Once, I Had

Stretching out as my legs kicked behind me, I pushed out into the cold. My breath grew tired and weak as the non-existent current tried to drown me. With exhaustion on the brink of my horizon, I stopped and allowed my feet to touch the ground. Looking up I saw that the other kids had reached the end of the pool. It felt as if hours had passed yet I was still at the beginning, barely the length of my height from the perimeter.

My scoutmaster looked on with squinted eyes and sighed as his gaze crossed mine. He scratched feverishly on his clipboard and walked away. I bobbed there, holding onto the side of the pool, watching him congratulate the other swimmers. They were so excited, and for a small second, I allowed myself to live in their bliss. Then I caught sight of my scoutmaster looking at me again. I couldn't tell if he was disappointed or just felt sorry for me. Either way, it wasn't a look I would care to see again.

The last time I saw that look on a person's face was the day I walked in on my mom smoking a cigarette in the kitchen. She didn't say a word, just gave me a stare that lanced straight through me. As I ran through the house that day, I noticed something was different. My dad was gone. His drawers empty, the closet where he hung his shirts bare, his briefcase gone. She never smoked before then, never smoked again after either. I'm not sure if she blamed me, but that look of hers was evident that things would never be the same again.

Walking home, I knew I would not tell my mom about the embarrassment at the pool. I hadn't told her about the previous two failed attempts, and I definitely wouldn't tell her about this one. When it came to scouting, it seemed as though I would never rise in the ranks. I couldn't build a fire, I couldn't tie my knots, and I definitely couldn't be trusted with an ax. What I wanted more than anything though was the life-saving badge, a testament to what I wanted to be when I grew up: a hero. But without the swimming badge, that title was never to come.

At home, I was a failure too, or at least, my mom would always say. When it came to fixing things or putting furniture together, I was slow and unreliable. I wasn't any good at washing dishes, or taking out the trash, or even making my bed. A mess is what I was apparently. It shouldn't have been a surprise when she decided to become a foster parent. The evidence was stacked up against me; she wanted a kid who would be good at something, a son she could be proud of. I allowed her this dream because it was my dream too. A brother, a brother who would fight my battles with me and take the blame from time to time. Someone to play with, to practice with. Someone who wouldn't put you down when you failed to reach the mark. Someone who would pick you back up and show you the way. An older brother, yeah, that would be ideal.

The call had come in that morning just before I left for my scout meeting. My mom picked up the phone and gleed with the news that she was finally getting a kid as I walked out the door. Scouting was meant to toughen me up, make me more of a man, but I think it just made me more anxious about everything. I knew I would be coming home to a new brother, and it hit me that perhaps I didn't want one. He would be better than me, in everything. I could see him winning trophies in sports, badges for saving kittens out of trees, and impressing my mom with his handyman skills. No, I didn't want a brother. I didn't want one at all.

I walked into the kitchen still smelling of chlorine, and looked at my mom who pointed toward the table. That's when I saw HER, yes Her, a girl. A girl. Her dirty blond hair laid limp across Her tear stricken face, Her hands trembling as she held a cup of milk. I didn't know what to do or say, I was so confused, relieved, and angered at the same time. She looked at me with a sad little smile.

"Hello," she muttered.

I didn't answer back. I just stared at Her with a dumb look on my face. My mom would later say it was because I was amazed by Her beauty, but what she failed to accept was that I had no interest in girls at this point — nor would I ever. I walked to my room and dumped my stuff on the bed, turned on the TV; ready to watch my Saturday afternoon movie. My mom walked in; her god of war Astro sign etched on her face red as fire.

"I thought I raised you better than that," she said under her breath, holding back the slap that itched to escape her palm.

At dinner, I sat across from Her, silent in my words but not in my thoughts. She didn't say much either besides "please" and "thank you." It seemed like she would be beating me in the arena of manners, I could already feel my mom liking Her better than me. A perfect little angel, how could I even compare?

My mom asked me to show Her my games; from her tone I concluded it wasn't a request. I whipped out my favorite board game thinking surely everyone had played it. She knew nothing about it, and when I tried to explain the rules she didn't understand a word. Then I felt better, she may have been polite, but she was dumb, and that I could deal with. As the game haphazardly progressed I grew tired of Her, and ending the game abruptly, I said I was going to bed.

As I laid there watching a movie, I could hear Her muffled crying from the room next door. I turned down the volume and put my ear against the wall. Her auditory tears were soft and flowed like silk. Even Her despair was perfect. I turned the volume up and went back to my movie.

School would be starting in a week, and I would be able to escape Her for eight hours a day. Until then I just had to coast and stay out of my mom's way. Let her enjoy her new child who obviously didn't want to be here. I didn't care, as far as I was aware nothing had changed and being a foster child she would eventually leave anyway.

For some reason, she liked me. I couldn't understand why. I barely spoke to Her and was always telling Her to leave me alone, stop touching my things, and stop talking when I'm watching TV. She followed me everywhere and wanted to do everything I did. During my scout meetings she would sit outside and wait for me to finish, she would walk home with me from school even though I finished an hour later than Her. The whole time she would annoy me with Her stories, about Her old life — the one before she was taken away. About Her brothers and sisters that she hadn't seen since, about Her mom and dad, how they used to beat Her and disappear for days on end. I didn't want to know about any of this, I didn't want to know about any of them. I didn't want to know about Her.

There were only two TVs in the house and the one in the living room was solely for watching Spanish telenovelas — change that channel and my mom would be after you with her slippers. So when it came to watching any TV, let alone watching my favorite shows, I had to share with Her. Her talking was annoying at most times, but when it came to watching my shows, Her conversation changed. It was no longer random babble, it was commentary; specialized thoughts and opinions about the one thing I held sacred. That, I could not handle, I could not ignore, I could not put up with. But I had to. If I laid one hand on Her or yelled one funny remark not only would it get reported to the authorities I would also end up in children services after my mom was done with me. She was untouchable, and deep down I think she knew it.

Christmas was rolling around quicker than expected, and I went to my mom and told her I knew what the perfect present for Her was. My mom was so proud of me, thought me so considerate, and agreed. At midnight after our Christmas Eve dinner, I watched Her tear apart the wrapping paper from the box. A picture of a 13-inch television appearing with each swipe. She looked so happy and hugged my mom profusely, my mom giving me an approving look.

The rest of the Christmas holiday was smooth sailing. My mom was off my back and she was content in Her room with Her new TV and toys. I went about my business, watched my TV, and played my games. Alone. "Finally," I thought, "Peace."

She stopped following me to my scout meetings, stopped waiting for me after school, stopped annoying me with Her stories. She did all the cleaning at home and even helped my mom do the cooking. I was in heaven, no chores, no commentary, and my mom was content. As long as I did well in school and stayed out of trouble I was pretty invincible, and though it was what I feared would happen, I was glad it did.

In the spring, the TV season started up again and that meant new episodes of all my favorite shows. I was so excited, especially since now she would be in Her own room, watching on Her own. I sat down in front of the TV, eager with anticipation as the opening teaser commenced. That's when I heard Her… gasping and commenting through the wall. "Are you kidding me?" I thought out loud. The climax of the teaser sent Her into a panic and as the show went to commercials, I heard Her shuffle out of Her room and into mine.

"Oh My God! I can't believe that just happened!" she yelled out.

And like the Energizer bunny she went on and on and on. I told Her to get out of my room but then the show started up again and there she was, sitting next to me, commenting, ranting and raving, ruining my life.

She started following me around again, jabbering away like Her life depended on it. But now all she talked about was TV. It was as if she had grown the ability of independent thought and rational reasoning. She kept having theories of why things happened as they did on the shows, what they meant regarding life, and how they were going to affect the future. She wouldn't shut up, and unless I ran away from home, I was never going to get rid of Her. I walked out of my scout meetings, there she was, I walked out of school, there she was, I went to the grocery store to buy a gallon of milk, she would run to join me. Talking, always talking.

I think I was about to go mad. I couldn't even hear myself think.

Summer rolled around, my shows were over for the season. "Good," I thought, TV was ruined for me anyway. But then again it meant I would be home all day with Her, with HER. I asked my mom if I could go away to sleepover camp, she laughed at me and said no. The best I could do was a weekend camping trip with the scouts which I did every year, but every year I failed the physical tests they put you through and every year I wished I hadn't gone. This year it was all I could look forward to.

I waved goodbye to my mom and made no eye contact with Her as I boarded the bus. I could feel Her looking back at me with Her sad eyes, the same sad eyes from the day I first met Her. As we arrived at the camp, the rain started. We trekked three miles to the camp site with our backpacks and supplies and pitched our tents. The mud slurped under our feet as we huddled together to stay warm. I had never been so glad to be alone with my scout troop in my life. Today we just had to get settled and eat, tomorrow the feats would begin. Then again, in this rain, the scoutmaster would have to consider canceling it surely.

As I awoke the following morning to the bullhorn, I could hear the rain continue its downpour. The rattle of the water hitting the tent, hitting the ground, saturating everything in its wake. It was like a constant commentary, like… as if she had come to haunt me in the one place I could finally escape Her. We were forced to the obstacle course, the tests would begin; I didn't understand, these were inhuman conditions. But as my scoutmaster pointed out "These are the conditions of life."

I ran, I jumped, I climbed, and I crawled. The rain bouncing against my eardrums along the way. But I could no longer hear the rain, all I could hear was Her. Ranting, Raving, Commenting. It was driving me crazy and finally I did what I could not do at home. I SCREAMED, I PUNCHED, and I KICKED. Everything turned into a blur; the rain, trees, and mud melding into an unknown vortex. It was as if I wasn't even there. I dropped to my knees, finally catching my breath. Looking back I realized I had reached the end of the obstacle course, some of the kids still at the beginning staring at me like I was a wild beast they had just discovered for the first time. Then I looked over to my scoutmaster, tending to some of the kids who were hurt along the way. Apparently in my blind rage, I did some damage. All I could think about was the fact that I finished the course, finished it before anyone else.

I went home with a suspension for the rest of the summer. I could go back to my troop in the fall but I didn't want to, I failed the scouts just like I had failed everything else in life. I would have to think of some excuse to tell my mom of where I would be going once a week.

I got home, still covered in mud, to my mom brushing Her hair. It was Her birthday in a few days and my mom wanted to try out new hairstyles on Her for the big day. "A day at the beach with perfect curls blowing in the breeze," my mom said cheerfully. My last birthday party was several years ago and I don't think I had ever gone to the beach with my mom. Why was the world against me? Why couldn't everything just be right? Why was she getting all the attention? Why?

We headed to the beach and I already knew I was going to be miserable. Not being able to swim I wasn't going to be able to get away from Her, and sitting on the sand with my mom all day would eventually drive me to suicide. But when you're a ten year old kid, you go where you're told and you have no choice otherwise. So I sat there on the hot sand, it creeping up into my shorts and forcing me to shuffle about uncomfortably. My mom and Her talking about nonsense and trying to coerce me into the conversation. In a huff I got up and headed towards the water.

I felt Her following me. Her presence was like the shadow of the devil you prayed would stay away but who always found a way in your sins to attach itself to you.

"Don't get your hair wet!" my mom yelled out.

With confirmation, I tightened my lips, but I didn't look back. I just walked into the crashing waves. Wading out as far as I could and then walking on tip toes when the water got deep.

"Wait, you can't go that far. I can't go that far!" She called out to me.

I turned as the wave struck me from behind and crashed me into Her. I grabbed Her by the arms and spoke sternly.

"Good, I don't want you to. I want you to go, I want you to leave me alone, don't you understand? I hate you!"

I let go and tiptoed sideways towards some other kids who were playing with a beach ball. She stood there motionless, letting the waves push Her about.

I found the courage to join the other kids in their game. I couldn't believe I was being included and able to participate without making a mockery of myself. I didn't know where she was, I didn't even think about where she was, all I knew is that she was not anywhere near me. That was all I needed to know.

The game ended and the kids dispersed back to their parents.

I looked around and couldn't see Her. The water was packed. There were people everywhere, splashing about and obstructing my view. Some kids were horsing around and causing a nuisance, dunking their friends into the water and generally being stupid boys.

The oldest one, couldn't have been more than twelve, was holding someone's head under the water. He raised it up with a laugh and then I saw Her, Her hair caught in his grip, Her tears swimming in the sea, Her arms begging him to stop. My body stiffened as the world blurred around me.

My arm stretched out as my legs kicked behind me. I pushed out into the cold, my breath thick and strong. I cut through the water, cut through the crowd, and pulled up just before him. I cried out "Get away from my Sister!" as my fist collided with his face.

I wrapped a towel around her and held her the entire way home. Mom didn't say a word though she had forced me to apologize to the other boy. Under different circumstances, I would have gotten a beating the moment I got home but I was safe. I could see it in mom's eyes that she was proud of me, and for once I deserved the unmentioned praise.

We got in and I turned on the TV while mom set about in the kitchen. I waved her over to my room and we sat and watched a movie together. We sat in silence for a good long while. I wanted to say "I'm sorry" but I couldn't bring myself to it. Then it started, her jabbering, her ranting and raving, her commenting.

I sighed.

Then, I laughed.

A few weeks later school started up again. I went to my first day, and this time I would be coming out at the same time as her. I walked over to where her class let out and waited. I watched as the kids came out two by two but she wasn't with them. I saw her teacher by the door and ran to her, asking her why she wasn't there. I was told mom came to collect her earlier.

I ran home and found mom sitting in the kitchen smoking a cigarette. She looked at me but didn't say a word. I ran to the room and saw the empty bed, the lifeless TV, the empty closet and bare chest of drawers.

Once, I had a sister. God, how I miss her.
Once, I Had Once, I Had Reviewed by Christópher Abreu Rosario on 11:00 Rating: 5

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