Before I Drown

Mom calls me from the kitchen, “Ruby honey, where are you with that first chapter?”
“Almost there, Mom!” I reply. I check my reflection in the mirror. My big, blue eyes are still tired, and my red-orange hair that’s usually straightened is frizzy. Choppy bangs cover half of my forehead, which is sweaty and has a cut on the left side from a piece of paper of Mom’s first chapter, “I only have a few edits, they’re pretty minor, though. Why doesn’t Maria want Gwen to –”
“Second chapter!” Mom walks into my room, her blond hair tied up with a clip, and a whole other chapter in her hands. Twenty more pages she wants me to read and edit. “Here, I want you to be the first to edit. I really trust your decisions.” She reminds me of this every time she gives me a chapter, I really trust your decisions. What does that mean? She only puts this puts this pressure on me so one day I’ll crack, I think, she’s just setting me up for failure, right?
“Sure Mom, but can I edit tomorrow? I have a big test tomorrow, and I kind of have to study.” She looks disappointed for a minute, then shakes her head.
“Oh, of course. Study. I’ll…is tomorrow good? It’s Friday, and you can wait until Saturday or Sunday to do your homework, right? I mean, if you edit all through Saturday then I could get it in by – ”
“Yeah, okay. That would be fine.” I try to finish the conversation as quickly as possible, so Mom will leave me alone. Then again, I have just agreed to spend my entire Saturday editing her book. I won’t do it, though, I won’t edit. I’ll figure out how to wiggle out of it, come up with some excuse. This isn’t the first time Mom’s wanted me to stop everything I’m doing for her. Tomorrow I’ll just tell her that, even though I think her book is great, I…just don’t have the time.
She leaves, and I pull out my books. I don’t really have that much homework, and my ’test’ is just a quiz. I don’t need to study, but I also don’t need to stay up until eleven editing. Once you agree to the second chapter, you’re in for a long night. It’s so easy to get pulled into Mom Editing Drama. It’s best to stay away from it.
Suddenly, she’s back in my room.
“You…good?” She wants to talk. She wants me to approve something, or reassure her that it’ll be okay. She’s always so fragile when it’s editing time.
“I’m great Mom, you?” She cuts to the chase.
“Okay, first thing after you get home from school, right? Promise?” asks Mom, still lingering in the doorframe.
“Yeah, I promise Mom, I’m kind of tired now, so…I have to…”
“Of course, of course.” She leaves. Halfway through the hallway, she turns back around. She opens her mouth, like she’s about to say something; then she closes it hurriedly, lets out a slight, nervous laugh, and says, “Of course.” For a third time.
I take a quick shower, and go to sleep. I dream about all the papers that Mom wants me to edit on Friday and Saturday. A man appears, and I try to hand the papers to him, “Dad, can you help?” he takes the papers, and then hands them back to me, “Sorry Ruby, I have to go.” He leaves, and I wake up.
I’ve grown up without a father, and I’m fine with it. Mom has a few books that are working out well, and she’s a waitress at the diner across the street. I go to North-West Middle School, and am a B+ student. We’re fine the way we are, and I rarely have dreams about my dad – and when I do, it’s usually around editing time. Honestly, I’m fine the way I am, the dreams are just dreams.
It’s not like they help though.
The next morning, I pull my hair back in a neat pony tail, and dress it up with the silver bow that Mom gave me for my birthday last year; it makes her feel better when I wear things she’s bought me, and when she feels better, she gets more editing done. I’m almost out the door when Mom catches me.
“Ruby, you can’t leave like that.” She stands up from the kitchen table, and walks over to where I stand, unlatching the door.
“Like what?” I ask, apprehensive, “I’m…I’m gonna be late.” It’s a lie. A lie that might get me out the door, but it’s not a good one. It doesn’t take much for her to realize that it’s not true.
“Honey, you need some…something more! Here,” she takes a cylindrical container out of her pocket, filled with sparkly, clear, goo. Lip-gloss. She spreads it across my lips, takes a step back, and smiles, “Okay, now you can go.”
I leave before she can put more makeup on me.
Out the door, I quickly wipe the lip-gloss off with my sleeve, but I know I haven’t gotten all of it. Hopefully, it will come off before anyone can see. Ruby Jones wearing makeup? Please. I don’t want or need that kind of attention, especially when I’m already the girl with the young, frazzled mom and the dad who left them.
The front stoop is coated with ice, and I barely manage not to fall. I turn, and see my mom working through the snow-frosted window. She’s finished the book, but for her, editing it is the real accomplishment. She finds too many flaws with her writing. Sometimes, when she’s tired, and unfocused enough, she’ll mutter, “James…what would James think?”
James was – is, I guess – my father, and a writer. She compares all of her work to his, and even though he left us eleven years ago, he’s always the most opinionated one in her writing process. One time, when she had had enough to drink, and when she couldn’t figure out the last chapter, whether the dog would come back or not, she turned to me with wet eyes and asked, “If I say the dog comes back…will James?” She thought – thinks – that her words have a chance at bringing him back.
I sigh, and walk down the street to school.
* * *
When I get home, Mom’s still at the kitchen table, with the same stack of papers next to her, only there’s an empty wine glass next to her, and many red marks all over the paper.
“Oh, thank God, Ruby Elizabeth Jones I am toast. Please, please, sit down. Help. Can I get you anything? Iced tea, water, milk, wine –”
“Wine Mom, really?” I know she didn’t actually mean to offer me alcohol, but it worries me how frazzled she gets while writing. She doesn’t focus on anything other than her writing, not even her daughter.
“Take a breath. I live here, Mom, I can get my own things. Deep breaths, okay?” I feel like a yoga instructor, or worse: a life coach – something my mom might need.
I get myself a glass of water, pull my hair back into a pony again, take my own advice, and breathe in deeply. “Okay, I’m ready.” Then I see the wine bottle on the table, “No Mom, not tonight. You know you do your best writing when you’re, um, clear-minded. We need to stay focused.” I said ’we’, I’m already in knee-deep. I usually never get this far. I don’t know why I’m suddenly so ready to go in this deep. Usually it’s one chapter, and then I’m done. I was dumb last night, to promise all of those other chapters – to work all through tonight and Saturday. I was so tired, and now I have to pay. But really, it’s okay. I’ll just edit four, maybe five chapters, and then I’ll stop. I read the second chapter.
My red pen flies across the page, and I’m onto the third, then the fourth chapters. She reviews my edits every once and a while, and she nods, saying, “Mhm…okay. Yeah, sure, I get that. Okay.” Somehow, she sneaks another glass of wine past me, and I’m too focused on getting this done to care. Sometime around eleven, she retires to her bedroom, and I’m still editing.

Words begin to blur together, periods and exclamation points dance around the page. I have a massive headache, and I hear mom’s voice in my head, I really trust your decisions. I allow myself to close my eyes for a moment, and I fall asleep.
The doorbell wakes me up. I look up, bleary eyed, and see that the wine glass still has a few drops left. I hold the thin base in my hands and swirl the yellow liquid around in the glass. It occurs to me that I could take a sip, if I wanted. I never would, though. I’m not that kind of girl. If I was, I would be just like Mom.
The doorbell rings again. I’m too tired to think that it might be some cereal killer. Opening the door, I see a man, maybe a little younger than my mom. His hair is red, like mine, but messier. He wears goofy nerd glasses, sitting high up on his crooked nose, which cover his pale brown eyes.
“Can I…can I help you?” He looks me up and down, taking it all in. I can see my breath in the air, and I wrap the blanket sitting on my shoulders tighter around me. His eyes rest of the wine glass in my hand.
“Is this a bad time?”
“Oh,” I push the glass into his hand, “I was just, um, cleaning up.” I’m not in the mood to explain myself to a stranger, “Take it. Merry Christmas.” I’m about to close the door when he stops me.
“Ruby, wait!” Oh, now I get it.
“Yes, dad?” He looks at me, stunned.
“How? Ruby, I…” I smile. He isn’t completely terrible. I wouldn’t mind having this guy for a dad.
“Never mind. You should get going. I have to get to sleep so I can wake up. Mom wants me to edit tomorrow.” I allow myself to smile once more, before adding, “Good night…Dad.” I close the door, lock it, and go to my bedroom. I don’t take off my clothes; I’ll just wake up in my PJs anyways, right? It’s weird though, because I don’t remember falling asleep or going to bed after editing Mom’s chapters. Maybe I was so tired, I just passed out.
I must have been really tired, because I’m even tired in my dream. It’s a surprisingly lucid dream, but I’m too tired to enjoy it. I allow myself think about James for a second. The night before, Dream Dad had let me deal with my problems alone, but this one…this one was actually pretty cool.
* * *
When I wake up, I try to figure out a few things. I’m passed out on my bed, in my clothes; just like how I ended my dream. I must’ve been so tired last night. I think, I just passed out; though I don’t remember going to my bedroom.
I take a shower, and when I’m done, I catch my reflection in the mirror. I’m more tired, if that’s possible, than yesterday. A little pink from the warm water has risen to my cheeks, but not enough to fool anyone. I brush my teeth, and run a comb through my hair. I’ve changed into a purple T-shirt and sweatpants when I enter the kitchen. Mom’s already there, reviewing my edits.
“Mhm…okay. Yeah, sure, okay.” She looks up for a moment to pour herself some more coffee, and sees me, “Oh good, you’re awake. I hope you weren’t up too late last night editing. I’m so grateful. I really trust your decisions. And really, you haven’t helped me like this since…well, I don’t know when. I just want you to know.” She manages to catch my hand en route to a piece of toast sitting on the table, and holds it for a moment – just long enough to make me fairly uncomfortable, “I’m grateful.”
“Sure, Mom.” It’s Saturday. I worked until morning to finish all of her chapters and I’m still not done. Wait, did I just say I worked until morning to finish? I told myself I would do three, four, five chapters tops. I’ve edited…I look down at the table where Mom’s reading my edits, eighteen chapters – and I have fifteen to go.
I can’t let myself edit any more chapters. I have to say no.
But this story is different. It’s not better written, but it’s about something that I want to read about. It’s about Mom, and how she met her perfect match on an online dating website. How after he left, she didn’t know how to raise their daughter. The names are different, of course, but it’s…different, seeing what Mom had to go through. I want it to be good. It has to be. I mean, if she does this right, will Dad come home?
I shake my head; I’m starting to think like Mom now. I’m farther in this than I’ve ever been. I’m not even waist deep – I’m under water. If I’m not careful, I’ll drown. Do I even know how to swim?
“I had a weird dream last night.” I say, wanting to forget about James, “I saw…well, I saw Dad. He was pretty cool. He – ”
“Honey, what did you mean here?” I stop. Right, it’s still all about Mom. Maybe in a few weeks I can tell her my dream, and she’ll listen.
“Where?” I sit down in a plastic kitchen chair. I’m ready to spend the rest of my day editing.
“Here, you said…’desc.’?”
“I meant describe. You say you met Jeremy online, and the profile picture where he has…red-orange hair.” Is that where I got the image of James in my dream? “Describe him more. The expression on his face, what he looks like –”
“Yeah, I get it.” She scribbles on a piece of notebook paper, reads it over once, and hands it to me. “Like this?”
His name was Jeremy. The red-orange hair on top of his head was unkempt, splayed about. It was easy to tell he didn’t care about his looks, even though he had them. Large, dorky, tortoise-shelled glasses covered his light brown eyes. His nose is funny, thought Elise. It went straight for a while, then dived down at a funny angle…
I stop reading. Actually, I think I stop breathing, “Mom?”
“Yes?”
“Is this what James – Dad – no, James, looked like?” She smiles, and nods.
“He was so cute. I mean, where do you think you got your hair? Me? You kind of have his nose, I suppose. It’s not as, um, defined, I guess.” She smiles, and giggles a little bit, “Do you think he’ll like it?”
“What?” I’m taken off guard for a minute, my own thoughts far away from her book. Honestly, I don’t think he reads her books, if he’s even in a country that sells them. I smile when I realize I’m getting over Mom-induced-editing-paranoia. Even if he read her books, he’d never find us…but what if…?
“I have to check something.” I say hurriedly, and I rush to the front door. Maybe there’ll be some sign, something that proves James was there last night – something, anything.
I open the door, and hear a crash of breaking glass. Looking down, I see a wine glass, shattered, some golden liquid circling the bits of broken glass.
A million thoughts crowd my head at once. You gave it to him last night. He must’ve set it down – unless Mom somehow…but what if that really was a dream? What if Mom went out here with her wine glass – no, you watched her go to bed…
I think about going to Mom. I think about telling her about James, but I stop myself. She’s already as fragile as it is, and if James really isn’t here, if I’m just trying to fit puzzle pieces together that aren’t meant for each other…
What would Mom do? What is Mom doing? She’s writing a story, hoping that if James reads it, he’ll come home. That’s what I’ll do.
James, I wrote this for you. I’ll leave it here, on the front porch, just in case you come back – if you’re real, that is. I don’t know who you are, or why you left, and honestly, I don’t care. I only care about Mom. If you read this, and see how fragile Mom is, and still want to leave, then that’s fine, don’t come back. Only…you have to.
I don’t remember you, because I was only two when you left. James, after eleven years, she still writes for you. She’s still in love with you, eleven years after you left her. I don’t understand her, and I probably never will – I might if I saw you, or knew you. I just don’t know how one man could cause such a problem, after years of him not being there. Last night, you seemed okay. You seemed like the kind of guy that would never think twice about leaving his family, so why did you leave? I think I have the right to know. Was it because of me?
You’re the only thing that’s holding this family together. Without some hope, Mom wouldn’t write. She wouldn’t get up in the morning – she might forget about me. If you care about this family, come back.
And in a way, I want you to come back. I want to get to know you. It’s weird – just the thought of you helps me get over Mom’s craziness. It helps me forget about my problems. Because of you, I’m learning how to swim.

Sophia Flores, Age 12, Grade 7, Convent of the Sacred Heart, Gold Key

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