Riding Out the Storm

Sis Deans

Henry Holt and Co.

CHAPTER
1
 

When I grow up, I’m gonna be a millionaire. If you got money, no one gives you grief. You can buy what you want, be what you want, live how you want. You got money, you don’t hafta wait in line for hours, days, and freakin’ months before you can get your brother help, don’t hafta live wondering if he’s gonna go off on you ’cause he don’t like the look on your face. Don’t hafta watch him lose it in public or listen to him yell and break things all day long or be afraid 24/7 ’cause yuh know he’s mental enough to hurt you, or himself.
That’s what I’m thinking about while me and Gramp are sitting on the Greyhound bus waiting to leave Portland. Thinking how it’s all about money—havin’ it, makin’ it, losing it. If it weren’t for That Thievin’ Insurance Company, as Ma likes to call it, my parents wouldn’t have lost our house on Douglas Street, wouldn’t have gone broke paying Derek’s doctor bills, wouldn’t have had to make him a Ward of the State justa get him help.
Weren’t for That Thievin’ Insurance Company, who only cares about makin’ money and has a lifetime price tag on mental illness so they can get rid of yuh quick as they can, Derek wouldn’t be a Ward of the State, and I’d still be his brother, not a visitor who’s gotta get special permission just to see him.
Weren’t for That Thievin’ Insurance Company, I wouldn’t be on this stinkin’ bus going to New Jersey, where Derek’s new parents—the State of Maine—have shipped him off to ’cause it’s cheaper, ’cause it’s all about money, no matter freakin’ what.
And weren’t for That Thievin’ Insurance Company, I’d be playing in the basketball tournament with my eighth-grade travel team, who ain’t gonna win without me, instead of sittin’ here next to Gramp, who’s pointing one of his sausage fingers past my nose.
“That used to be Union Station,” he tells me, like it’s important.
I don’t say nothing ’cause who cares? But obviously Gramp does; he’s leaning right into me now so he can see out the window and over the snowbanks.
“It looked like a castle,” he says. “All stone. Had a tower with a clock big enough to see what time it was when you were up on the Western Prom.”
I catch a whiff of his cigar breath and just about puke. No way I can take that smell for five hundred miles, probably suffocate before we cross the bridge to South Portland.
“Idiots tore it down back in the sixties. Now look at it—Goodwill and a Dollar Store.” He shakes his hairy white head like he can’t believe it, whispers, “A Burger King.”
“Like to sit by the window, Gramp?”
He looks at me, and those bushy eyebrows that Derek calls albino caterpillars meet in the middle. “No, no, Zach. I want you to have the window so you can see.” He sits back and picks up the newspaper from his lap, holds it up like the news in the Press Herald’s some big deal. “I have this to read.”
I kinda feel sorry for him, tell him, “We can take turns.”
“Sure,” he answers, but I know he’s just saying that. He won’t switch with me. The whole time we ride the dog down to New Jersey, I’ll be sitting in the good seat. Still, it don’t really matter, won’t be able to see much; it’s already getting dark out. Just one of the reasons I hate winter in Maine: looks like midnight by four in the afternoon. When I grow up, I’m gonna live someplace where it’s always sunny and warm. None of this snow, sleet, freezing-cold crap for me. No more of that gray-ugly sky day after day, week after week, five months long. That’s why I’m hoping it’s a lot warmer in New Jersey, hoping they don’t get as much snow as we do, ’cause Derek only tries suicide in the winter. It’s really scary to see your brother’s blood all over the bathroom, but it’s even scarier thinking next time he tries to slice his wrists with an X-Acto knife, Dad won’t be there to break the lock on the door or Ma to call the ambulance. Now that he’s a Ward of the State, we probably won’t even know about it till the next day.
“Let’s get this show on the road,” says Gramp.
“I know,” I tell him. I’m sick of waiting, too. Ma had to drop us off a whole hour early for it’s “first come, first served” when you’re riding the dog. Don’t matter if you bought your ticket two weeks ago; you ain’t in line early, you’re outta luck if there’s forty-seven people ahead of you, even if they bought their tickets two minutes before you got there. What sucks is, there are still some empty seats on the bus, so me and Gramp got here early for nothing.
Know what makes it worse? Soon as we saw the bus drive up, everyone ran outside like the place was on fire—some lady luggin’ a pillow, hip-checking me with her luggage just to nab her “first come, first served” spot along the yellow metal railing—so I stood outside fifteen minutes freezing my butt off and breathing cigarette smoke and bus fumes for nothing, too.
“Seat’s comfortable,” says Gramp.
I kneel on mine, start checking things out: big windows but no way to open them; no cup holder for my Mountain Dew; over our seats, reading lights that work and two circle things you gotta twist, one for heat, one for a fan.
“Look, Gramp. There’s an escape hatch in the ceiling. ‘Emergency Exit. Pull Handle Fully and Push Here.’ That’s cool.”
“Good to know,” he says. “But hope we don’t have to use it.”
I watch the Vietnamese guy, who had an army of relatives waiting in the station with him just to say good-bye, try to shove his suitcase in the overhead rack. “No way that’s gonna happen,” I tell Gramp, and I’m right. The shelf’s too narrow, and those thin black ropes can’t stretch far enough to hold that sucker in place. Don’t understand the man’s language, but got a good idea what he’s saying as he drags his bag back down the aisle. It’s hilarious, the little wheels on his suitcase sound just as ticked off as he is, they’re justa hummin’ against that gray ribbed floor.
“He should have listened to the driver,” says Gramp. “He told him it wouldn’t fit.”
I watch the guy disappear out the door, then start reading the signs up front by the driver’s seat.
Fire Extinguisher under #2 RH seat
First Aid Kit—LH Parcel Rack
Fuses—Left side of Driver
WATCH YOUR STEP / CAMINE CON CUIDADO
For Passenger Safety Federal Law Prohibits Operation of This Bus While Anyone Is Standing Forward of the White Line.
I sit back down, wondering if the Plexiglas that separates the driver’s seat from the one right behind him is bulletproof. If it isn’t, why’s it there? So he don’t get bugs? That’s why Ma made me wear a hat, said, You never know what kind of scumbag might have sat in the seat before you. Told me, That’s how Amy’s daughter got them, riding a bus to Waterville. So you keep that hat on your head, Zach, I don’t want to go through that nightmare again.
Me neither. Thanks to Derek, I know what it feels like to get your head burned off with that shampoo. Second grade, he brought home bugs three times from Mrs. Cushman’s class.
“Finally,” says Gramp, and as soon as he says it, the bus driver, who looks older than Dumbledore, gets on a mic and starts ripping off rules: No smoking or drinking alcohol. Be respectful of your fellow passengers. Silence your cell phones—stuff like that. When he says, “You’ve rented a seat on the bus, you haven’t rented the bus, and you haven’t rented me,” Gramp and most of the older people laugh, but when he says, “The bathroom is at the rear of the bus,” the only one laughing is me.
No one thinks that’s hilarious?
Derek would; he’d get it. When he’s in one of his good moods, he’s wicked funny. He’s great at imitating people and can do any accent—Canadian, British, Japanese, don’t matter; he can sound just like them. Like, he’ll walk around the mall pretending he’s from Australia: just ’ere on ’oliday. Girls eat it up ’cause he’s really good-looking. They’ll start following us around just to hear him say stuff. The only thing is, you never know about Derek. His moods can change faster than the weather. One second you’re having a blast and laughing with him; the next, he’s that person you’re afraid of. I mean, one time he might be telling that Japanese guy with the plate of chicken samples in the food court, That’s nice of you, mate—be glad to give it a go; the next time, Eat your own dog meat, buddy. That’s why I’m hoping he’ll be in one of his good moods when I get to his new home in New Jersey. Gramp says we’re lucky Derek didn’t get packed off to Florida like some of those other Maine kids like him who no one gives a hoot about. But ask me, Florida don’t seem any farther away than New Jersey when you can’t see him, and at least there, it don’t snow at all.
The bus driver shuts off the overhead light, sucks the door shut, then waits for the traffic on Saint John Street to clear so he can pull out. Overhead reading lights start flicking on, and Gramp’s is one of them. I leave mine off, rest my forehead against the cold window so I can see past my reflection and watch Burger King and the Dollar Store and Goodwill disappear.
The only thing I asked for for Christmas was to go see Derek. Told my parents it was the only thing I wanted. Even though for the past three years he’s pretty much wrecked every holiday for our family, thinking of him being away from us at Christmas just tore me up. Couldn’t sleep at night thinking about it. It’s been bugging me since Thanksgiving, which was the first time since probably fourth grade we were able to have a meal like that without something bad happening. It was awesome having a day we didn’t have to worry about things getting ruined, but it bummed me out not having him there. Made me feel guilty a part of me was glad he wasn’t, that it was just me and Dad at the football game together and that the meal Ma always works so hard to make wasn’t wrecked by one of his fights or trips to the ER.
“You comfortable?” Gramp wants to know.
“Doing good,” I tell him. “What about you, Gramp?”
“Just glad I’m not the one having to do the driving.”
Me too, ’cause Gramp’s a lousy driver. He can’t get across P-town without running a few lights or hitting something. When you get in his car, best thing to do is shut your eyes and start praying you’ll see tomorrow. Even though he’s her father, no way Ma would let me go see Derek if Gramp was behind the wheel. That’s why she bought the bus tickets for me for Christmas. Truth is, I didn’t see that one coming; didn’t expect I’d be going with Gramp or going on a bus. Just figured Dad would drive—that me and Ma and him would go as a family. Even had it in my head we’d spend a night at some hotel with a pool ’cause, back in the day, before Derek started wigging out, we used to do stuff like that. Figured I’d get to go swimming, maybe go out for supper, definitely watch cable TV, for that’s history now we live at Gramp’s. So much for that stupid dream. Still, watching the black water and the lights of Casco Bay roll by, I tell Gramp, “Wish Ma and Dad coulda come.”
“They would have if they could have,” says Gramp.
I know he’s right. My dad missed a lot a work on account of Derek. Almost lost his job. Probably would’ve, too, if people he works with at JC Electric didn’t donate him some of their vacation time. And Ma, who had to quit her job at Kohl’s to stay home with Derek so he wouldn’t hurt himself or burn down the house, just got hired temporary at L. L. Bean. She’s been working all the hours she can get, hoping they’ll keep her on after the holidays are over ’cause we’re hurtin’ for money.
“Things are really tight for them right now,” says Gramp, like he’s reading my mind instead of the newspaper. “Your father needs all the overtime he can get.”
My dad still works full time at JC, but what Gramp means are all the under-the-table jobs he does at night doing wiring for relatives and people he knows. Nowadays, he’s gone from six in the morning to sometimes midnight, so I hardly see him. So far this year he’s only gotten to one of my basketball games. Thing is, I know it bothers him more than it does me. I keep telling him, Don’t worry ’bout it; it’s just junior high—it’s no big deal. I seriously mean it, for I know he’s working as hard as he can so we can buy another house and not have to live at Gramp’s anymore. I love Gramp, but living with him sucks. His TV’s so old it don’t have a flat screen, and you can only get three channels ’cause he won’t pay for cable, says it’s highway robbery. Eight, six, thirteen, that’s it.
I don’t even have a bedroom, sleep in the den on a pull-out couch, and that’s some comfortable. Have to lay just right or you’ll get a spring in your back. And Gramp hates it if we move or touch any of his stuff ’cause it’s been the same way since Gram died of cancer seven years ago. When Ma cleaned and changed the kitchen around, he just about had a heart attack. I thought she did a nice job, but he’s still complaining how he can’t find a damn thing. Then there’s the bathroom; there’s only one, and he’s usually using it. The worst is in the morning, that’s why I get up early so I can get in and outta there before he does his morning constitutional. That’s what he calls it. Goes in there with a cigar and the newspaper and don’t come out for half an hour. No joke, rather go in the bushes in the backyard than walk in that room after he’s done. They’ll have to evacuate this bus if he has a constitutional in that little box back there.
No way I’m gonna use it. We got transfers in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia—I’ll go then. Gramp won’t be able to wait, though—he’ll be lucky if he makes it to Biddeford. He’s got prostate problems, so he has to pee a lot. I stop watching the traffic on the turnpike to look at him. He has his head back, already starting to nod off. Gramp can sleep anywhere, even at the dentist getting his teeth cleaned. Kid you not; that really happened.
With him leaning back, I can see the girl in the seat across the aisle. She has short purple hair, black lips, earrings everywhere—nose, eyebrow, five at least in the ear I can see. She’s wearing a leather jacket and earphones around her neck and reading a magazine. Back at the station she was chatting it up on her cell, sitting on a suitcase by the fake tree with blinkin’ lights. Noticed her as soon as me and Gramp walked in. Definitely ghetto-goth but she has a great profile. I’d like to try those cheekbones. Brought my stuff but wouldn’t want her to catch me. If I really concentrate, I can memorize her, do it later. Drawing for me’s like music for Derek—something we can’t live without. He loves the ancient metal—Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, Def Leppard, bands like that. He knows all the names, all the lyrics. He used to play drums; now his set’s out in Gramp’s garage with all the other crap we own.
The girl musta felt me staring. She looks over and I melt back in my seat. I’m not like Derek when it comes to girls. No joke, he’d sit right down beside her and start talking like he’d known her his whole life. He’d find out all about her, too—where she was from, where she was going, why she’s on the bus by herself. Wouldn’t matter if she has a boyfriend, by the time we got to Old Orchard, which is the next exit, she’d be in love with him.
I’m serious: I’ve seen him in action. He always knows what girls wanna hear. He’s got more mojo than Austin Powers—by the time he was my age, he’d already done it.
Me? I haven’t even kissed a girl yet.
Closest I’ve come was walking Coleen Walsh home last fall. It was after a Friday night Portland–Cheverus football game, and I was stressin’ out—had the hots for her since sixth-grade math class. Whole time we were walking Cumberland Avenue, she did all the talking ’cause I couldn’t think about nothin’ but finding out what those pouty lips I’d drawn a zillion times were finally gonna feel like against mine. Just about had a hard-on by the time we got to her house. But that was history soon as I saw her older brother, Joel, and his friends. They were sitting on the front steps drinking beers wrapped in paper bags, Jimmy Taylor wanting to know right off, with a butt hanging on his lips, “Ain’t you Derek Andersen’s brother?”
I tried to act cool for it ain’t my neighborhood, and all those guys from the Hill are tough, so I looked right at him, said, “What about it?”
He started laughing, which grinds my gears ’cause I’m real touchy when it comes to Derek; plus there was no way I could kiss Coleen now, walked clear across town for nothing. Before I even had a chance to think, which, looking back, coulda gotten my teeth kicked in for sure, I asked him, “You got a problem with that?”
All three started laughing then, and Bangor, whose real name I don’t even know but who’s a definite tool, said, “Sounds just like ’im.”
“Your brother’s one crazy mutha,” said Jimmy. “Funniest dude I know. Can charm a bum outta their last penny. What’s he upta? Haven’t seen him ’round.”
That sorta changed things. I mean, I was some glad they seemed to like Derek. Meant I’d get to walk home without blood on my new hoodie I’d just bought at Goodwill, but what was I supposed to say? Yeah, he’s so crazy he’s in a mental hospital in New Jersey? That’s not something I want people to know. I need to protect Derek’s reputation while he’s in there getting his brain straightened out. So I told Jimmy the same thing I tell anyone else that asks: “He’s living in New Jersey working construction for my uncle.”
Gramp buck-snorts loud enough to wake himself up.
“You okay, Gramp?” I ask, noticing the girl’s looking our way, her brown eyes asking, What the deuce?
“Just needed to rest my eyes a minute,” says Gramp.
“I’ll shut your light off for you,” I tell him, knowing it’ll make it harder for her to see me. If that noise scared her, wait till the broccoli Gramp had at lunch catches up with him. That’s the thing about old people, they’re not afraid to fart in public. If Gramp’s gotta let one rip, he just does it, acts like it’s no bigger deal than a cough or a sneeze, and for Gramp, eating broccoli’s twice as deadly as B&M beans. Better hold your breath and put your headphones on, I want to warn her—gonna be a long ride.

 
Copyright © 2012 by Sis Deans