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Chapter 4

her eyes closed. I tried to shake her back to life again.

“Ma?” I said. She was so still, almost frozen.

“Ma?” I repeated, but she didn’t flinch a muscle.

I realized with terror that Emma, Jon and I would be orphans if Ma was dead. I couldn’t handle it, so I backed away. An older person, a stronger person than me, probably would’ve tried to revive her somehow, or would’ve at least done something other than stand there, staring stupidly.

And then I saw it sitting there on the sink sill, and I knew instantly what had happened. It was a prescription bottle, completely empty. I knew Ma had taken them all.

Emma reappeared some long moments later, the cordless phone she’d used to call 911 still in her hand.

“They’re coming,” she gasped, still wide-eyed and now breathless.

I abandoned Ma, leaving her there to lie dead while I held Emma in my arms. We waited for help to come.

For some reason, I couldn’t cry, but Emma was bawling. I held her tightly as she shook in my arms. A sinking feeling washed over me that somehow this was all my fault.

As I stood there, my chest tightening, my muscles tense, I watched my surroundings change from reality to something utterly surreal.

In order to cope, I had to float far away inside my mind as the first responders arrived, clambering down the steps past Emma and I and over to Ma’s body, which was now turning blue.

It was like a dream – more like a nightmare – and I wasn’t really there. Maybe, I told myself, I was still in my bed asleep, and the last few months were just in my head. Soon I’d wake up and things would be normal again. Jon would be home and Ma would be fine.

But even if the scene before me was a dream, and Ma wasn’t being lifted on a stretcher and hauled out of our basement, nothing would be fine.

Our home had been in crisis since the day Jon came running up those stairs, pissing all over his pants because of what he’d found in the recreation room.

I slowly floated back down to reality as the ambulance left with Ma and the police arrived. And then as reality hit with full force, I did throw up.

The police took us to the station - a small building with only two seldom-used cells. Emma was still bawling.

All my emotions were frozen. I couldn’t allow myself to feel anything.

We were sitting in the corporal’s private office with the door shut so nobody could see or hear us. Corporal Griffins was a huge man, with big, beefy arms and a stocky build. He wore a bushy, red beard and an enormous moustache, which together covered most of his face.

“Can I get either of you kids a pop?” he asked in a booming voice. I could tell Emma was a little afraid of him, so I reached out to touch her arm, just so she knew I was there.

“We don’t need anything,” I said.

There was a long moment of silence and Corporal Griffins looked nervous and uncomfortable. I couldn’t stop thinking about Ma, her body blue and still on that stretcher.

A few minutes later there was a knock at the door. The corporal looked relieved as he jumped up to answer it, his big, red cheeks jiggling and his key chain rattling as he took heavy steps to the door.

“Hello,” he said, “please, come on in.”

A slender, pleasant-faced woman appeared carrying a small black briefcase. Her expression was empathetic, a look seemingly glued in place. She was looking directly at Emma and I with her doe brown eyes.

“Hi,” she said to us. “I’m Mrs. Townsend. I’m a caseworker from Community Resources.” I knew the words “Community Resources,” because they were always written on our welfare cheques. Mrs. Townsend made me feel uneasy.

“Mrs. Townsend here is going to talk to you kids for a little while,” Corporal Griffins said. “If you folks need anything, just give me a shout, all right?” He left the room, his keys jangling again as he stomped out the door.

Mrs. Townsend grabbed an empty wooden chair and scooted up right next to us. I felt trapped, like a mouse in a cage. Emma was still crying, only more softly now.

“Well, you two have been through a lot, haven’t you?” Mrs. Townsend said in a hushed, careful voice.

“Where’s my mom?” Emma blurted out.

“Well, the ambulance that came to your house took your mother to a hospital in Swift Current, and they’re going to take care of her the best they can,” Mrs. Townsend said.

“Is she dead?” Emma asked, nearly choking on her words.

Mrs. Townsend opened up her black briefcase and took out a handful of documents.

“The information I was told shows that your mother was alive when she left your house, but the medical report shows her pulse was very weak.”

“What’s wrong with her?” Emma asked.

“Your mother has to be seen by some doctors, and they’ll have to run some tests until we’re sure what happened,” Mrs. Townsend said. “We’ll tell you as soon as we know more.”

Mrs. Townsend tried to get us to listen as she read some of the documents she had, which talked about our rights and responsibilities during our “crisis period,” a phrase she kept repeating over and over again. I was really becoming annoyed with her and the formalities, and was glad when she finally left.

Where was Jon? I wondered. Why hadn’t anyone gotten a hold of him? Why wasn’t he rushing down to the station to be with us?

Corporal Griffins returned to the room.

“We have to tell my brother Jon what happened,” I said.

The corporal nodded his huge head up and down, almost in slow motion.

“We’ve got someone out looking for him right now,” he said. “Your brother is a hard guy to find.”

I could always find him, I thought.

Hours passed by, and we were still stuck sitting in the corporal’s office. Jon never came.

Eventually, we were taken home to quickly pack a bag of our clothes and were transferred to a facility in Saskatoon, about three hours north of Prairieville, where two dozen or so other minors were staying during their “crisis period.”

It was called Serenity Home for Youth - kids there had been taken out of abusive homes, away from parents with addiction problems, or those that for some other reason were unable to care for their kids.

I hated it there, and so did Emma.

“I want to go home,” she whispered to me as we sat in a large common room on overstuffed purple couches.

“We can’t, Emma,” I told her, but I was thinking the exact same thing.

The workers there fed us cookies and juice as we stared at the TV, which was set on Much Music. I felt sick to my stomach. I told one of the workers and she brought me a Gravol, which I swallowed down with juice.

As the day wore on through to evening, I’d had plenty of time to think, and I was sure I’d killed my mother. I was the one who took her booze away, so it was my fault that she ate all those pills.

I felt intense guilt, but there was also a deep anger growing inside of me. Ma knew how much Dad’s suicide had hurt all of us. How could she do the same thing to us?

And Jon. Where the hell was he? The adoration I’d had for my brother in the past was melting into disgust. He was more of a chicken than me. All this was going on and he was off somewhere hiding, probably dealing drugs to those creeps at Tappy’s, instead of sticking with us when we needed him.

One of the workers approached us with the name Melissa on her name tag.

“Supper is ready,” she told us.

“I’m not hungry,” Emma said. It was the first time she’d spoken to anyone at the home.

“Me neither,” I said.

“Are you guys sure?” Melissa asked. “It’s going to be good. Corn on the cob with fried potatoes and ham.”

“No, thanks,” I said. I knew if I tried to put anything in my stomach it would just come right back up.

“Okay, but if you change your mind, just come to the dining hall, straight over there.” Melissa pointed towards the east wing of the building.

I nodded my head and Melissa left.

As we sat there on that stupid purple couch, with social workers and troubled teens surrounding me in the big, strange building, I felt an overwhelming sense of loneliness. Thank God Emma was there to keep me company, I thought.

Another hour or more passed and my sister had fallen asleep on my shoulder. I looked down at her, my own eyes weary, and I saw how small and fragile she was with her angelic blond hair. It was horrific to me that my little sister was going through all that pain. I wanted to somehow put a stop to it, and the rotting feeling inside my guts was growing worse because I was sure I was responsible. Why couldn’t I have just left that booze alone? I thought.

I looked around Serenity Home at all the forlorn faces of abandoned children, hopeless children, whose parents cared more about their next fix than their kids. Emma and I were not alone in our misery. There were would probably be hundreds, thousands, maybe even millions of kids around the world suffering the same thing we were, I realized.

But knowing that didn’t make it easier for me to face becoming an orphan.

I was sick with worry, and despite the Gravol, I still felt like I was going to throw up again.

It was about eight o’clock at night when I heard the squeaking roll of a trolley approaching us. A worker was coming by with more cookies and juice on a cart, trying to re-energize the weary children who had been through way too much.

I’d fallen asleep too, and both Emma and I awoke groggily as the trolley stopped by our feet with a groan. My sister had thick crusts in her eyes from excessive crying, and her eyes were red and puffy. We each took cookies and juice again and the lady with the trolley rolled on.

I started to wonder what the hell was going to happen to us. Clearly we weren’t going back home any time soon. But worse than that, we were still unsure about Ma, whether she was dead or alive.

And then out of nowhere came a greasy-looking, short statured man with giant, round spectacles sitting on his needle-like nose. He smiled at us, showing a row of rotting, black teeth.

“Hello,” he said. “I’m Dr. Ryan. I’ve been assigned to your case.” He smiled again. I wanted to tell him that staring at his rotting teeth was making me uncomfortable, but I held my tongue instead.

“I just wanted to let you two know that your mother, Gladys –,” he started, and then stopped to look down at a chart in his hands, “-- ah, yes, your mother Gladys Christmas has been stabilized and is still in hospital in Swift Current.”

Needle Nose waited for us to take in the information.

Emma started crying again. This time her tears were probably from relief. I didn’t say or do anything, except blink at Needle Nose.

“It seems your mother took an awful lot of a drug called Ativan, which is a very powerful prescription medication. It could have been deadly. Fortunately, the medical team was able to work a miracle for your mother.”

Needle Nose smiled again with his rotting, disgusting teeth.

I was relieved, too. I hadn’t killed my mother.

“So,” Needle Nose continued, “you’ll be staying with us here at Serenity Home for a few days until we’re able to send you back, okay?” Of course that’s exactly what I didn’t want to hear. I wanted to holler at that jerk and tell him we were going home.

“Okay,” I said instead.

Needle Nose took off again, leaving Emma and I on the giant purple couch. Though the place was clean and tidy and the workers acted friendly, I wanted the hell out of Serenity Home. There was no way I wanted to stay in that institution for however long until Ma could go back home.

A while later, Melissa came back and showed us around. We each had a small room with a tiny dresser and closet, and had to share bathrooms and showers. There was a play room with an assortment of table games and vending machines at every corner.

Under other circumstances, the place probably wouldn’t have been so bad, but for me, it was hell.

The days passed at a slow pace. Emma and I stuck close by each other – it wasn’t the kind of place where I wanted to make any new friends.

Needle Nose came by several times a day to check up on us, and we had one hour of individual counselling with him each day. Besides sleeping and bathroom breaks, the time spent with Needle Nose was the only time I was away from Emma. We were close before, but in Serenity Home, we developed an unshakable bond.

Finally, one afternoon I admitted to Needle Nose what I’d done – that I’d taken all Ma’s booze, and that her attempted suicide was my fault. He just nodded his little pin head up and down as I told him all about it. He tried to tell me Ma’s overdose wasn’t my fault, but I didn’t believe him. I knew that his words were the kind of thing doctors were supposed to say.

The only thing he said that was even a little bit reassuring was when he told me Ma’s overdose may not have been a suicide attempt, but an accident instead. No one knew for sure yet what the case was, he said.

On our third day in the home, I nerved up the guts to ask Emma if Needle Nose told her why Ma picked that day to overdose.

“He said Ma probably had a psychotic break,” she told me, labouring over the word “psychotic.” It was clear Emma didn’t have the foggiest clue what that meant, but at least Needle Nose hadn’t yet told her the whole truth, that it was me who triggered our mother’s “psychotic break.”

The fourth day came and still no word about Jon. I asked Needle Nose if the police back in Prairieville ever found him. Needle Nose shook his head.

“No, George,” he told me. “But they’re still looking for him.” He smiled again with those rotten teeth that made me want to puke. I also hated the way he called me “George” as if we were friends, especially since anyone who actually was my friend called me Georgie.

I decided counsellors were probably trained to pretend they were friends with their clients, so the poor idiots would open up and share all their horrible stories. But I didn’t want to talk to Needle Nose anymore, and was so completely relieved when the morning of the fifth day they sent us back to Prairieville. I knew I’d never miss Serenity Home as long as I lived, and prayed to God I’d never have to go back.

Another worker drove us home in a large, white van, with Emma and I huddled together in the back seat, wondering what was going to happen when we saw Ma. What would I say to her, and what would she have to say to us?

I wished for a minute that they would just drop us off somewhere else. But there was nowhere else for us to go.

It was around noon that Thursday when we finally arrived home. I wondered how many of the neighbours already knew everything, and whether there’d be a point in trying to hide the truth about our dysfunctional home. It was hard to keep anything from the nosey people of Prairieville.

We pulled up into the driveway and the worker opened the heavy van door to let us out. He grabbed our bags from the back and helped us to the door.

I noticed Bruno was missing. The authorities must have nabbed him up, too, I thought. That meant not one soul in our family had been left unaffected by Ma’s overdose, including the dog. The only one that might have escaped the horror, at least for the time being, was my brother, but once he found out the depth of it all, he’d be crushed too, I was sure.

As the driver waved good-bye to us and Emma and I dropped our bags in the back porch, we were alone again with Ma. It was good to be home, but I dreaded seeing her.

“Hi guys,” she said, appearing from the hall. I’d half-expected her to be the same corpse-like figure I’d found on the bathroom floor. Instead she looked bright and relatively chipper.

Immediately, Ma came over and hugged us. She smelled different somehow. I couldn’t put a finger on it at first, but after I few moments, I realized the difference - she wasn’t reeking of booze for once.

“I missed you both so much,” she said, hugging us again and kissing us on top of the head.

I was so used to seeing Ma corked out of her mind; it was like talking to a complete stranger.

“So, you’re all right?” I asked her finally.

“Oh, yes, I’m all right, son,” she said. “I promise you both – no more drinking in this house, and no more pills, either.” She was looking at us both pleadingly, clutching one of our shoulders in each of her hands.

“Come in,” she said, her voice strangely upbeat. “Oh, you two must be just plain exhausted. I hope you had fun in Saskatoon. I hope they treated you good, did they?”

I just nodded.

“Here, I made you guys a nice lunch,” she said. As I moved further inside the house into the kitchen I saw sandwiches laid out on a plate.

“It’s your favourite,” she said to us, “egg salad.” It had been a long time since Ma had bothered to make us a real lunch, never mind our favourite. I didn’t think she even remembered what it was. But when we were really young, before Dad died, she used to make it for us all the time. I had thought those days were gone forever.

I felt a starting sense of hope thinking maybe Ma was going to be able to change, like she’d finally realized how desperately we needed her to.

Later, after we’d eaten up all our sandwiches like starving wolves, she explained that Child Protection Services told her if she didn’t quit drinking, she’d have to go straight to rehab and we’d be taken to a foster home.

I didn’t really know anything about rehab, except what I’d seen about it on TV about movie stars checking themselves into the Betty Ford Clinic or whatever.

“So you’re going to quit drinking?” I asked.

I wanted so badly to believe it.

“Being separated from you two, and being sick the way I was after taking too many pills, I’d never do that again,” she said. “I have to be a good mother now. You guys are my cure.” She smiled at us, maybe for the first time in months, maybe even a year, and I believed her.

In the days that followed, I was filled with a surprising happiness. I thought coming home from Saskatoon would mean a return to the ugly things we’d come from, but everything was suddenly different. Ma stayed sober – no alcohol, no pills like she’d promised. The house was clean and Ma was awake most of the day. She cooked and even did her hair. The world was all right again.

The guilt I’d felt over hiding Ma’s booze began to slowly wash away because I realized that what I’d done had resulted in this change. I confessed it to Emma anyway, just to make sure my conscience was clear.

“It’s okay, Georgie,” she told me. “I’ve thought about doing the same thing myself.”

It was such a relief to hear her say that, so much so that I almost cried.

I still didn’t have the guts to confront Ma about it, though, and we all avoided having any conversations about the day she swallowed those pills. I wanted to ask her to tell me the truth, whether she’d tried to kill herself or whether it was an accident, but I didn’t want her to blame me for it either way, so I left it alone, at least for the time being.

Emma stopped talking about wanting to leave home, which was another huge relief. If only Jon would come back and see how things had changed, I thought. Then we could be a whole, happy family again.

We waited until the following Monday to go back to school. I was incredibly nervous about what the kids would be saying, positive they’d all know about Ma’s overdose, that the nosey neighbours would’ve seen the ambulance take her away and spread the gossip all over town. But surprisingly, no one said a word about it to me. Then I remembered that I was pretty much invisible, so maybe no one had even noticed I was gone, and if they had, nobody cared.

Except of course Willie, who confronted me as soon as he saw me.

“Where were you, man? You were gone for like a week.”

I gave him the whole story– how I’d found Ma on the bathroom floor and we thought she was dead, and how Emma and I had been sent up to Serenity Home. I could tell he felt pity for me, but he wouldn’t say it.

“But things are different, now,” I told him. “Ma’s not going to drink anymore.”

“That’s great, man,” Willie said.

On our way home after school that day, I decided to take a detour.

“I’m going to look for Jon,” I told Willie.

“They haven’t found him yet?” he asked.

“No, or at least nobody’s told us,” I said. “Wanna come with me?” I was afraid the Piranhas might be out, and I didn’t want them to catch me by myself again.

“Sorry, man,” Willie said. “I gotta go home and do homework.”

The Meierses were very adamant that Willie finish all his homework each day before doing anything else. The only exception was if he had hockey practice.

“Okay,” I said, and decided to brave it on my own.

It was a beautiful day for October. The air was crisp, but the sun was bright without a single cloud in the sky.

I thought I’d check Tappy’s first to see whether Jon was there. I was actually surprised to see that he was, because it seemed like he’d become a phantom, impossible for the authorities to find.

He was shooting pool, concentrating on the white ball and a corner pocket.

“Jon,” I said, and he stood up.

He looked at me strangely, as if he had to try and remember who I was.

“Squirt,” he said. I could tell he was at least a little bit happy to see me. “What are you doing here?” he asked.

“I came to find you Jon,” I said. “I want to talk to you. There’s some good news.”

“Good news,” he said, like it was something he’d never heard of. I wanted Jon to be excited. I wanted him to share in the hope I had now. But he looked as interested in my good news as he would be in sitting bare arsed on an ice brick.

He was chalking his cue, stalling his shot while probably thinking of a way to get rid of me. The other guys around him were staring at him, waiting for him to take his turn.

“Jon, don’t you want to know?” I asked.

“What is it?” he said, and started setting up his shot again.

“It’s about Ma.”

“You said it was good news,” Jon said sarcastically.

“It is,” I told him.

My brother stopped again, stretching his neck to look up at me.

“Here,” he said, handing one of the other guys his cue, “take it for me.” The guy nodded and Jon grabbed my arm, pulling me over to the men’s washroom.

“Okay, what’s this news?” Jon asked impatiently. “If this is about Ma surviving her suicide attempt, I know that already.”

Two things threw me. The first was that Jon knew about Ma’s overdose, the second was that he assumed she’d tried to kill herself. I was furious with my brother.

“Jon, if you knew about Ma, why didn’t you at least come home to check on us?”

“I couldn’t,” Jon said. I knew right then that Jon was a far worse chicken than me. The pedestal I’d had him sitting on came crashing suddenly to the floor.

“Why?” I asked.

“Squirt, I can’t take none of this anymore,” he said, and then he turned away from me.

“Wait-,” I said, stopping him before he was completely gone from sight. “Ma stopped drinking,” I told him.

Jon turned to me again, and the look on his face told me he had more anger in him than Emma and I combined.

“Don’t believe it,” he said.

“But Jon-,” I started.

“No,” he said. “Now listen to me, Georgie. You can’t count on Ma for nothin’. And for now, you can’t count on me either. All you can do is count on yourself.” He stared at me meaningfully.

It was clear to me that no matter what else happened, Jon wasn’t coming home ever again.

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