He was dreaming about baseball when a line drive slammed into his jaw. Noah’s eyelids shot open, and his pupils adjusted to the harsh light coming from the 80-watt bulb in the ceiling fan. The light fixture covering the bulb had broken a few months ago during a mini-hoop basketball game that had turned a little too rough. Noah’s jaw felt numb for a moment, then the pain set in. He let out a howl just as another punch landed just above his left eye.
“You idiot!” his older brother Luke yelled as his fist connected with Noah’s head a second time. “You stupid idiot.”
Blood streamed down Luke’s forehead as he pulled back his fist for another punch. From the top bunk, Eli, the youngest of the three brothers, let out a wail.
“It’s not his fault,” Eli sobbed.
Tears started rolling down Noah’s cheeks, but he was too stunned to make any noise. Luke’s fist was cocked back like a rattlesnake ready to strike as he looked down into Noah’s terrified face. Then, slowly, he lowered his fist before wiping blood out of his eye. Luke held his hand away from his body, looking for somewhere to wipe the gore before deciding on a crumpled-up T-shirt on the floor.
“Get me a band-aid,” he said to Noah.
Noah looked over at the red LED lights of the alarm clock sitting on the boys’ dresser. 12:16 a.m. His head was throbbing as he swung his feet out from the lower bed of the bunk he shared with Eli. As he stood, he noticed a broken bowling trophy on the floor next to Luke’s bed. Just moments before Noah was assaulted by two haymakers from his older brother, Eli had been admiring the old bowling trophy in the upper bed. It wasn’t his trophy, but his mother’s. Mom had pulled it from an old box in her closet to help cheer up a pouting Eli. Luke and Noah were given fourth-place trophies they won during a tournament for their 9–10-year-old baseball team. Luke had pretended he didn’t even want the trophy.
“Who cares about fourth place?” he said, as Eli sulked on their drive home from the ball diamond.
When Mom gave Eli the trophy to play with, he was enamored. He loved his shiny award, although he’d only been bowling once in his life. He was mimicking the backswing of the little golden bowling man on top of the trophy when it slipped from his grip and tumbled down below. The base of the statue struck Luke’s skull with a sharp crack. Disoriented, Luke sprang from his bed. His eyes darting around the room, Luke locked his gaze on a sleeping Noah. Surely, he was behind it. Noah was always instigating, Luke thought.
The age proximity between the two led to plenty of roughhousing, whether it was deserved or not. Luke was bigger and stronger. He landed his punches with plenty of force as Noah cowered on the bed. Luke, being just a year and a month older, tended to get his way. So, even as the swelling started over Noah’s eye, it was Luke’s injury that needed tending to. Blood trumps bruises.
Noah cracked open the bedroom door and stepped into the hallway. Mom’s bedroom door was open, and the lights were off inside. He peered in and saw the bed was empty. Down the hallway, the TV was flickering in the dim living room. Noah already had a good idea of what that meant. Mom was called into the hospital once again. She worked as a radiologic technologist, often having to do X-ray images for the emergency room. Tonight must have been one of her on-call nights. As Noah tiptoed down the hall, he had to guess who he would find on the couch. Mom’s first choice was usually Grandma. She was no-nonsense when one of the boys walked out complaining of a bad dream or a stomachache.
“It’ll be alright. Back to bed, sweetie,” she would say as she ushered them back down the hall.
Noah was hoping to find Aunt Meredith. She was Mom’s second option most nights. She might invite you to sit on the couch with her and watch late-night TV for a few minutes. Or she would make you a glass of milk or even cocoa on cold nights. But Aunt Mere had not been coming around much lately. Not since she got married.
As Noah reached the couch and looked over the armrest, he wasn’t surprised to find his mom’s friend Lena curled up asleep. Lena was almost always asleep. The boys did not like asking her for anything, even if she was awake. They didn’t know much about her other than she liked to go out to bars with Mom on the weekend. Noah had to shake Lena awake once before when she was “babysitting.” Eli had thrown up on the bathroom tile one night. He asked Noah for help cleaning it up. Just the smell of it caused Noah to start dry heaving. He took his chances with Lena instead, poking her shoulder until she responded. She barely opened her eyelids and wiped away some drool on her chin.
“Hey, little man, what’s going on? You come to hang with Aunt Lena?” she said.
Noah didn’t have a response for her. He didn’t know why she called herself his aunt. He didn’t want to interact with her. He just shook his head and scurried back to the bedroom, putting their little trashcan next to Eli so he had a place to hurl again if needed. Mom found the puke on the bathroom floor when she got home.
“Are you freaking kidding me?” the boys heard her yell from the bathroom.
But after she cleaned up, she came inside to see which one of the boys was sick. She curled into bed with Eli before dozing off.
Tonight, a gash in the forehead called for medical assistance. Lena was the only option — the only adult around. Noah reached out and put his hand on her shoulder and started pushing. There was no response. Noah shoved a little harder, but Lena’s body sat there stiff and motionless. Noah took a step back and looked around the room. He could feel a throbbing knot forming on his head above his eye. His jaw was still sore but didn’t hurt quite as much. An infomercial with a man showing off a crate of swords hummed quietly on the television. Noah heard the bedroom door open again and Luke came barging out with a bloody sock pressed to his head. Eli followed close behind. Luke’s brow furrowed as he approached Noah. All Noah could do was shrug.
“She won’t wake up,” Noah said.
Luke and Eli walked around the couch to find visual proof of an unconscious Lena. Luke let out a sigh.
“Where is grandma?” Luke said.
“Where is mom?” Eli added.
“She’s at work, stupid,” Luke said.
He pointed back to Lena’s sleeping figure, huddled on the couch like a pile of dirty clothes.
“You going to wake her up?” Luke said to Noah.
Noah stepped back towards her and shook her shoulder once more. Still nothing. He took his hand and gave a few soft pats to her cheek. It felt cold. Noah jerked his arm back and stepped away, his eyes wide. He wiped his hand up and down his pajama bottoms.
“What?” Luke asked.
“We need to call mom,” Noah said.
Noah was the only one of the brothers not swimming in his dress clothes. His suit originally belonged to Luke, who had worn it to Aunt Mere’s wedding less than two years ago. It fit Noah well, even if the arms were a little long. He certainly looked better dressed than his brothers.
Clown shoes may have been a better fit for Eli, who plodded around in Noah’s old brown loafers. Eli’s feet had not been growing quite as fast as his older siblings, so hand-me-down shoes didn’t always work in his favor.
“You’ll just have to wear bigger socks,” Grandma had told him.
Grandma had been tasked with getting the boys ready for the funeral. Mom was still inconsolable.
Luke looked the most frumpish of the bunch. He had outgrown all of his dress clothes, and Grandma pieced together slacks and a jacket from the resale store. The black colors were slightly off, and both were too big. But the store was limited on options for 10-year-old formal wear.
“You’ll grow into them,” Grandma said while straightening out his tie. “Now, go get buckled up.”
The boys were sitting in Grandma’s minivan, waiting for their mom to come out. After about 10 minutes, she emerged with Grandma leading her by the shoulders. A large pair of sunglasses covered her eyes, matching the dark black color of her dress. It was the first time the boys had seen her in almost a day.
On the night Lena died, the ambulance arrived first. Grandma followed soon after. By the time Mom got there, Grandma was holding an ice pack on Noah’s face while an EMT bandaged Luke’s forehead.
“I don’t think he’ll need stitches,” the EMT said.
Noah was expecting the boys to be in trouble. They were up way past bedtime. They were fighting. The police and ambulance had to come. Grandma had to come. But he didn’t see anger in Mom’s face. He saw panic as she took in the scene. Lena had already been removed from the room. Eli ran to Mom and latched on to her leg. The panic left her face, but it was replaced with an emotion Noah didn’t recognize. Tears started pouring down her cheeks. Noah had seen his mother cry several times before, but this was different. Luke walked over and linked in the embrace. Grandma nudged Noah to join them as the four clustered together in one big sobbing circle. Mom was crying. Eli was wailing. Luke was even fighting back tears. But Noah didn’t feel anything coming. He was terrified of what had happened. Now that Mom was home, all he felt was relief. Not sadness. Not any cause for tears. Yet Mom kept squeezing the boys tighter as she repeated the same words through muffled sobs.
“I’m… so… sorry,” she gasped out.
Mom had barely left her bedroom after that night. Grandma stayed at the condo, watching the boys — making sure everyone had dinner and was put to bed. Eli didn’t want to be alone. As soon as Grandma turned off the light and closed the door, Eli started crying. When Eli started, Noah looked over at Luke who stared straight into the ceiling. He could see tears rolling down Luke’s cheek too. Noah waited for his own sadness to catch up. For his tears to finally come. But they didn’t. Instead, all he felt was a wave of guilt wash over him. His entire family was sad, but he wasn’t. Lena was gone. But who was Lena? Mom was hurting because of it, but that was her pain. Noah felt a tightness deep in his chest. He wanted to see Mom and talk to her. He wanted to help. But when he snuck out of the bedroom into the hallway and tried to open Mom’s door, Grandma stopped him.
“I think she is finally asleep, sweetie,” Grandma said. “We’d better let her rest.”
Mom rested for the next couple of days. She did not leave the condo. Not until it was time for the funeral. She got in the front seat of Grandma’s van but did not turn around. They drove in silence to St. Mary’s Church, which happened to be the location of Aunt Mere’s wedding years ago. Same clothes. Different circumstance.
They entered the large stone church. Noah took in the cavernous building where sunlight trickled in through stained-glass windows over rows of empty wooden pews. The place was nearly empty, except for a casket in the front and a few people clustered around it. Mom and Grandma led the boys towards the casket where they saw Lena. She looked just as still as they had found her the other night. The three boys each waited behind Mom, who hugged an older woman in a tight embrace. Noah could hear them sniffling as they latched on to each other.
“I’m so sorry,” they both said to each other.
Mom turned to the boys and removed her sunglasses, showing her puffy red eyes and tear-streaked cheeks. In his peripherals, Noah saw Eli lift his arm and start wiping his own tears off his face.
“Here we go again,” Noah thought.
He turned his head to look at Luke on his right, whose eyes also started to swell with moisture.
“Boys, this is Lena’s mom,” Mom said. “This is Pauline.”
Pauline opened her mouth, but no words came out. Just a soft noise escaped her throat as she rushed her body forward and grabbed each of the children in a tight hug. Noah’s head was pulled into Pauline’s chest where he took in the strong scent of her perfume. He could not see Eli, but he now heard his sobs at full volume.
“It’s OK boys,” Pauline said. “She loved you guys so much.”
Pauline released them from her strong grasp. Eli shuffled around Pauline to bury his head on his mother’s hip. Luke pulled his long jacket sleeve up to his eye and wiped away a lone tear. Once again, Noah’s tear ducts remained bone dry. This time, in front of the woman who had just lost her child. He felt out of place. He felt ashamed. He knew he could cry, but he just didn’t feel sad. Noah started trying to think of the saddest memories he had as he looked down at his beat-up black dress shoes. He didn’t remember going to any funerals. Luke said he remembered Grandpa’s, but Noah was only three years old at the time. He thought about when he found his fish, Otto, floating at the top of his bowl. He only had Otto for a few days, and he still blamed Luke for overfeeding him.
“I can only imagine everything you must be feeling right now,” Pauline said as she put a hand on Luke and Noah’s shoulders.
Noah continued to keep his eyes on the floor. He didn’t have any known loss to think of. He thought of Mom crying. Eli crying. Luke crying. He thought of what it might feel like if he lost any of them. Or all of them. He looked up to see his Mom crying. His brothers were in tears. Pauline was in tears.
Why not me?
It was a clean break at both of his feet. His shoes were still attached to the golden platform where both his ankles snapped in half. His little arm, still gripping the bowling ball, had more of a jagged break. Nevertheless, the little bowler — missing both feet and an arm — kept that stoic look of concentration on his face as he laid on the boys’ dresser.
“You must not feel anything either,” Noah thought.
Noah had pulled out the hot glue gun from the utility closet. He had only used it once before — with Mom’s help — to assemble a diorama on the anatomy of a snowflake for a school project. But he figured the regular Elmer’s wouldn’t be enough to put the trophy back together. The little bowling man had been sitting on the dresser since the night Lena died. Eli’s token of mom’s affection became an afterthought for him following the funeral. The youngest brother continued to cry as soon as Mom put them to bed and left the room. Eli would get out of bed and go to Mom’s room where he would spend the night. Meanwhile, Noah lay awake, badgered by his own thoughts.
As much as Noah tried, he didn’t cry at the funeral. Even the saddest things he could think of did not get the tears rolling. When he went to bed later than night, he spent minutes pinching himself on the leg, trying to bring on tears of pain. That didn’t work either. Hurting himself just wasn’t the same.
The next day, Noah was at odds with his older brother to the point where he started to wonder if it was intentional on his part. At breakfast, he took Luke’s “favorite bowl” for his cereal. Luke didn’t seem to notice. When Luke was watching a baseball game on TV, Noah stole the remote and changed it to a nature show he didn’t even want to watch. Again, Luke paid him no attention. He just got up and went to their bedroom. It didn’t take long for Noah to follow where he found Luke reading a comic in bed. Noah decided it was a good time to practice playing the plastic recorder he had gotten from school for music class. Noah had quickly learned he was not musically gifted. His fingers moved too slow, and he had a hard time reading notes. Noah had not practiced the instrument in months. The last time he touched the recorder was when he played it through his nose to make Eli laugh. But even Noah could only stand the shrill screech of the instrument for so long. And he only knew one song — hot crossed buns. After playing it three times, Luke had finally heard enough.
“Do you really have to do that now?” Luke said.
“What are you going to do about it?” Noah said.
Luke bolted up. Noah slid back into the corner of his bed. Luke snatched the recorder from his hands. Noah kicked at Luke, which he easily deflected. Luke cocked his arm back, holding the recorder like a club.
“What is your problem?” Luke said.
He gave a quick pump fake with the recorder, coming inches away from Noah’s leg. Noah just left his limb out there, not even trying to get out of the way.
“What is your problem?” Noah mocked back.
Luke lowered the recorder and tossed it under the bed before turning to walk out the bedroom door.
“Wuss,” Noah called after him.
Luke sneered over his shoulder before slamming the door shut and stomping across the hall to Mom’s room. Noah spent the rest of the afternoon alone in his bed, where he went back to pinching his thigh. He pinched as hard as he could, hoping to draw blood. Still, no tears.
The next day, the boys woke up for school. Noah had his teeth brushed, his bag packed, and his uniform on. He was ready for routine again. His brothers and Mom still seemed to be walking around in a daze. Mom was in her pajamas as the minutes ticked away on the clock.
“Mom, we have to go,” Noah said.
The drive to school was quiet except for the radio. Mom didn’t say a word until she dropped them off.
“I’ll be here to pick you up today,” she said. “Not Grandma.”
“You don’t have to work?” Luke asked.
“Not today,” she said.
A wail erupted from the back seat. Noah turned to see Eli with his face buried in his backpack as he choked out guttural noises. In between sobs and gasps for breath, Noah could barely make out his words.
“I don’t want to go,” Eli said.
Mom unbuckled her seatbelt and climbed in the back with Eli.
“It’s OK baby,” she said.
Mom turned to Luke and Noah who were both outside the car, watching their brother weep. Noah felt like all the other eyes in the parking lot were on him.
“You boys go ahead,” Mom said. “We’ll be alright.”
For once, school felt like a relief for Noah. He was back among his classmates where he wasn’t expected to feel sad about multiplication tables or spelling lessons. He just got to do his work and play with his friends. When the day ended, he didn’t want to leave. But there was Mom, waiting for him. Eli was latched on to her and Luke was buckling up in the back seat. Noah joined them in the car, and he noticed Mom was still in the same pajamas she was wearing that morning.
“Are you going to pick us up tomorrow too?” Noah asked.
“Not tomorrow,” she said. “It will be Grandma tomorrow.”
Noah could hear Eli start to sniffle as they rode home. Back at the condo, Mom went right back to her bedroom and Eli followed. Noah went to the boys’ bedroom where he found the bowling trophy on the dresser. Still in pieces. A recurring theme in the home.
“Why should I feel broken?” Noah asked himself.
He went into the hall and opened the utility closet and started digging for the glue gun. He knew he could at least fix one thing. Noah plugged in the gun and stuck in a glue stick. With the most precision he could muster, he pieced together the little bowling man. Tiny globs of glue dripped down the trophy, but the man was able to stand on his own. His backswing was now a little crooked, but his arm was attached. Noah unplugged the gun and let his handiwork dry. He went and laid in bed, staring up at the top bunk above him. Luke sat in his own bed with his eyes closed and headphones on. Noah’s mind wandered back to that night. To how cold Lena’s cheek was when he touched it. He felt paralyzed by the thought as he continued to stare into nothing, losing track of time. The creak of Mom’s bedroom door across the hall was enough to jolt him from his trance. Noah lifted his head to see her walking down the hallway. He stood, grabbed the trophy, and followed.
Mom was filling a pot with water when Noah entered the room. She pulled two blue boxes from the cupboard after setting the pot on the stove.
“How does mac and cheese sound tonight?” she said, turning the burner on.
Noah nodded and set the trophy on the table.
“I fixed it,” he said.
Mom turned her head to look at her son. Then the trophy. A small smile crept over her face.
“Well look at that,” she said. “You did a great job.”
She walked over and picked it up, admiring the effort.
“I thought it would help Eli,” Noah said. “When you have to go back to work.”
Mom paused with the trophy in her hand and looked straight into Noah’s eyes. Noah could see her tears forming once again, and she sat the trophy back down on the counter before crouching down to embrace Noah in an aggressive hug.
“That’s so thoughtful of you,” Mom said, not letting go.
Noah rested his head on his mom’s shoulder. The hug felt warm and familiar even if her hair didn’t have its usual fresh smell he remembered.
“I’m proud of you for being so brave,” Mom said through a cracked voice.
Something finally broke. The words “being so brave” hit Noah like a punch to the gut from his older brother. He’d been trying for days to understand what he was feeling. Brave wasn’t it. His upper lip started to tremble as Mom pulled back from their embrace to look him in the eyes once more. Noah tried to stop his lip from quivering, but his face wouldn’t listen. His cheeks felt hot. His throat constricted. He could feel the cool dampness of one tear trickle out of his left eye. Mom gazed upon his crumbling façade.
“Honey, what’s wrong?” she said.
Now the tears were flowing. Noah pulled his hands up to his face to try and hide his vulnerability. After days of nothing, it was all coming at once. Mom pulled him into a hug again. Now he was the one fighting to talk between his sobs. With each word, it felt like he was coughing up a dry cracker.
“I can’t cry,” he finally said.
“What do you mean?” Mom asked.
That was all the explanation he could muster. Mom held Noah in her arms, and he let everything go. For Noah, it felt like time stood still as they stayed locked together. For Mom, it was until the water hit a rolling boil on the stove.
“It’s OK,” Mom said repeatedly.
She picked Noah up and carried him down the hallway before setting him in bed. Noah immediately buried his face in his pillow. Mom covered him up with his blanket and planted a kiss on the back of his head.
“I’ll be right back,” she said. “But I’ve got to go cook dinner.”
Mom rubbed Noah’s shoulder as she stood and left the room. Noah’s tears kept rolling as he mashed his face in a growing wet spot on his pillow. His breathing was finally starting to relax and the burning in his cheeks was starting to mellow. He felt the weight in the bed shift next to him and turned his head. It was Eli who had crawled in next to him without saying a word. He laid down and put an arm around his older brother. Noah could see past Eli, across the room, to Luke who was still lying in his bed with headphones on but now with his eyes open. Luke looked at his younger brothers. He locked his gaze with Noah’s and offered a small nod. Footsteps could be heard coming down the hallway. Luke closed his eyes again and took in the music. Noah dug his face back into his pillow. The door creaked open once again. The pieces were to fitting back together.
About the Author
Brett Herrmann works as the Digital Communications Writer for Kishwaukee College in Northern Illinois. He previously worked as a reporter for the La Salle News Tribune and has had short fiction published in Adelaide Magazine and the Seven Hills Literary Review. His first novel, Grim Sweeper, was published in December 2021.