Every night for a week, I woke to a gunshot. Just one, across the house, followed by a loud, ringing silence. And then the footsteps. They shuffled slowly up to my door. The knob would rattle softly a few times, but it was locked. I laid in bed, my covers pulled up to my nose, and I stared at the wall, and I waited.
“I’m only still here because of you,” she whispered against my door. “One of these days, it’ll happen, I’ll do it. It’ll happen…”
She stayed there for a while, sobbing quietly, and then her footsteps would fade back down the hall.
I hated that I was scared of my mom.
I’d known for a while that she wasn’t like the other mothers. They had jobs and did carpools and brought their kids to soccer practice. They lived in the suburbs, not out in the sticks like us. I saw them in their big minivans, hair brushed, makeup on, smiling, and I felt guilty for being jealous. I knew it wasn’t Mom’s fault. She tried.
She just had the blues. That’s what Dad used to say, before he left.
“Mama’s got the blues, Jakey. Give her space. She’ll come out of it. She always does.”
But she didn’t. Not anymore. It’d been five years since Dad sat me down and told me he got a job out of state and that he’d be going alone. He didn’t even look very sorry about it.
“Mama needs somebody to look after her, Jakey. You can do that for me, can’t you?”
I said yes, but if I’m honest, I didn’t do a very good job of it. I was fourteen; I wanted to live my own life. I wanted to talk to girls and play games and hang out with friends. It was selfish, I know. I did my best to keep the house clean and stuff, but being home was hard and I was looking for any excuse to stay out. Things were starting to fall apart.
If Mom noticed, she didn’t say anything. She just stayed in her room and cried. She only came out after I’ve gone to bed.
After the gunshot.
I knew she loved me, though. Even when she was feeling so down, she’d find ways to show it. Every morning, there’d be a plate of breakfast sitting on the counter for me, eggs and bacon and toast, and there’d be a sandwich in the fridge for me to take for lunch.
The first morning after hearing the shot, I’d gone to her door and knocked on it. I was worried, but didn’t know what to do.
“Mom? Are you ok? I heard…something last night,” I said.
She was sniffling on the other side of the door. When I tried to open it, I found she’d locked it.
“Go to school,” was all she said.
“Should I call Grandpa?”
“No! Don’t you dare! Go away!”
What else was I supposed to do? I took the lunch she’d made me and walked outside. Before I went to school, I went around to the back of the house and tried to peek in through her window, but the curtains were drawn and it was dark. Defeated, I left.
When I got home that afternoon, a casserole was on the stove with a note telling me to eat as much as I wanted. I asked her to come have dinner with me, but she didn’t respond. At least she wasn’t crying.
That night, the same as the first, I heard another gunshot. A few minutes later, she was outside my door again.
“I’m only still here because of you. I’ll do it. One of these days, it’ll happen. It’ll happen…”
I stayed very still and quiet until she went away.
We went on like that for a few days. I didn’t see her, just heard her in her room. Muttering, crying, pacing. If I tried to talk to her, she’d just tell me to go away. I tried to argue once. She got mad.
“Go away, Jacob! Go away, go away, go away!”
Her bedroom door shuddered under her blows. I backed away and left the house. I could still hear her screeching halfway down the driveway.
I’d never been good at arguing with Mom. Dad was, though, so I called him after the third day.
“It’s the blues, Jakey,” he said. “Give her space.”
“She’s got a gun, Dad.”
“She’s had it for years. Nothing to worry about.”
If he wasn’t worried, I would try not to be, too.
But he wasn’t the one listening to that single shot ring out every night. He wasn’t the one who had to hear her.
“I’m only still here because of you. One of these days, it’ll happen, I’ll do it. It’ll happen…”
I kept waiting for her to come out of it like Dad said she would. I guess it made me blind.
I hardly noticed how the dishes were piling up in the sink or how the trash can overflowed. It was easier to ignore things like that than try to fix them myself. When the smell started to get bad after a bit, I just opened my bedroom window and stayed in there, playing games on my computer and reading.
By the end of the week, I’d not seen Mom at all. Breakfasts were getting smaller, until all that was waiting for me was a single egg with a gray sheen to it. She’d started leaving me baggies of change instead of sandwiches to buy lunch. Dinner became unopened cans of soup placed on the stove top beside a can opener and pot. I’d run out of clean clothes and the bottle of laundry detergent was empty. Mom had been meaning to buy a new one.
Our house stank of garbage and unwashed dishes. The air felt greasy, heavy, and oppressive. It was starting to stick to me.
I begged Mom through her closed door to go shopping. She just kept telling me to go away. I again asked if I could call anyone, but she snarled, “No!”, so I just crept back to my room.
By then, I’d come to expect the nightly gunshot and her tearful whispering that followed.
“I’m only still here because of you.”
I knew she was holding on for me, trying to be a good mom, but I didn’t know how to be a good son in return, so I just stayed silent in the dark.
When I went to school the following Monday, I was getting desperate. I was hungry and filthy and exhausted. All of classmates were avoiding me, even the few friends I had.
I only made it to second period before I was nodding off at my desk. Instead of being upset with me, Mr. Marcus, my English teacher, held me behind after class.
“Something going on, Jake?” He asked.
I knew Mom wouldn’t want me to say anything. I felt like I shouldn’t. But beneath Mr. Marcus’ bushy brows, his eyes were kind and concerned. No one had looked at me like that in a while.
In my head, I apologized to Mom the whole time I told him what had been going on at home. I left out the part about the gun. I didn’t want to scare him.
Instead of immediately calling child protective services, I pleaded with Mr. Marcus to come to my house and try to talk to Mom first.
“She’s just got the blues,” I said. “I don’t want her to get in trouble.”
It was probably against school policy for him to do what he did, but Mr. Marcus agreed and drove me home. I hoped having another person to talk to other than me would convince Mom to come out. She just needed help. Maybe my teacher could be the first step towards getting it.
The moment the door swung open, Mr. Marcus gagged and threw his arm over his mouth and nose. I was all to aware of the stench and became embarrassed that I’d let it get so bad.
“It’s the garbage and dishes,” I said apologetically. “I’ll clean up while you talk to Mom.”
But Mr. Marcus blocked my way with his free arm.
“No. Go back to my car. Wait there.”
His skin had taken on a greenish tinge.
“But my mom…”
“It’s ok, Jake. I’ll handle it.”
He was looking at me so earnestly. I really believed he would. I returned to the car and he went inside, closing the door behind him. A wave of relief washed over me.
Things were finally going to get better.
So when the cops showed up, their lights flashing without the usual accompanying sirens, the betrayal that cut through my chest was sharp and bitter. I started to get out of the car, but Mr. Marcus was beside the door, trying to push it closed again.
“Stay in there, Jake, please,” he said.
There was something in his voice that made me pause while he met two officers at the foot of the driveway. After gesturing for me to stay put again, the three hurried by with matching grim expressions and disappeared into the house. I waited a moment and then slowly stepped out of the car.
Followed by a crash from somewhere inside.
“Mom!” I cried, and ran forward.
I found my teacher and the cops huddled in the doorway of my mom’s room. They’d kicked it open. The odor that wafed out had my stomach turning and my eyes watering. I grabbed at the back of Mr. Marcus’ shirt.
“What are you doi —”
He tried to block my view, as did the cops, but they’d moved too slowly.
For the first time in a week, I saw my mom.
She was sitting upright in her bed wearing her favorite dress, the one with the roses across the neckline. She’d put on her mother’s pearls and the only pair of high heels she owned. She’d finally put on the makeup I’d wanted her to wear, like the other moms.
A pistol was cradled in her limp hand. Flies buzzed lazily around her, landing every now and again on her mottled, bloated skin.
Her head behind her made up face was a mess of bloody bullet holes. Seven of them. One for every time I’d heard the gun go off.
She’d been dead about a week, I was told after the crime scene investigators took over and I was carted off to the police station to wait for my grandpa. No one could explain why an apparent suicide victim had multiple wounds.
They all looked at me like I was crazy when I said she’d done it to herself. They must have thought I was some poor, stupid, grieving kid.
And I was all of those things. But I was also certain of what I’d experienced.
And I finally understood what she really meant.
“I’m only still here because of you. One of these days, it’ll happen, I’ll do it. It’ll happen…”
For a week straight, I’d listened to my mother try to kill herself. For a week straight, I’d listened to her fail. She wanted so badly to leave this world, but her spirit refused to go. She was waiting for it to happen, the crossover or whatever you want to call it, but she couldn’t go. Not while she was still worried about me.
Despite her torment, she had stayed until she knew I’d be looked after.
Despite her torment, there was a part of her that hadn’t been completely overtaken by her blues, one that wanted to take care of me.
Despite her torment, she was still my mom above anything else.