The room

was too finished from a day’s labor to hold much light.

I had followed my mom into my parents’ room — the one in the new house on Humphrey. I was probably nine, and not beyond going to my mother for help and helplessness. But tonight I had followed her, not for my helplessness, but for her own.

She was done.

I was used to the fights back and forth between AK and our mother. They had become more and more frequent. I didn’t know what she did this time; there was always something.

But something was different tonight.

I remember how strange it was, the way her body lay strewn across the bed like a deflated hot air balloon, forearm resting across her forehead. She was upside down diagonal, face towards me — standing just past the doorway — and the ceiling. Anything but leaning upright against the headboard, tucked neatly into bed and leisurely reading a magazine by lamplight (these days, it’s staying up late scrolling through Facebook). Not that I had often seen my mother at rest. She was always moving, always washing the dishes or doing laundry or doing bills or cooking dinner or telling my dad she was ready to shoot a coworker. I would wake up most mornings to the rapid tink! tink! tink! of egg yolk getting a nice little fork whipping.

So while I had almost never seen my mother let go and sit still, I had never really seen her so run down either. Her breath came long and slow, like a wind across a front yard that’s been abandoned, the flattened grass barely perking up, having given up all hope of seeing the next wind. When she spoke, her voice was a single air bubble.

“Nikki,” she murmured, eyes closed, as if struck by some monstrous heat that I could not see. But I could feel it. For the first time, I noticed the tired skin around her eyes. Her parched lips.

It could have been any season for all I knew, but in this room, there was a fever.

“Please.” Her voice scraped against rock.

She needed help. Real help. I listened earnestly. I could feel the fever, feel the darkness overtaking the dim light and threatening to suffocate us. I needed to breathe, too.

“Don’t be like AK.”

AK. My big sister. I wanted to do everything she did, be cool and laugh with a big group of friends at all hours of the night, but she was always pushing me away. Yeah, she let me play with her and Megan all the time, but that was back at Newman. Lately all she wanted was to be with her new friends who were older than me — friends who didn’t mind trouble. Just thinking about the window incident still stressed me out.

And I could see that all of AK’s galavanting, as my parents put it, was taking a toll on my mother. I had to help her.

Don’t be like AK.

So I wasn’t.

— Nic, “the good girl”

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