Playing With Fire

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“Mom! Dale!” I call out when I get to my mom’s house. I do a quick scan of the house to make sure the landscaping is being kept up with. God knows my younger brother hasn’t been tending to the housework. Dale is actually the reason I’m here.

Before practice this morning, I got a call from his school letting me know that he’d skipped summer school again. Our mother, having gone back to college to be a neonatal nurse, works long hours now that she’s graduated from nursing school and can’t always keep as good of an eye on Dale as she probably should. It was an eight hour drive just to get here from Atlanta and I'd sped most of the way.

Pissed as hell, I circle the house toward the backyard where I find my mom pulling weeds from the small flower garden behind her green house. She doesn’t even look up from her yardwork, but I know she knows I’m here.

“Mom, we need to talk. Where’s Dale?” I ask. She stiffens at the mention of his name and I wonder if she’s already talked to him about the skipping.

“He’s not here. I haven’t seen him since Thursday evening.”

My stomach lurches at this news. “What do you mean you haven’t seen him? Where the hell is he?”

My mom sighs wearily and pulls off her gardening gloves. She doesn’t stand very tall at five foot four inches, but the disapproval flashing in her eyes at my tone, makes me feel like I’m six years old all over again. “You know I don’t mind one way or the other about your language but calm that tone when you’re speaking to me.”

I swipe a hand down my face impatiently, but I shoot her an apologetic glance. “Yes ma’am.”

“I know about Dale skipping class. I got the call from the school. I’ve been waiting for him to come home, but he hasn’t showed. When I spoke to him last, he told me he was staying with a friend. I figured it wouldn’t do any good to argue with him about coming home.” Guilt waters in my mother’s eyes and she looks down at her hands. “I try so hard with him, Luke. I promise I do. He just… doesn’t listen to me. I don’t know what else to do. In less than two years he’s going to be a man, out on his own in the world and I’m afraid for him. You were my easy baby. Always so helpful around the house, polite, good in school. I think you spoiled me so much that after you moved out, I had no idea how to handle Dale. Am I a bad mother?”

My heart wrenches and my fists ball in anger. It’s not often that someone can rile me up. Even in football, I’m not the aggressive type. So the white hot fury pulsing through me at my brother’s defiance surprises me. “You’re the best mom… Don’t worry about Dale. I’ll find him and when I bring him back here, we’re going to sit down and talk. Things are going to change mom. I promise you.”

With a kiss on her cheek, I tell her I’m going to make some calls and I’ll be back.

It takes me a half hour to track down my brother, but when I do I have to reign in my temper at the sight before me. Not only did I have to drive all the way out to fucking Englewood, but when I pull up to the address I got from the tracker I had installed on my brother’s car, the thumping bass of hip hop music blares from the house as roughly fifty high school students hang out in the yard, drinking from red plastic cups and talking.

It’s only seven fifteen in the evening, and while it’s dark out and a Saturday night, this is no place for my sixteen year old brother to be. Not the neighborhood per se, even though it is a little run down, but at this kind of party. My father warned me about the dangers of letting drugs and alcohol ruin your life. My grandfather was a violent alcoholic, and the main reason my father joined the Army at eighteen and never looked back. Sometimes I think my brother might not be so difficult to handle if our Dad had been in his life, but Mom was still pregnant with Dale at the funeral.

Saying a silent prayer that my car is still here by the time I get back, I park my vehicle and approach the house. I get a few stares from some of the kids as I enter the crumbling brick home. It’s a shame the people of Chicago and many other communities like this one have to live like this. It has a booming economy but there are still parts of it that could use some help. I make a mental note to contact my teammate Armon. He grew up here and his foundation works with impoverished communities to help clean up the neighborhoods and the homes in them.

For now though, I focus on getting my stubborn ass brother out of here. The home is crammed packed with bodies and it’s hard not to feel claustrophobic in the small house.

I turn to two girls who look way too young to be attending a party like this, let alone drinking and ask if they’ve seen a six foot two, lanky white kid with blonde curly hair and grey eyes. The shorter of the two wrinkles her nose in confusion and the other just shrugs. “We just got here.”

Frustrated, I thank them and move further into the house until I’ve reached the kitchen. A few guys stand around, talking to girls but none of them are Dale and I’m beginning to lose my patience when I spot a couple coming into the house from the back door, the flash of blonde curls intensifying my anger.

“What the f—”

I cut my brother off with a hard stare and he at least has the decency to look ashamed. Something that actually surprises me. “Excuse me, miss I need to speak with Dale.” I don’t take my eyes off of my brother.

“Who’s this?” the brunette asks, frowning. She looks almost five years older than him, but I have enough to worry about right now.

“What’re you doing here?” He asks, ignoring her.

“Surprise. I’m your fucking uber driver. Now let’s go.”

“Who the fuck do you think you are? You’re not my dad.”

I snort. “If you think for a second he’d let you get away with half the shit you’ve pulled this year, you’re delusional but I’ll forgive it. We’re going Dale. Now we can go quietly, or I can call the cops and have this party shut down. We’ll see how many you get invited to after that.”

Dale’s face brightens a deep crimson shade, but I know he’s more angry than embarrassed.

“You want to say goodbye to your friend?” I ask, nodding toward the girl waiting by the kitchen counter. Dale shakes his head and steps toward me.

“I just met her. She’s fucking tanked. I was going to call her a cab, but she called her mom instead. I was bringing her inside to get some water while she waited.”

A small pang of guilt pierces my chest at how easily I believed Dale was up to no good with a girl who looks old enough to be in college. “Will she be alright if you leave her?”

“Yeah, she’s got friends here.”

Dale doesn’t speak the entire drive back to mom’s but I can tell he’s still fuming about being told what to do. My brother has never respected authority a day in his natural born life and the way he was looking at me back there, I was sure he was gonna try and take a swing at me.

He doesn’t wait for me to park the car when I pull into mom’s drive and I sigh, knowing the discussion we’re all about to have isn’t going to be an easy one. Things are going to be said and feelings are going to be hurt— Dale’s and mom’s— but this shit has gotten out of hand.

I walk into the house fully expecting to have to drag my brother out of his bedroom, but surprisingly my mom’s standing in front of the staircase, arms crossed, and a big scowl, twisting her delicate features. Dale has a good eight inches on her, but her eyes are cold and hard. She’s livid.

“Mom, I’m tired. Just let me go to my room.”

“Sit!” she commands, not taking her eyes off of him. I watch surprised and a little proud as my mom holds her ground against her youngest son. Dale huffs but does as she asks and takes a seat at her dining room table. It’s then that she acknowledges my presence and says, “you too, babe.”

I take a seat across from my brother and my mom takes hers at the end of the table. Her posture resembles that of both an exhausted mother and a judge, ready to bang down her gavel and lay down the law. Mom’s fed up with Dale’s shit and hopefully that’ll make what I’m about to suggest easier to digest.

“If this is an intervention, I’m not interested,” he says, sounding bored.

“I think we’re past that, Dale,” mom says, her mouth tightening at the corners. “I don’t know what to do with you anymore, honey. I thought I was doing the best that I could, but I can see that it just isn’t good enough anymore… I’ve been looking into some places, boarding schools. Not like a military academy or anything like your father went to when he was your age, just something different. I think a change of pace, some new scenery would be good for you.”

Dale’s indifferent mask slips and for a moment, he looks like a lost child. “Y-you’re going to send me away?”

I can see the guilt in mom’s eyes and I can tell she must really be desperate. “I don’t think I have a choice anymore Dale. This is the third high school you’ve been to in as many years. After two expulsions, the reckless partying, the underage drinking… stealing my car last weekend. I can’t do this anymore, sweetheart. You’re about to be a man. You’re going to have to make your own decisions and fend for yourself out in the real world soon. I think sending you to a good boarding school will help make the transition easier, especially if you decide to go to college.”

I don’t have to guess to know how Dale feels about that idea. However, I speak up before he can protest. “I think I might have a better solution, mom.”

They both turn to me, their eyes widening in surprise as if they’ve just realized I’ve been sitting here this entire time. “What?” Dale asks, barely keeping the relief out of his tone.

I pull the brochure I’ve been carrying in my pocket for the last few days and set it on the table in front of my mother. “Arbury College Prep. In Atlanta. Closer to me.”

Mom reaches for my hand and smiles. “Honey, that’s very kind of you to think of your brother but Arbury's not a boarding school and I'm not comfortable with him living on his own.”

“He won't be.” That gets my mom’s attention.

She hesitates for a moment. “But you just bought us this home a few years back...” My mom is too selfless to voice it aloud but her face says it all. She doesn't want to move.

I shake my head. “Not you.” I glance over at Dale who’s frowning at me, but the spark of curiosity in his eyes makes me wonder what he’ll think of the idea. “I think Dale should come live with me, mom. At least for the year. With all due respect, I don’t agree with sending him away. Dad talked to me all the time about how he felt after grandpa did it to him and… I don’t want to split up our family.”

Mom shakes her head. “I don’t know about this, Luke. You’re busy. You don’t have time to keep an eye on a teenager.”

“Not as busy as you. My season doesn't start 'till August. I’ve already talked to my agent and I’ve got a clear schedule starting next week. We can move Dale in during Summer break and then revisit other options in the winter, if necessary.”

My mother worries her bottom lip then shoots a look at my little brother. Dale’s back to feigning indifference, but he doesn’t hop up to reject the idea either. I continue when neither of them say anything.

“The school has an excellent baseball program and I think if Dale got a few of his grades up in summer school, he might be eligible to play before the season starts. I can talk with the coach and Miles has a buddy on the Statesman who’s an alum. I can see about letting him workout with the guys.”

For the first time, something other than boredom or disdain flickers in my brother’s eyes and he swallows. “I quit two years ago, remember?”

I shrug. “So. Get in the gym, get back in shape. Start throwing again and get your velo back up. We’re not talking about baseball or school here, Dale. We’re talking about the rest of your life. You could get a scholarship if you worked hard enough. Go to college, get a degree. You’ve got an opportunity some kids would kill for. Don’t throw it away just because you’re scared.”

I fight to hide my smile. Dale hates being accused of being afraid of anything. Everything’s a challenge to my little brother. And one thing about Dale, is if you tell him he can’t do something, he’ll go out of his way to prove you wrong. And that’s what I’m banking on.

“I’m not scared.”

I lean forward and place my hands on the table. “Then prove it. One year. You live with me, you attend Arbury, play baseball… or don’t, I don’t care. But you quit the booze, you graduate with at least a two-point-seven-five GPA, and you apply to college… Do that for me and mom, and on your eighteenth birthday in July, I’ll set you up with an apartment and your own car.”

I can tell my little brother wasn’t expecting that and now that I have his attention, I channel my father and muster all of the authority in my tone as I can manage. “But one screw up— one fight, one DUI, doesn’t matter— and the deal’s off.”

“One year?” Dale asks, his eyes bouncing from me to mom and back again.

“One year,” I confirm, holding my breath for his answer.

After what feels like an eternity Dale exhales, then nods. “Deal.”

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