After that, things found their own rhythm, one that, in hindsight, proved predictable, if not preventable.
After Paul and his family left, Tom started on a gentle, nearly-imperceptible free fall. It was hard to see, at first. One thing lead to another, a cascade that gathered slow momentum, like a gentle spring rain that turned into a thunderstorm. First, it was a teacher calling about a test score. And then another. And then a phone call from the principal, about a fight. And then another call, wondering exactly where Tom had been this morning, because he'd failed to turn up.
And we were caught in the middle of it.
Tom had never been an outstanding student, but he could manage a solid B-average without too much effort. Slowly, slowly, those B's dropped down to B-minuses, and then to C's, and then worse. He was away from the house more often than he was in it. I could no longer assume he was with Paul, because Paul was gone; but I knew that Tom would not so easily give up this thing that his body had learned to crave. I knew that - somehow, in some fashion - he was involved with someone else. Later, of course, I would learn more about that, more than I ever wished to know.
"What is it with you?" our father said to him, one day. "What's going on with you?"
"I guess I'm just not cut out for it," was Tom's answer.
"Not cut out for it? What does that even mean? It's just … well, it's just high school!"
Tom jinked a finger at me. "Ask him . He's the one with all the answers, apparently."
I looked up from my plate, a mouthful of lasagna choking off my words. I got it down, saw my father looking at me, an expectant smile on his face. I glanced at Tom, then back to my father. "I have no idea what he's talking about." I did, of course; Tom knew that I couldn't, wouldn't say anything.
I saw a look flash across my mother's face, one that I'd seen before: what did you do this time?
And, I'd had enough. I threw my fork down on the plate with a clatter. " What? " I demanded. "What is it you want?"
To her credit, she seemed surprised; her head reared back and her eyes flared wide. "I didn't say anything, Tim."
"You don't have to! You never have to! You just get that look in your eyes, and -"
"Tim …" my father cautioned. I ignored him, went on.
"No! She always sticks up for him! She always blames me for everything!"
"That's not true, Tim, and you know it. Your mother and I love both of you equally. You know that."
Which brought me up short. " What? We're not even talking about that! Or are we?"
To his credit, my father realized his mistake. "No, that's … well, that's not what I …"
My mother reached out. "Donald, stop," she commanded him, her voice gentle. She turned to me and Tom. "I don't blame you for everything , Tim. Stop being ridiculous. But if you have any clue why the two of you don't get along, I wish you'd say something." She waited; I said nothing. "Do you know what it's like walking into the house at the end of the day, wondering just what I'm going to face when I do? The both of you with bruises or worse, things broken, doors slamming, the two of you shouting at each other all the time. Nobody can live in a place like that, Tim." She turned briefly to my father. "I'm not sure that I want to live in a place like that," she added, and I watched his head dip down with the implied meaning.
"I told you once before, Mom, and I'll say it again." I jinked a finger at Tom. " He needs to see a shrink. He's … there's something wrong with him." That was the closest I would ever go to saying anything about Tom; that alone earned me a glare through slitted eyes.
"Maybe the priests, Barbara?" my father interjected, his voice smooth.
My mother glanced at my father, then back to me. "Well, it's for damned sure we're not taking your brother to a psychiatrist." She smiled, but it stopped at her mouth. "We'll figure something out."
I stood up. "Fine. Let me know when you do."
I went upstairs and to my room, closed my door, locked it; I didn't need to confront Tom or anyone else. I realized that Tom had achieved exactly what he'd hoped to achieve by pointing the finger at me: suspicion and attention were turned away from him and his actions.
And then the free fall became the precipice.
In the end, of course, my parents never took Tom to the priests and certainly not to a doctor. All of us were marking time at this point, until we graduated high school and went our separate ways. Where that might be for Tom, none of had any idea.
We were strangers to each other, now, Tom and I. We spoke to each other in monosyllables at best, non-committal grunts at worst. I had gotten what I wanted from Tom - he never touched me, never laid a finger on me - but at a cost whose impact I was only beginning to understand.
My parents tried to band-aid words over the canyon of silence between him and me, filling the void between us with bright, empty words, putting a mask over our dysfunction, as if reading from some kind of script, no meaning in anything they said.
In contrast to Tom's complete dereliction of his own schoolwork, I threw myself headlong into mine. The words of admonition and caution my parents had heard from Tom's teachers transformed slowly into words of adulation and praise of me. I took it all stoically, knowing that - although he would never show it - all of this attention shifting from him to me ate him up inside.
What I could not tell my parents, what they would never bear hearing, is that I did this for one reason and one reason alone: to get out of this house as quickly as possible, away not necessarily from them - I pitied them, above all, for having to deal with my brother's constant disappointments - but from my brother himself. Every second I spent in that house meant having to watch him slowly chip away at the life my parents had thought they had constructed for themselves and for their children, to watch him devour them, piece by piece, until there was nothing left but hollowed-out shells.
One day, my father came home and presented me with a manila envelope. On the upper left corner was the seal of Washington University, here in the city.
"What is this? " I asked.
"An application packet," he responded. "For WashU. I dropped by on my way home from work, spoke to the admissions office."
Without opening it, I set it on the kitchen table. "Thanks," I mumbled.
"Aren't you going to open it?"
"Now, " he commanded. "You can get it back in the mail tomorrow morning. The sooner, the better."
"I could," I responded, "but I won't."
I could see that my answer did not quite surprise him. "Oh? Like your brother, are you? Think you don't need to go to college?"
"Oh, I want to go to college," I responded. "Just not in St. Louis."
"And why is that?"
I looked at him in silence for a long moment. "I think you know why, Dad."
Which answer he ignored. "You can live at home for a few years, save some money." He studied my face. "It's a good school, Tim." There was a hint of pleading in his voice. "After that, maybe we could … well, talk about graduate school somewhere else."
"It is a good school, Dad. It's just not where I want to go."
"Fine. Where do you want to go, Tim?"
I rattled off the names of a dozen schools, none of them in Missouri, none of them remotely near St. Louis.
"We can't afford any of those places, Tim. You know that."
I had a feeling that he could very well afford that - we seemed to be a family of some means, never hurting for money - but did not want to, did not want me going away. "Well, good news, Dad. You don't have to. I've applied for scholarships."
He looked at me, his jaw working. "You've already applied to these schools, haven't you?"
"Without telling us," he continued.
"I … didn't want to bother you."
He sighed. "Don't do this, Tim. Don't … be this way." Like Tom , he implied.
"I'm not being any way." Like Tom, I inferred.
"You know what I mean."
"No, Dad, I don't! You've got two sons, Dad, in case you'd forgotten! You've got one who tries to do the right thing every time, and you've got one who's got some major shit to deal with, and the one you spend the most time on is the second one. You know what I feel like some times, Dad? I feel like I could … I don't know … win the Nobel Prize in something and all that you and Mom would say is that Tom fucked up once again and what are we going to do about him?"
"Don't swear. You know we don't like it."
"Is that all you have to say? 'Don't swear?' When every third word out of Tom's mouth is fuck or shit? "
"Tim. Please." My father looked at me for a long moment. "Do you have any idea what's wrong with him? Do you guys ever talk about it?" I said nothing … but something in my silence told him. "You do know, don't you?"
I nodded. "It's for him to say, though."
"I wish you'd tell me."
I shook my head. "You know what he'd do to me if I said anything."
"How bad is it?"
"It's … well, I don't know. It all depends on what you think is bad."
Another silence stretched between us. My father cleared his throat. "It didn't used to be this way, you know. The two of you -"
I shook my head. "It's always been this way, Dad. You and Mom just didn't want to see it." I stood up, leaving the manila envelope on the table. "I have to go to work."
Three weeks later, when the acceptance letter came to the house from Northwestern, I accepted.
This 14 chapter story was created for the Inspired by a Picture: The Only Way is Up! Writing Challenge. The picture that inspired the story is:
Gymnastics at Ila school By Leif Ørnelund / Oslo Museum, License: Attrbution-ShareAlike CC BY-SA 4.0
Please read all 14 chapters before answering the survey at the end of the 14th chapter
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