Please Don't - First Chapter
*Here's the first chapter of my young adult novel, Please Don't, set for publication in October of 2021 (Any mistakes are mine!)
I find the letter in the mailbox, tucked between a colorful assortment of bills and threats. Its formality stands out; the envelope is thick and textured, stamped with the official town decal. A slightly askew address label in some no-nonsense font bears my home address.
I’m sweaty, my VIRGIL’S LAWN CARE t-shirt sticks to my back as a familiar dread sinks to my stomach. My hands tremble as I fiddle with the edges of the envelope, my heart thump-thumping in my ears as I tear it open and face my fate. Four neat little paragraphs from the Woodberry Board of Education, including a time and date for the hearing on my status to determine whether I will be allowed to attend Garner High next year.
Dear Mrs. Reams,
While no legal action will be taken against Nathanial Reams, the Woodberry School District will recommend that he be expelled from Garner High School.
Right to the point, those guys. I gloss over it impatiently, skipping down the reasons listed. Truancy… violation of school rules… assault.
Basically, it states I’m an all-around menace.
… For the safety of students and faculty due to actions and behavior listed (here it cites page numbers and sections of the student handbook).
The board of education will meet on Monday, July 22, at 6pm in the municipal office. This issue on the agenda is scheduled for approximately 6:25 pm. At this meeting of the school board, you (and/or anyone you choose to represent or assist you, at your own expense) may appear and present whatever information you believe is relevant to the recommendation to expel.
This is where I stop reading. The school board is assuming I will be able to rouse my mother from bed, get her dressed and presentable, keep her sober and coherent—or upright enough to convince them she is. The board is assuming a lot.
Inside I find the regular messes. Dirty dishes, a half-eaten pop tart. A spread of saltines and cheese squares on the counter. My feet crunch over the scatter of crumbs on the floor where a trail of cotton balls, the kind from a pill bottle, lead to the trash. Balled up receipts, lipstick, pens, a key ring, jewelry—it looks like someone took a purse and shook it out all over the kitchen.
I clean the mess and start on dinner. While waiting for this letter, I’ve done a lot of thinking about my options—about breaking a promise and coming forward about what really happened at school. But whenever I’m tempted to do that, I hear two words in my head.
The first words Molly Martinez ever said to me.
Her voice cracked into a whisper when she said it. Her glassy red eyes hiding behind strands of black hair that had fallen over her face darted towards the door. It wasn’t until then, as she eyed her escape, that I realized I’d never paid much attention to Molly.
Please don’t what? I wanted to say. But I knew what she didn’t want me to do or say. It wasn’t hard to figure out. Not when she flung her book bag over her shoulder and scrambled off without looking back. When she left me alone with nothing to do but face what I had done.
Our chemistry teacher sat slumped over, groaning and holding his face, droplets of blood dripping to the floor. Later I’d find out his nose was broken in two places. But hey, I’d promised.
So I don’t. I never said a thing to anyone. Except Molly. I begged and pleaded with Molly Martinez. I even got her a job cutting grass with me to help her family with the bills. But she never budged, never came forward.
I call Mom down for dinner. She slips into her seat across from me and curls her lip at the plate of chicken tenders and mac and cheese I’ve set in front of her. Not exactly black-tie scallops, but I’m working on a budget here.
I roll my eyes, because I’m not in the mood for this, for any of it. “Just eat, Mom.”
She wiggles her nose, takes up her fork and starts picking around. The mac and cheese is runny, pooling into the chicken. I had to use water because I forgot to pick up milk. Just looking at it makes me want to throw the plate against the wall.
Mom must be thinking the same thing. She closes her eyes and whispers, “Yuck.”
With her plate pushed to the center of the table, she covers her mouth with her napkin. I grip my fork tighter. Usually I can deal with it, but today, after the letter…
Her makeup looks as though it’s been swiped on by a three-year-old. It’s smeared across her cheeks, her lips, a glop on her eyelashes. Her shoulders sag. She sighs. “You haven’t said a word about my hair.”
I wipe the back of my neck. This woman changed my diapers, wiped my butt, spoon fed me meals so I wouldn’t starve. We have home videos, somewhere, if she hasn’t destroyed them, of her feeding me when I was a baby. Open up the hatch, Nat, here comes the carrots.
I tell myself that person is still in there, knocking around somewhere. But I don’t see her at the table. Haven’t seen her in a while. I try to move things along.
“Sorry, I’m just tired, from work, cleaning up… whatever happened in the kitchen. Then cooking dinner.”
“Nat, you sound like your father.”
She has to know it’s the worst thing she can say. I look away, tell myself to hold it together. Not to blame her for how my life sucks. Not to ask her how she can sit there and be so selfish.
Instead, I start in on my tenders while she puffs out her cheeks and looks around the room. It’s all I can do not to slam my fork down on the table. Like Dad used to do.
Mom is all about Mom these days. She fashions herself a playwright, and when she’s not drinking, she’s busy clicking away on my laptop—the one Dad bought me a few years ago. At least it keeps her busy. Besides, if you try to argue with her she assumes the role of misunderstood writer, as played by mischievous toddler.
She’s getting huffy, and I’m half expecting her to stick her tongue out at me. I set my fork down, gently, and make a point of considering her hair. Peroxide blonde, the hue of toxic sludge, sheared with a nail file or dull scissors. If she’s going for the look of woman on the run, she’s nailed it. I take a breath and try again. “Mom, your hair really does look nice.”
Her eyes light up, animated. She cocks her head to the side, stroking her hack job hair. “Really. It’s not too short?”
“No, it goes well with your, um, outfit.”
She looks down. “You think?”
Today’s theme is festive. Palm trees. She has a dozen or more of these scrubs, and it messes with my head because it reminds me of better times when she really was a nurse and went to work. When everything was, what? Normal?
When Dad took off Mom kept up with her appearance for a while. At least she wasn’t gnawing off her hair and swiping on makeup. Months, a year passed, and I guess she thought Dad might be coming back—we both did—so she still wore normal clothes. Then, at some point after that, she said screw it. This is the result.
“Has um, Gary seen it?”
She grins. “Stop it.”
Gary-the-Editorial-Guy is an older, early to mid-fifties dude from Mom’s writer group. He wears brown polyester suits, the kind found at your local Goodwill. He’s a nice enough guy, I guess. And he’s hopelessly incapable of hiding his crush on my mom.
Seeing her smile makes me chuckle. I get back to my food. Mom crosses her arms and remains on hunger strike. This week I’ve only seen her eat yogurt and Fig Newtons. It’s what I mean about having a toddler in the house, one who drinks all night and never blows out the candles.
I clean my plate and I tear into Mom’s portion. I eat both of our dinners and wonder what we’ll do tomorrow night. I get paid this Friday so at least I can pick up toilet paper and stop using fast food napkins. I can’t tell you what Mom is using. Maybe she has her own personal stash.
Done sulking, Mom stands and drifts over to the fridge, humming a show tune. She fills a plastic cup with wine and shuffles to the den. I sit at the table, alone, wondering what I could have said differently.
I wanted to talk about my hearing, or what we’re going to do about our tax delinquency, which is up to something like twelve-grand, last I checked. I even left the school board letter face up on the counter, its official letterhead screaming out its importance. But again, Mom is all about Mom these days.
I go back and forth between wanting to help her and hating her for not snapping out of it. Between wanting to leave and wanting to stay. I ride the waves of guilt and blame. When I’m at work, I do nothing but worry about her, when I’m home, I just want to leave.
Like Dad did.
Pick up the plates. Rinse off the runny cheese. Go make sure she’s okay. Just like last night and the night before that. But tonight, the sink is too full, the counters are too sticky with wine and fig crumbs. It’s too much.
Let the flies have their fun, I’m done.
Upstairs, I sprawl out on my bed, ready to indulge in my secret pastime. I pull out my phone and open the browser. There it waits for me. I don’t even have to search for it. One swipe and it’s there at my fingertips.
One More Makes Four!
It’s not a math tutorial, but a parenting blog. One so choked full of product placement it sometimes crashes my phone. The usual onslaught of advertisements bombards me, and I have to close out windows and hunt for any real content, which is bogged down by sponsorships and branding. The side bars feature soaps, shampoos, diapers, clothing, apps, social media links, books, giveaways, contests, and on and on and on and on as far as I can scroll. Eventually, I find what I’m looking for: a picture of the family—Dad’s family.
They pose with other bloggers and consultants. Everyone is all smiles, and it’s hard to tell what the actual point of any of this is in the first place.
It’s a cruel form of self-torture, reading about Kristen—my dad’s wife, blogger extraordinaire—and how she feels about “mommy-hood”, as she calls it. In yesterday’s post, she ranted about how hard it is to find decent free educational apps. And wherever there is a heartwarming story about her daughter, rest assured that lurking beneath her dribble is some sort of product placement. She reviews anything and has no problem using her kid, my dad, or the yet-to-be-born child to boost clicks. She’s kind of a pimp like that.
I devour her latest post, complete with a picture of the happy family at the dinner table playing a board game. My dad is all teeth, giving a big thumbs-up. It’s almost weird now to think about him as my dad, even stranger how the blonde chunkster is sort of my sister. While my mom has transformed into… whatever she’s become, it seems Kristen has created a new version of Dan Reams—the ultimate family-dude. Tall, a bit of silver sliding in at the temples, but otherwise his hair is thick and stylish. He’s kind of soft in the middle, but you can tell Kristen runs him to death. *Sponsored by Nike!
I pore over some pictures of the family cooking out, zooming in and studying the details. Dan Reams wearing a new grilling apron by Grill Masters™. I stare at his face. Our bone structure is similar. No one could look at his picture then look at me and not tell. We have the same jawline, nose, brown eyes, and broad shoulders. The more I study the pixels, the harder it is to figure out. The harder it is to let it go.
It would be so much easier to swallow if the guy was a drunk or in prison. That, I could accept if not understand. If he was just some loser who didn’t want his family, maybe I’d be okay with it. Maybe I wouldn’t be. But he’s not a loser, he’s like Dad of the Year. And it sort of kills me a little bit.
I can’t even remember how I found this blog. I think I was Google searching his name and stumbled upon it. It’s got thousands of followers. It’s been viewed nearly half a million times. And I’ve been stopping by two or three times a day for the past six months. Again, probably not the healthiest habit, but hey, neither is pimping your kids for sponsors, right?
What the blog fails to mention is how Dan Reams took off for Indiana nearly four years ago, leaving behind a three hundred-thousand-dollar house and an eight-year-old Honda. Maybe he figured a house and car was enough, because he doesn’t pay a dime of child support or call or write or even remember us for all I know. And Mom is either too proud or too delusional to try to get anything out of him, which means she’s delinquent—in more ways than one—on property taxes, utilities, homeowner association fees, credit cards, and I’m sure a slew of other bills I don’t even know about. Which leaves me here, waiting for something to happen.
For a while it was easy to ignore. My parents’ fighting. Mom’s drinking. Dad leaving. Bills piling up in the mailbox as I went about life like nothing was wrong. School. Basketball. Girlfriend. Parties. Anything to not think about what was happening at home. But it did happen. They decided not to be the parents I knew. People change, I get it, but when Dad quit the marriage and Mom quit life, it felt like they both quit me.
I close the app and sift through my contacts. Nearly one hundred of them, all ghosts after everything went down at school. I think about work and life and Molly Martinez. How these days I have no distractions, nothing to keep me from worrying. I think about whether I should even tell Molly about the hearing. I wonder if she knows what I gave up or what my future has become.
Suddenly I feel so alone it makes me shiver.
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