“Oh my god! He’s dead! How could this have happened?” my brain screams. And yet, she’s continuing the CPR, in and out and in and out. The artificial breath for an artificial body that is no longer inhabited. She looks up at me, eyes wide in a panic, continuing to push and push on his chest, as if he’s going to start coughing and come out of it like “GOTCHA! HAHA!” But he’s not. He’s not waking up, his face, bloodied and wounded from the collapse and from hitting his face on the trailer that holds the car. And all I can do is stand there and watch her proceed to pretend that she wants to breathe life back into that body. Pretending that her keeping the boys away is for their own good. His son, so young, only ten, fresh out of the shower stares through the window of a neighboring RV. His eyes mirror the feeling I have in my heart, the feeling of mistrust and failure to bring to light the honest truth: she killed him; and now, no one will ever know.
Eight Months Earlier
Typical Christmas Vacation: me and my brother, Hunter, fly to Colorado to spend time with the “family.” Not your typical family because we’ve essentially been adopted by this one: my step-dad and his girlfriend and all her family. Try explaining that to someone. I need a family tree to explain how I am connected to these random strangers that I buy Christmas gifts for every year. Needless to say, my Christmas budget keeps getting bigger. I need to stop creating such a large adopted family.
Long story short, Luke is my stepdad. He is my younger brother’s dad and to me, he is my dad too. He wooed his way into my life at the age of three by falling for my mom. Twelve short years later, here we are. One small detail is missing: my mom. Luke decided he’d trade her in for a new model, much like a car, only he forgot to tell her. One family vacation a few years back, she stumbled on the evidence in form of pictures on his camera. Luke may have been sneaky, but tactful he was not, and that was the beginning of the end.
His new upgrade was a much younger woman with fake boobs so big you may lose an eye if you got too close. Claire had been around the block and had three kids to show for it. She was sweet enough and much to my mom’s chagrin, I found myself becoming fond of her.
Trying to blend two families into one is not an easy task at all. My brother needed Luke’s full attention and this made Claire madder than a swatted bee. Most of the time, I would just observe and watch for signs that the world was coming to an end, but somehow it continued and this Christmas season was one in the same. The same big tree as last year, probably around thirteen feet or so, stood in the living room so full of ornaments, I’m not sure how it stayed upright. Because it was actually closer to New Years, the only gifts under the tree belonged to me and Hunter. As expected, a brand new pair of skis stood leaning against the back wall, calling my name. I knew I was getting them, and yet, excitement mounted as I unzipped the new bag to these silver, shiny new skis. Of course, the large parcel under the tree was the matching grey boots, which I picked out way before Christmas time and sent Luke the size and brand.
This evening was uneventful. We opened gifts, laughed at the silly stocking stuffers and the crazy book that Claire got for Hunter about boogers. This was a picture perfect moment, for approximately about 30 minutes. Luke tried to create these picture perfect moments for us because he was compensating for the fact that he left us. He moved away from our sunny, southern California home to this cold winter wonderland for this woman and her kids. How it happened, I will never understand. The feeling in this house is one of temporary comfort. You had everything you needed: the warmth of the fire place, clean towels, and a bed to sleep in. But the atmosphere had the tendency to explode at the drop of a hat, particularly after we would arrive. But then again, I wasn’t a permanent resident of this house, so maybe it was all the time. The other kids seem immune to it, but I picked it up right away. It’s a sort of uneasy feeling that spreads throughout the room like it was coming out of the vents. A sort of ticking time bomb that was set to explode at any point. They say that what happens behind closed doors is private, but not when the volume of what’s happening bursts through the seams and spreads. Claire and Luke could battle like they were going to war. Only this was a gorilla war, and I’m not sure who was the villain and who was the hero.
This arrival evening was no different for this time bomb, and it erupted as it normally does. After attempting to tuck the young boys into bed, and rounding up us rowdy teenagers, the adults retired to their bedroom. Claire would go first, claiming that she was tired and needed to pack for our ski adventures in the morning and Luke would somehow manage to hang out with us for a bit longer. Then he would feel the lingering battle start to consume him, and up the stairs he would go. At first, it was always relatively calm and quiet. Then after about thirty minutes or so, it would combust, a complete explosion that blew the roof right off the house. The fact of the matter is this house is huge. There should be no way sound can travel that far and fast, or that two people can make that much racket. It’s a good thing the neighbors were a good distance away otherwise I wouldn’t be surprised if the cops showed up. I look at Blaire, who is Claire’s daughter, and she catches my eyes and shrugs. Apparently, this is a normal occurrence in this house.
I am no stranger to fighting, especially after having Luke in my life for such an extended period of time. He had the mindset of a spoiled 5-year-old and could throw a better temper tantrum than a small child. His daily life had to include adventure or you would think he might just die. I think he is a bit of an adrenaline junky, which is fine, but after a couple of his temper tantrums, I could do without his adventures. For as much fun as these adventures were, they normally ended with him not getting his way and then the yelling would start. Luke had a way of raising his voice to octaves that were way beyond loud. They were intense and he would yell until his face turned purple and spit flew out of his mouth like he was trying to put out a fire with his saliva. I had been victim to these battles a time or two, but my young brain had the audacity to block them out to the point where I don’t remember very much. Unfortunately, the permanent picture of him in a fit of rage is burned into my skull and no matter how hard I try to forget it, it sits there like a ghost in my closet that pops out when I hear his voice start to raise. I think it’s a bit of a stop sign that says “RUN!” According to the therapist my mom made me start seeing after the divorce, this is a coping mechanism, known as a fight or flight happenstance. Sounded like a bunch of gibberish to me, but I suppose she had a point.
This evening’s battle could be heard probably back at my house in San Diego. His voice was getting gradually louder and hers rising to match his. My brain turned this into a play, or an opera, a matching voice on voice choir that spread through the cracks of the doors and hit the first person closest to the room. You did not want to be in that close range, otherwise, risk injury of the eardrums. “Let’s go to bed, it’s quieter in my room,” Blaire said as she rose off the sofa and took a step towards the stairs. Blaire and I always shared a room, even when we didn’t know each other back in the beginning, which as you can imagine was awkward as all hell. Blaire was spunky and random. She had the best sense of humor and could imitate any character I’ve ever seen in any movie. It was a humor that kept me going when the battles hit their crescendo.
I put both feet on the floor and up the stairs we went. Past the battle going on behind the double doors near the top of the stairs and past the boys room. I pop my head in to see if the boys are alright and they are so zoned into video games that they don’t even look at me. “Going to bed guys, you okay?” “Mhmm, fine,” Mike, Claire's son, responded shortly, still completely ignoring me. Apparently, the race car game was much more important than me at the moment. I shut the door quietly and moved into Blaire’s room next door. She and I went through the typical pre-bedtime routine, in and out of the bathroom and sharing the sink, and then it was lights out. Thank God that battle had ceased at this point. Much like the civil war, battling late into the night only worked for so long. After a while, everyone was tired and just wanted to get some rest. In the interest of us kids, it was a good night when the battles ended early.
“Wakey Wakey!! C’mon girls rise and shine!” I opened my eyes a crack to see Luke standing in the doorway with the hall light streaming in. It felt like I had slept about three hours. Something about this house does not lead to well rested nights. “Don’t make me come back in there!” Luke hollered as he cruised down the hallway. Apparently, he had already been up for a while and downed a cup of coffee or two. I finally rolled out of bed and stumbled downstairs with my eyes partly open. Blaire was not behind me, so I’m assuming she went back to sleep before Luke could get back in there and rouse her awake again. I found Mike at the table in the dining room with the same expression I had. Apparently, I was not the only one who didn’t get a full night's rest. Although I suspect his had more to do with the fact that the video games didn’t go off until about 2 AM. My brother was also missing in action but I knew for a fact that he was much harder to get out of bed than the rest of us.
I sat down at the table next to Mike and he mumbled a version of “good morning” in less pronounced terms. MJ, Claire's eldest son, finally came bounding up the steps from the basement, where his room was. I heard the rustling of his jeans before I saw him round the corner. He was awake for some odd reason, probably because he had escaped last night’s battle by escaping to his girlfriend, Laura’s, house down the road. I was surprised to even see him this morning. I feel like he pretty much lived at Laura’s house these days. He cruised through the kitchen straight for the fridge and pulled out the orange juice. “You guys want juice” he asked and turned and looked at me and Mike. I nodded and MJ grabbed an extra juice glass out of the cabinet. As he set the juice down in front of me, I glanced up at him and he gave me that all knowing glance. “Rough night, huh?” There was no other gesture I could make, so I just shrugged at him. “You know how it goes, you’re the one that lives here,” I responded. He just smirked at me and went to put the juice back into the fridge.
Claire made her way into the kitchen and was perky as Luke was. It seriously made me wonder how these people could sleep so well after arguing for hours. It just didn’t make sense. Maybe I was being too sensitive to the environment or something, but sometimes this place just sucked. Best part of the mornings here was that Claire could cook. Breakfast was a specialty of hers especially when it came to cooking for an army of kids. She started to pull out the breakfast buffet that was about to ensue. We had everything I could ever want for breakfast: yogurt, breakfast casserole, bacon, monkey bread, and bagels. Sad part is, I wasn’t hungry. Emotional environments did not bring on the hunger pangs for me, and this house was like a huge flu virus to my system. Everything smelled great, but when it came down to eating, it just wasn’t happening. I got up and picked out a few items and put them on my plate. Mike followed suit, but his plate was pretty much full when he sat down. Apparently, the boys were unaffected by the battles, because I looked at MJ’s plate and he was busy scarfing down his food faster than I could get a fork-full in.
Blaire finally made her way into the kitchen and made a beeline for the coffee pot. I was not a fan of coffee, except the kind that was sweet and full of cream. I figured I would one day enjoy a nice cup of coffee in the mornings like my mom, but I was not there yet. Blaire looked about as tired as I did, but after this cup of coffee, she would perk right up like she always does. I suspected that Blaire had an eating disorder, but it has never been confirmed or denied. Her eating habits were straight bizarre and unconventional, especially compared to her brothers who, obviously, could not get enough of mama’s home-made cooking. I looked up and Blaire caught my eye and gave me a sly smile. “Clark, is your house on fire?” she said to me in her little old lady voice. The Christmas Vacation quotes never got old and I just had to bust out laughing. Coffee or no coffee, this girl never ceased to amaze me and make me laugh. Blaire was the family joker. She could make a joke out of anything and had some bizarre dance moves that made everyone laugh for hours. I think it’s because she was the outsider of the family. She and her mom got along okay, but she and the boys did not.
To me, this was weird because I generally got along with my brother but he was 5 years younger than I, so I think the age difference did help. Plus he needed my protection. With all the dumb adult drama going on, I was the one constant, even when I felt like killing him. Problem was, Hunter was his father’s son. The apple certainly did not fall far from the tree, especially when it came to the quick fuse and the ability to raise his voice to octaves that didn’t exist. Yup, we had not one, but two men in this household who had the ability to throw a pretty monstrous temper tantrum and scream at the top of their lungs. Hunter had learned it from his dad for sure because my mom just couldn’t turn her fuse on that fast, although she did have a bit of a temper on her, but Hunter learned his temper by watching Luke be an ass.
As I pondered all of this at the breakfast table, I noticed the dogs were outside in the yard. I didn’t recall Claire or Luke letting them out, but then again, I was still partially asleep. I knew it was freezing outside, but it was pretty outside and I figured a little fresh air wouldn’t hurt to help wake me up. I grabbed a cup of hot chocolate and headed out the back door, opening the screen and making sure it didn’t slam into the door frame as I stepped out of the way. I didn’t want to give anyone reason to pop out into the yard looking for me. This environment made me want to be alone and figure out what it was that was going on here. Something just didn’t feel right and I couldn’t put my finger on it, but there was something not right. I couldn’t figure out why anyone would want to put themselves into this environment voluntarily. I mean me and Hunter didn’t have a choice unless we didn’t want to see Luke, which at this point, looked like a pretty pleasant offer because a week of this could drive me to the coffee pot, creamer or not. I thought about Luke and Claire and their strange relationship. What was it that kept Luke here? The fighting between the two seemed more normal than harmony. Maybe Luke got something from the fighting, maybe Claire did. I just didn’t understand. I sipped on my hot chocolate and watched the snow glisten in the mid-morning sun and wondered how the white blanket of snow could keep such a disruptive household from looking ugly. Claire’s house was beautiful, it really was. The big front porch with the snow covering the yard and the trees sparkling in the light, there was something about it that screamed winter wonderland. This picture pretty much made the saying “don’t judge a book by its cover” completely and utterly true. There was just something off here. I have no idea what it is, but there was something wrong with these people—maybe that’s why I was so on edge. “I need to figure this out. What is wrong here??” I asked myself.
Sometimes I hated that man. All perky and annoying in the morning, after his bullshit last night, I should not need to see his face this early in the morning. Of course, Lindsey got right up and she quietly left the room. I rolled back over and willed myself back to sleep. This house is horrible. There needs to be an end to this. I have to do something. I just can’t live in a house that is controlled by two people who claim to be adults but act like children. My stomach growls and I silently tell it to shut up. I can’t eat, it is just not okay. I’ll eat later. I open my eyes a crack and think about my mom and this demon guy she thought made a good significant other. The two of them are horrible. Horrible. This is crap. I’m not doing this anymore. This is coming to an end, sooner rather than later.