This story ended on a hot July day. The sky gleamed bright turquoise, and tiny brown songbirds piped to one another through the sugar pines. Cheerful creeks splashed down the slopes and into little secluded nooks. Spots of sunlight dotted the road ahead as we drove down the Sierras. A Tom Petty song, "Learning to Fly," played on the radio: "I'm learning to fly, but I ain't got wings/ Coming down, it's the hardest thing." We passed through the foothills and rolled into the Central Valley. The songbirds were gradually replaced by the occasional crow, and the creeks dried up into trickles before vanishing under the glaring heat. We didn't mind.
We were glad to leave.
We'd been on family vacation in Tahoe for two weeks, which was long enough for us to rediscover that we couldn't stand each other. We'd blundered along, remarking on how gorgeous the lake was, before our efforts collapsed around us. To be honest, we didn't even make it two weeks. My stepmother and stepbrother left early. It was hard enough for us to tolerate each other for the two days a week my sister and I usually spent with them. We weren't used to putting up with one another this long. We didn't have the stamina. Our last couple vacations ended in disaster too. They say the definition of insanity is trying the same thing over again and expecting a different result. As a family, this was our policy.
Last year, when we went to San Diego, our vacation had ended in a screaming fit and a quick retreat home. That year, my stepmother, Linda, had been angry with my dad because he wasn't around. Or she was angry with my sister, Ruby, and my stepbrother, Jason, for watching too much anime. I'm not sure who she was shouting at. Dad had planned a trip to the movies that afternoon, and Linda decided that she wanted to come last minute—for Jason's sake. I got out of the passenger seat, so Linda could have it, and opened my door into her by mistake. Her mouth dropped open, and she stormed off, Dad calling after her that it was an accident.
It ended up being my fault anyway. The next morning I got a lecture from Dad about not helping out enough around the house. He told me that, "you kids were the only ones that really got a vacation." Supposedly, this was why Linda had been so mad.
It started over in Tahoe, a year later on another summer's day, under the same yellow-gold sun, shining bright and relentless on our sweaty faces. I pasted a smile on my lips and tried to ignore the squirming in my gut. The mountains looked like they'd been taken from a postcard. We could swim every day. What was there to be nervous about? The last time we had been to Tahoe had been in winter. I had lain in cool white drifts, looking up at pale sky, and made my first snow angel in years. True, the day after we got back, Linda had snapped at me for muttering while using her computer. But that was the past. This time could be different.
My stomach knotted.
When we arrived at the house, Ruby and I helped unload the groceries, with one exception. We left my Dad's case of beer sitting on the front lawn. A couple years ago, on another ill-fated vacation, this time to Hawaii, I had asked Dad to stay sober, so he could drive us home. We'd been on a cruise ship, and they'd served alcohol. He'd had a beer and some champagne. I didn't know how much alcohol he could drink and still be safe. All I knew was that Mom had told me not to get in the car with him after he had been drinking. I was fourteen. He shouted at me to get in. He counted to three and when that didn't work he threatened to drive off without me. I sobbed. As I got in the back of the car, Linda decided she should add her input: "You really need to learn what alcohol does to the human body." Ruby was the only one who tried to comfort me. She was ten. My mom did her best, but she was thousands of miles away. All we could do was talk on the phone. Ruby gave me a little hug and told me to "think of the program." (At home, we went to Ala-teen, a support group for children of alcoholics). When we began our Tahoe vacation, two years later, neither one of us wanted to bring Dad's beer in, so it sat there in the middle of the yard.
The first thing I did when we arrived, after the groceries, was go to my room and exercise. I was working towards my black-belt in Shaolin Kempo karate and wouldn't get there by slouching. I started off with sets of thirty push-ups then moved into leg-lifts, forms, and wall sits. Sweat slicked my hair to my face while my heart felt like it was going to tear out of my chest—fabulous. I pulled my shirt up in front of the mirror. If not a six pack, I had a two-pack. Good, everything was tight and in control.
That night, Dad asked us if we wanted to go out with them to a restaurant. I said yes at first and then decided not to. I told Dad that I was tired. If I didn't go out with them, I wouldn't have to worry about Dad's drinking and whether or not to get in the car. My chest might loosen. Ruby decided to stay home with me, and we made ourselves dinner with stuff we'd picked up at the grocery store.
The tension started when they arrived back, and we decided we would like to watch a movie, The Return of the King. As we all sat down and turned the television on, Linda said: "So you're too tired to go out with us, but you're not too tired to watch a movie." I shrank back in my chair and tried to stay as still as possible. My chest tightened.
The next day, I got up early and kept exercising. I gritted my teeth as I sank down into my push up and held it: one Mississippi, two Mississippi. My arms quaked and burned, but I stayed down. I swung into my forms routine, punching and kicking invisible opponents. Force dissipated into the air as my limbs snapped outwards. I ran a finger over my arm, feeling my shoulders curve under my skin. I stayed strong, inside and out. I could handle Dad and Linda.
I spent most of my days swimming and lying face down on the shore, a towel over me to keep from getting sunburnt. It felt soft and dark. I had warm sand under my belly and sunlight baking my calves. The beach glittered, and the light glinted harshly off the shifting water. I tucked my head in the crook of my arm and tried to doze. When this got too hot, I'd go for a swim. The water slapped my face as I dove under. I stretched my limbs and propelled myself forward. I counted my strokes as I kicked down the pier: one, two, three…
We'd do other activities too. We tried parasailing and waterskiing. Ruby and Jason would play in the shallows while Linda read a magazine, and Dad walked down the beach. Dad and Linda didn't drink at the beach because we had to drive home. Or if they did, they hid it. I once heard Linda tell Dad that she wanted to get fruity drinks like normal people. Another time, after we went parasailing, I saw my dad down on one knee in front of her, opening his wallet. He looked like he was proposing again.
Linda wasn't the only one to receive this largesse. Once, when we were back at the house, Dad came up to me and gave me a twenty for "doing well." My sister and I were showered with treats and trips to the bookstore. I took these books and buried myself in them. I read about the mistreatment of clones in a dystopian society, teenagers forced to live their worst nightmares, and revolutionaries fighting a conquering empire. Those afternoons, when Ruby and Jason watched a movie or played video games, and Dad and Linda drank, I locked my eyes on the text and devoured it.
Throughout all this, Ruby and I were expected to do household chores. Linda would cook, and Ruby and I would clean. Dad would sit, and Jason would play video games. If Jason felt especially tired, Linda would bring him dinne in his room. Our chores weren't hard, but Ruby and I needed to do them well. At Mom's place, it didn't matter much if we left some dirty dishes in the sink, but here the sink had to be spotless. Because we would not drive with the adults after they had been drinking, and the adults always drank, we ate in every night. That meant Linda cooked every dinner. We said careful thank yous and praised her meals. It got to the point that when Dad said to her, "But Lorna liked your dinner," she replied, "Lorna likes everything."
One night, I took a bottle of what I thought was soap from the counter and poured it into the dishwasher. It turned out to be laundry detergent. I heard my name called and ran upstairs. Suds poured out the sides of the dishwasher like bubble bath. Dad and Linda stood in the kitchen. Linda had a mop in her hand. I gulped.
"I'm so sorry."
"It's okay." Dad didn't look mad.
"Can I help clean up?"
Linda smiled her toothy smile. "No, I think we got it."
I exhaled slowly. Thank God, this time, they had realized it was an accident.
Before this, I'd always followed the rules. I asked if I could do anything to help at least twice a day and spoke in a light considerate voice. The one exception to this had been my insistence on locking my door. We weren't allowed to lock doors. Once, on our previous trip to Tahoe, someone had accidentally locked the bathroom door from the outside, so we couldn't get in. It may have been me, but I never confessed it. "We do not lock doors in this house!" Dad had bellowed. I've always valued my privacy, especially at Dad's. I needed a place where I could scowl if I wanted and no one would see.
So on this vacation, I locked my door at night and unlocked it in the morning when I came out. Only one day, I forgot to unlock it and got trapped outside. My breath stuck in my chest, and I clenched my fists. I wanted to flap my arms in the air and panic. Instead, I slunk upstairs and tried every key we had in the lock. I even snuck into Linda's bag and stole her car keys to test. None of them worked. The lock was mechanical. I had to be on the other side to press the button and open it. I crept around the house and tried to break in through my bathroom window. It took a couple of tries, but eventually I jimmied it open. I slithered in on my belly and exhaled for the first time since I'd realized what I'd done.
After that, I stopped locking my door.
It didn't matter. It was a warm, balmy evening when it came apart. The sun had faded to a thin red line branding the horizon. Dad, Ruby, and I had gone out for Mexican food. I ordered an enchilada. Luckily, it was a good enchilada with lots of warm gooey cheese because the night went downhill from there. I curled up on the couch, reading Forging the Sword by Hilari Bell. Dad looked at a car magazine. Ruby played on her Nintendo. I tucked my knees to my chest and fastened my eyes to the page: "What Flame begotten whim had possessed him to agree to work with Soraya and Jiaan, who had plainly stated their intention of killing him if anything went wrong…"
Linda strode into the room, eyes sparking. "Look at me! Why won't you look at me!?"
closed my book. "I do look at you."
"No you don't!"
"Yes, I do."
"Yeah, I love receiving this every morning!" When I came out for breakfast, I would nod good morning to her. She imitated that nod now. It looked like a bobble head— a bobble head with a tight mouth and no sense of humor. "You're a spoiled brat!"
My cheeks reddened. Spoiled I might have been. But I was not a brat. I started to yell too, "I am not!"
"You're too young to yell at me!"
I was almost an adult, but still her words counted, and mine didn't. My chest shook, and I almost cried. My chin quivered as I lifted it up. "Oh, so you're older, that makes it okay!"
"Nobody likes me!" She stormed into the bathroom, slamming the door. I could hear her crying from outside.
After that, I went up to the room Ruby and I shared. Linda's parents had met up with us and I had switched rooms to give them more space. They were gone now though. Ruby followed me up afterwards, as she often did those days. She gave me a hug and a piece of her watermelon gum. She was only twelve. I couldn't expect her to challenge the adults the way I did. But afterwards she was there for me with her worried mouth and gentle eyes. She asked me if I hated Linda.
I told her I didn't.
I wanted to breathe again. I wanted to go back to our Mom's, sit on our old black couch, and eat a bowl of coffee ice cream slathered with caramel sauce. In the meantime, I had my sister to speak to as I paced around the room. She told me: "It's amazing what someone who shares your pain will do." And she was right. That night, with her, I was almost home.
Linda had one more surprise in store for me. She'd told Dad I was bulimic. This came from a woman who wouldn't eat breakfast because she was on a diet. Dad in turn sent an email to Mom about it. He prevaricated, telling her how "quirky" and "eccentric" I was, before getting to the real point—that he and Linda thought I was bulimic. I called Mom in the morning to tell her I'd had a fight with Linda, and she said she already knew. I asked her how. Then she asked me if I'd ever gone to the bathroom, stuck my finger down my throat, and thrown up. I told her I hadn't, and she believed me. We talked, and she said she couldn't wait to see me home.
Dad was a different story. Once Linda left, he gathered us in the living room and told us we would have to learn to get along with her. He said that she felt like we thanked her like we would thank the maid. She'd gotten angry because we had thanked her the wrong way. He concluded, "you're my children, and Linda's my wife, and neither of you are going anywhere."
On that, he was wrong. This was the last time I ever went on vacation with him and Linda, the last time I lived with him part time. He sent me an email asking me to back for Christmas six months later.
I said no.
As we rode down that windy mountain road and into the dry yellow hills, it looked like we were going into the wilderness. Really we were going home—back to Mom's house. There I could hear the children laughing from the shady park nearby. I could sleep in my own bed with my pile of stuffed animals. I could pet our cats and feel their soft silky fur run through my fingers. I could rest my head on Mom's shoulder and run around trying to escape Ruby's tickling.
If I felt up to it, I could let myself cry.
I was incredibly excited to get back, but my stomach still squirmed. Mom would look at me, and she would see the cracks I had acquired in my two weeks away. She would see how I exercised constantly, how I ducked my head and kept my voice tentative. It would scare her. Years later, she told me it was like getting back a completely different child. I had curled myself into a tight little ball, and it would be months before I unwound. But when I did, she and Ruby had waited for me, arms open.