No, I’m Not Okay
Ten year old me gave up the activity after a week, like most things I tried at that age. Ten year olds do what they want.
Now, though, I'm worse off because I didn't just lose a parent, I lost the parent. As in, the only surviving person who had to put up with me and my sister within five states… or anywhere.
I probably sound a little blunt, or insensitive, or maybe even disrespectful (Can you be any of these things about your own situation?), but you have to understand how stupid I feel writing about my “feelings”. To make matters worse, I honestly don't know how I feel. Sad? Sure. Angry? Maybe. Lost? Most definitely. But none of these things feels right.
I’m trying to delude myself into believing I can help myself. Ms. Martinez, our neighbor, who’s currently sitting on our couch, in my mother’s spot no less, is watching me, and my journaling seems to make her happy too. Soon, Nan will fly in from New York and turn her nose up at our cramped apartment, and I’ll wait on her. That will give me a purpose.
One thing still bothers me, though. There’s no funeral. The honest truth is that there’s just no money for it, but it was also part of Mom’s verbal will, the only kind she ever made. “When I’m gone, I just want to be gone.” She recited this every time the newscaster mentioned a death or she read the obituary in the paper. But the longer I spend staring at the beige walls of the apartment, wondering if the twitching of words just out of reach will ever go away, the more selfish her wishes seem. Maybe one final goodbye would feel like hearing the song on the radio you’ve been wondering about for weeks. It couldn’t have hurt her anyways. She’s dead.
She had been set to fly in the night of the 9th, but she’d delayed her flight three times already, and it was clear, at least to me, that she wasn't coming. The phone call I got an hour ago cemented that idea. She left a voicemail for me while I was at school, to say that she decided she was too old and tired to get her ass to the airport, let alone corral two teenagers till they get to college or the underpass. Nan said she’d raised my mother, and that was quite enough child rearing for a lifetime. I’d never heard a more authentically Nan statement in my life.
I listened to the message five times over even though I never doubted it was real. Then I dropped the receiver. The cord kept bobbing up and down against the wall as I stared aimlessly at the dial. I sunk down against the wall, the phone tapping into my shoulder every so often. I haven’t moved.
What am I waiting for? Could she call back and say she’d made some mistake? April Fools! Maybe I’m looking for someone to swoop in and tell me things couldn't get worse. Maybe I thought that if I stayed put long enough, someone would come around with a glass of milk and a comforting hand to guide me back to bed. A mother. But no; nobody wants to mother a sixteen-year-old girl. Even eleven is even a stretch. My sister, Amelia, has become as unwanted as I’ve always been. People cared for babies and small children; once you are adult sized you should be able to make it on your own, right? Wrong.
I thought about telling Ms. Martinez, but I’d read and heard and watched too many horror stories about siblings getting sent to opposite ends of the country by CPS. No one would care that Amelia had never even spent a night away from apartment #8. Seeing my choices in writing makes them seem a bit less logical, but I stand by them.
So, instead of telling an adult that my new guardian has given up on coming, I picked this ratty thing up and started writing. And here I am, still feeling stupid, and small and confused.
At least Mom filled our bus passes before collapsing from sudden heart failure at the kitchen table, over dad’s urn, leaving me to call the paramedics and send Amelia to Ms. Martinez. It was one last favor before dumping her mess of a life on me like a pile of dirty laundry.
There was a thick packet of papers on the doorstep when I got home from school. They looked like the heavy, manila stacks in my backpack. School change notices and CPS forms had something in common. It’s bazar that no one wants to check your new guardian out in person. As long as they can write and buy a postage stamp, they’re well equipped to handle children, I’m sure. Oh well, it makes my life easier.
Sitting at the old kitchen table with the uneven fourth leg, I couldn't believe I was forging my grandmother’s signature. I'd never even signed my mother’s name on a field trip permission form. I used an old birthday card from years ago to copy Nan’s signature on the off chance somebody actually cared to cross-reference it. I tried to read every form; I figured it would give me a head start. I’m running a race, Amelia and I vs. them, only our legs are tied together.
But the words started to bleed together into one boring blob of ink, and I started to skip the paragraphs and simply fill in the names and birthdays, checks and x’s.
Ms. Martinez came over tonight. She almost ruined my plot before I got it off the ground. She had an rusted, metal tin full of cinnamon rolls to welcome Nan to the neighborhood. No one in the complex has ever been this friendly. Of course, she wants to meet our new ghost of a caretaker. She kept looking over my shoulder, trying to figure out why I wouldn't let come in. I stalled for long enough to get her lose interest. She has no way to prove my elderly grandmother wasn’t asleep in the next room.
Your Liar in Chief,
“You never go to the mall anymore, Cassie!” “Why aren't you eating lunch?”
Even if I weren't living by myself, taking care of an eleven year old, and hiding from the law, it would still be annoying. I should get to not be fine. I lost my mother for god’s sake. Shouldn't I get to be sad and broken and not okay? No, because the world has a problem with people who are not okay, even when they have a perfectly good reason for it. It makes them uncomfortable. And we can’t have that.
Just because I don't have a choice about putting on a brave face and pushing forward for my sister doesn't mean people can declare me better and criticize me for not getting back to life.
The eating is the worst. I tell them I’m not hungry, which is genuinely true. I haven't been hungry since I ended up calling an ambulance for my mother instead of heading back to my room with my usual after school cheese stick. But, even if I was eating, I’ve come to realize I don't have the money to buy lunch or waste cash on breakfast. Mom didn't leave much in the account. After paying rent, there was hardly anything left over to live.
Food is for the rich.
Anyway, even if they don't mean it like I hear it, the constant reminder, in the form of sighs and nags, of everything I lost, isn’t helpful. Shouldn't my friends be there to make me feel better, to make me forget for a little bit? I don't get to forget, or remember for that matter.
Thanks for never answering my questions,
I knew that Amelia was going to crack eventually, that our fragile peace would fly out the window. It has been too nice. But why did it have to be today? After getting back two tests with big, red Fs on them, Amelia jumped on me with all her frustrations with the world. The half hour after walking through the apartment door went something like this:
“I can’t do anything anymore!” Amelia announced.
“Why do you say that?” I had said, only half listening.
“You never let me go to the mall with my friends even though you won’t take me yourself to buy new clothes. All the girls are wearing these cool pink watches from this new boutique, and I’m the only girl who doesn't have one.”
I huffed. I’d told her that we weren't spending money on stupid shit when she’d asked for the watch on Monday. Why did she have to complain about it? “Mom didn't let you go to the mall alone, either, Amelia. You're eleven.”
“What does my age have to do with anything?”
“Ever heard of kidnappers?”
She rolled her eyes.
“You’re just paranoid. I thought living without parents was supposed to be fun,” she said and threw herself onto the couch.
“You think it's fun to lose both your parents? You thought it would be fun to have to hide that you’re an orphan from the rest of the world. Starving? What about our situation is fun?”
“Mom was a better person than you’ll ever be. Why did she have to leave me?” The anger in Amelia’s tone was directed at me, but the sadness was all for herself. I couldn’t even get upset at her weak attempts to hurt me.
“Maybe you should think about that some more and you’re stupid watch will get a little less important. If you looked around and saw that we’ve been eating expired canned dinners for two weeks now, you’d see there isn't any money for a watch!” I yelled back. Then she slapped me across the arm as she stormed out of the room like when we were five.
But she never got sent to time out.
I felt guilty for a bit, but now I’m more frustrated than before. I get that she’s eleven, but it’s ridiculous Amelia can’t understand that we’re broke and on thin ice with the world. If she does something stupid, it could be the end of us. If she lets it slip to one of her friends’ moms or gets caught doing something she shouldn't have, I don't know what I’ll do.
It kills me to see her lose her childhood like this, and I’ve tried to make things as normal as possible, but, just like Nan, I didn't sign up for this. Sadly, I can’t just walk away.
He said that his mom (Ms. Martinez) had told him about everything that happened. Everything was a relative word, I guess, considering she barely knew anything. He said he was sorry about my grandmother being so sick. If only he knew.
The whole time he kept flicking his head around to keep his overgrown, blond fringe out of his eyes. For some reason, that made me laugh. I hadn’t laughed since August. Then he went on and on about people needing a break, and I asked him how I’d ever catch one.
I spent all evening, at Nathaniel’s insistence, in his living room playing Monopoly and Sorry and eating homemade lasagna. It was the closest to normal I’ve felt since everything really was normal.
I’d sent Amelia a text telling her where I was and then forgot about her. It was nice to finally be able to do that. At the end of the night, I walked away with half a pan of lasagna and a quarter of a chocolate cake. My stomach growled at the thought of having real food for a week, even if it did get old and crusty eventually.
Nathaniel insisted on walking me home, even though I only had to go next door.
We jumped from under his porch light to mine, and I thanked him for inviting me to dinner. He replied that he was around to talk anytime I needed to. It made me wonder if he knew how alone. The thought sent a shots of panic up my spine. My adrenaline still hasn’t dropped.
The power went out today, and I’m late with the rent. I guess we’re one-step from eviction now. I pulled out all the winter quilts Mom had bought at yard sales. Amelia and I buried ourselves under them and ate the last of our Oreo pack.
I tried to find a job today. I stopped in every business on my walk home from school. I walk now because the school bus doesn’t come to our part of town, and the Metro bus is too expensive. Everything is too expensive now. Anyway, none of the stores had a part-time position for a sixteen year old with no work experience. Too bad Ms. Hooper’s kids are too old for a babysitter anymore. I’m out of ideas, but I have to get the lights back on.
I wonder if I’d be better off without Amelia. Or, really, if she’d be better off without me. Is it even worth dragging both of us through this awful mess? What are we even doing this for? Really, Amelia might miss me for a minute, but she’d be fine eventually. Am I just selfish for not telling anyone?
Sometimes I have to wonder what I could have done with my life if I didn’t have someone else to think about, if I hadn’t always thought about everyone so much.
All I do is ask questions like someone will answer me.
Today was another bad day. It seems there are more bad days than good ones. When will it end? Worrying about Amelia and working odd jobs to make a bit of money has really cut in on my time to do homework. I’ve never really had time to do homework, but Mom always made it a priority. Now I just care about survival. My star student reputation makes the fall from grace even harder.
Ms. Swinbank forced me stay after English to talk to her, which made my stomach jolt. As she talked, she held onto my arm in a way that was supposed to be comforting, I think, and the look in her eyes made me want to cry. She said that all the junior teachers were talking about me during their weekly meeting, and they’re all concerned for me because my grades have been slipping. I’ve failed the latest tests in all my classes. I’ve given up on homework entirely.
She asked if I was having problems at home: if we needed assistance, if my friends were okay, was I fighting with my boyfriend? I wish it were any of those. That would mean I’d have trivial, fixable problems… or a boyfriend. She said if I don’t pull my grades up they’d have to get the principal involved. That means permanent records and guardian meetings. It’s the last thing I need. I told her that I was very sorry I’d let school slip and that I’d been in a fog lately. I hope she’ll let it go because studying for Honors Physics at 2AM is not happening right now.
The worst part is that I don’t know how to deal with anything. I never got a chance to grieve my mother. Survival and Amelia are more important. I focus on things that can breathe. Amelia’s really all I have now. I guess that’s why I keep holding on to this life. If I lose her, I have no family. I wish she wasn’t such a kid sometimes. I wish I knew how to be a parent. I resent her, and then I hate myself because she deserves to be a kid and to be happy and to not worry about money or food or keeping the power on like I have to.
But I deserve to be a teenager and do stupid things and hang out with my friends. I shouldn’t have to worry about another human or myself. But I do, and, apparently, this is my life. I don’t know why I’m bothering writing this. I guess I just needed to let it out somewhere.
He tried to get me to share everything. I know that he’s curious which makes even sharing a little even riskier. He tells me I can trust him with anything, but that just makes me feel guilty. I need to stop thinking about other people so much.
I guess there wasn’t anything else he could say to the girl, sitting on his balcony crying and getting snot all over her sweater. I hope he thought I was upset about Mom, which was true, I don’t know if I’ll ever stop being sad or angry or plain heartbroken. Maybe he thought I was scared or upset over my “sick” grandmother that he still hasn’t seen.
My life is still awful half lies eating away at my conscience. It makes me wonder if there will ever be a time when I don’t have to lie. I know I could just tell the truth and end it now. I know it would be better for everyone, but I just can’t. Okay?
Why does everything always get worse? I’m wondering if “better” even exists. Maybe it was just some beautiful, philosophical idea. I called myself in as sick this morning, which was so nerve wracking that it really did make me sick. Now I regret not keeping Amelia home too.
At noon, as I was snacking on a few Goldfish from a giant bag I’d managed to take from Nathaniel’s, I got a call on the landline, the only bill I’d kept paying with food money. It was the principal at Golden Oaks Middle School, and he wanted to speak to Amelia’s guardian. I dropped the phone onto the tile in a deja vu like trance.
“This is she,” I had said to the man who was clearly past annoyed. He proceeded to tell me that Amelia had been caught cheating on some test which could lead to her expulsion. I thought expelling her for that was stupid, but I bit my tongue because I really needed to keep Amelia in school and get off the phone with the guy.
I said that I was sorry for her actions. I promised she would never do it again. Most administrators enjoyed listening to people grovel for forgiveness. Then he told me that I would have to come to the school to pick her up. He wanted to have a meeting. I was surprised he hadn’t caught the lie solely by my voice, but I guess it’d been a while since I was at Golden Oaks.
He must have been confused by the silence on my end as I tried to think of a plan because he said, “Miss, are you still there?”
“Uh, ya,” I had replied in the most composed way possible. “I can’t, um, make it.” I hit my elbow on the counter and winced. “Can someone else come get her instead?” At this point, I was crossing every appendage I had hoping it would give me the little bit of extra luck I needed to swing this.
“This is a very serious offense, and I would like to talk in person about the situation.” If only he knew.
“I understand that,” I said, trying to sound like an adult. “But, for now, can I please send our neighbor to come claim her. I’m not trying to undermine the severity of the situation,” I said. He asked again for me to come in.
I wanted to point out that I’d made it quite clear there was no other way, but I took a deep breath and repeated myself. By the time I finally got off the phone, I had a whole slew of new problems to deal with. For starters, I’d arranged for Ms. Martinez to collect her, but Ms. Martinez didn’t know that yet.
So then, I was over at the neighbor’s, groveling for the second time that day. Ms. Martinez gave me that narrowed-eyed, questioning look but picked up her purse and keys nonetheless. Amelia was ringing the doorbell, one of the few things that still worked in the house, forty-five minutes later.
“Do you understand what you’ve done?!” I said as soon as the door clicked shut.
She shrugged at me and pulled some gum out of her backpack.
That made me more angry. “If cheating wasn’t bad enough, you could have destroyed everything. They wanted to talk to your guardian. They wanted to expel you.” I stamped my foot into the ground to try to get her attention. The fringy hair at the end of her braid had suddenly become the most interesting thing in the world. “If you get expelled…” She didn’t respond. I changed tactics. “If Ms. Martinez finds out… She’s already suspicious.” This got me little more than an annoyed look.
Then I stormed out and wrote this, and, if I’m being honest, cried.
Nathaniel stopped me while I was walking through the common courtyard. I’d been crying because Mom always loved the flowers, even though awful weeds choked them. And I was crying because I needed to cry, because that’s just what happens now.
He said, “Cassie, what’s wrong?”
I shook my head. The concern in his eyes seemed real, and I got drunk on the idea someone still cared about me.
I just said, “I can’t do it anymore. I can’t just take it anymore.”
“What’s going on, Cassie? Let me help you.”
“But you can’t,” I said before I told him everything.
He stood there and looked at me patiently. In the moment, it didn’t feel like I was having confessional with the devil, I regret it all now.
I think he only ever spoke to me because his mom asked him to. How hard is it to play pretend? Maybe he did care, too, but it doesn’t take away from what he could do now. He has my power. His wolf teeth are sharp, but his wool cloak was so soft…
We’re off for Thanksgiving break, which means that I can seal us off from the rest of the world. Anything beyond the door is a threat. I can’t even stand out on the porch because Ms. Martinez is right next-door ready to barge in and take down my world. It already feels like someone has a hold on a loose strand of yarn in my sweater. The farther I try the run, the more of my body gets exposed.
Maybe my paranoia has gone a little far. I’ve spent all of break staring out the dirty, tiny peephole in the door watching everyone who walks by, imaging how they could ruin my life.
I told Amelia to keep her guard up. I didn’t need her running her mouth to someone. Not that she leaves the apartment. We’re on lock down, eating peanut butter out of jars and thinking about the rolls and turkey and stuffing we used to have on Thanksgiving. Even the turkey sandwiches we’d had to mark the occasion after dad died sounded good now.
I’m just biding my time till the end. I know it’s coming. And, for once, I admit everything is out of my control.
Nathaniel didn’t tell his mom. I would have been better off that way. We would have had a chance. No. The principal pulled me out of English and confronted me. Nathaniel was still standing around when I got to the office. I guess he was waiting for the show to start. I gave him a look that I hoped said he made the wrong choice. I hate him. But it doesn’t matter.
I’m not sure what’s going to happen now, but we’ve been assigned a social worker. They’re looking into placement in a home or an orphanage or something. I don’t know. I don’t know anything. It doesn’t matter anymore.
I’m sorry Amelia.
I wonder when I’ll stop getting drowned by the undertow. My lungs are slowly filling and my eyes burning. My name over the PA system echos in my ears. And it just won’t stop.
It doesn’t matter though. What’s the point?