But you were just a little kid," she said. "You weren't responsible for what happened."
"But it's not all your fault either!"
"Sometimes it feels like it is. A lot of times."
I wasn't sure what I was supposed to do here. She seemed really upset. I felt like maybe I should try to hug her, but she was staring off into space again, off on another planet. Before I could decide whether to loop an awkward arm around her or not, she said, "I feel so awful about the things I've done."
It was obvious now that she wasn't just talking about letting that guy have a heart attack. "Mom, you know I don't blame you for the split," I said. "I'm not mad at you. I don't think Lionel's mad at you either."
"That's sweet of you to say."
"I'm serious," I said. "If anything we've been, like…worried about you."
"I'm so sorry to have worried you."
"I don't want you to apologize," I said. "I want you to…" Then I trailed off; I don't think I realized what I was going to say until that moment.
"What do you want? Tell me, honey."
I swallowed. "I want you to get better. I want you to…get help. You know, like…talk to someone?"
For a second, she was silent, her face unchanged, and I was certain I'd said exactly the wrong thing. Then she nodded, slowly. "That's probably a good idea," she said.
"Mom," I said. It came out like a sigh of relief, and this time, I did hug her. It's always a little tricky to hug someone you're sitting next to, but this wasn't so bad. She hugged me back. I'd almost forgotten she was such a good hugger.
"I'm sorry," she said again. "I never wanted to burden you with any of this."
"It's okay," I said. "Don't worry about it."
When she let me go, it seemed reluctant. She rubbed my upper arm with this tight little smile on her face, like she was trying to hold it together. "I don't want you to worry either. Things are going to get better. Let's just take this one day at a time, okay?"
"Deal," I said.
She nodded and her smile looked a little less pained. "And if you'll give me a minute," she said, tugging at the top of her skirt, "I need to change into some jeans."
Up next week, Chapter 28: Friends.