By Vicki J. Bell

Every family has its’ own bag of crazy.  Some only have quirks, like the teenage son who sleeps with a stuffed walrus or the daughter born without a left ear lobe.  In a crowd, they wink at each other, letting the rest of us know we’re not privy to their inner circle.

But there’s another category.   Those who live where the lines are blurred, where the truth isn’t black or white; and where you pray no one knows what goes on behind closed doors. This is my family – the 2nd one.  And these are the things that keep me up at night.

Pacing is overrated.  Instead of calming my nerves, I carry them with me from the oven to the sink and back again.  God, it’s hot.  Even for Memphis. 

The first time the phone rang around 8 pm, my heart jumped in my throat.  Without looking at the screen, I grabbed it.

“Shea?” I said.  Silence. 

When I heard Laney’s voice, my heart sank.  She spoke in flat, monotone phrases, but she wasn’t speaking to me.

“Laney, you called me, Alex.  Remember?”

“Don’t cry Rachel,” she said.  “Everything will be okay.”

“Laney, you’re not at Rachel’s.  You’re home.”

“Home?  I want to go home,” she said, growing anxious.  “Rachel, call my mother.  Tell her to come get me – I want to go home.”

“La-ney.  Snap out of it.”  
“Home, where they’ll be no more…”

“Dammit, Laney.”

Click.  I slammed my phone into the sofa.  Laney was reliving that night at Rachel’s, the night of the accident.  I knew what she’d be saying next, and I couldn’t endure it.

The muscles in my neck tightened to steel posts.  I jerked opened the pantry door and rummaged for something to eat.  I found a bag of popcorn kernels.   Seriously Shea?  No microwave?  I pulled out a pan and poured in oil.  Enough with this organic shit.

Laney’s voice kept running through my head.  She’d come so far, but I knew why the circumstances of that night were consuming her again.  Two weeks ago, I’d stopped by my parents’ house and found her slightly slumped over, rocking in our mother’s chair.  She was stroking her hair, as if trying to smooth the waves into long string.  Our mother loved Laney’s auburn hair.  Labeled Ginger by the rest of the family, my mother made her believe that sunset colored hair was a rare treasure.  

I stood in the doorway, watching her sway back and forth while gazing out the window.

“What’s up, Sis?” I said.

She picked up the flyer off her lap and handed it to me.

‘Save the Date:  5 Year High School Reunion – Homecoming Weekend’

The words sent cold water rushing through my veins.  Above all, Laney doesn’t need a high school reunion.  In fact, the last thing she needs is to reunite with anything remotely connected to high school.

R-r-ring!  I lunged for the phone, praying it was Shea.  It wasn’t, and I just stared at the screen.  Shit Laney, stop it.   The popcorn burned to charcoal, attaching a smoky film and putrid smell to the air.   The odor stuck in my throat.  

I fell into bed, trying to force the knots in my muscles to unwind.  But my limbs are inching up and back.  It’s too quiet in here.  When I get still, there are no sounds to refute that inner voice, shouting at me – exposing me for who I am.

Rachel never told the police I was there the night of the accident.   I’d left earlier, and she’d already forgotten about me….obviously.  If I weren’t so relieved, I’d be pissed.   I can’t have Laney rehashing details with Rachel.  I can’t risk anyone connecting the dots.

None of us have been the same since the night of Laney’s 16th birthday.  Rachel gave her a party, and invited me, hinting I bring something to spike the punch.  I jumped at the chance.
It was embarrassing to have been infatuated with my sister’s best friend, especially when she was a sophomore and I was a senior.  But I’d been crushing on Rachel Walker since the first time she flitted in the door with Laney.  She was peculiar and unpredictable, accented by an out-of-control main of wavy blond hair and God, those blue eyes.  

Her parents let her have the house for a few hours.  The music was loud, and Rachel guzzled the punch.  I nudged her to the center of the room with several others and we got lost in the music.  By the time Unchained Melody loomed over the room, Rachel was swaying with her eyes closed.  I pulled her close, pulling her face close to my neck.  Half way through the song, I kissed her hard on the lips.

Rachel jerked away, shoving me backwards into another couple.

I was stunned, blinking and struggling to regain my balance.   The music pounded in my ears.

“Are you insane?” Rachel said.  She pointed at me, laughing.  “You don’t think I have a thingfor you, do you?”

My knees were so weak I was afraid I’d collapse.  A few other kids laughed.  I forced a fake laugh, acting as though that question was ludicrous.  I wanted to say the perfect thing to put her in her place, or say anything at all.  But I didn’t trust my voice not to crack. 

I walked over and got another drink.  When Rachel went back to dancing, I slipped out of the house.  I slammed on the brakes to avoid a passing car.

At home, I kicked my duffle bag across the room and slammed my fist into the kitchen table.  The image of Rachel laughing at me played over and over in my head, magnifying louder each time. 
Something inside of me snapped. 

Later that night, I went to Rachel’s house and sat across the street in my car until the lights went out. 

What I didn’t know was that Laney decided to sleep over.  I had no idea that when I climbed the back stairs to the balcony and opened the bonus room window, both girls were in that room.  And what I prayed no one would discover about that night was the truth, the secret that belongs to me alone.

It was 1:47 am when Laney woke up at Rachel’s, terrified and sobbing.  At her insistence, Rachel called our mother to come pick her up.  She never made it.  She died at 3:08 am after being hit by a drunk driver.

Our mother had been the stabilizing force in the family, but for Laney, she was the plumb line that kept her centered.  They had an inseparable bond, united by reasons both understood but neither voiced out loud.  When my father was in one of his moods, Laney took refuge at our mother’s side.  My mother gave her the gift that sustained her own life – her faith.

“God is right here with you, Honey,” she’d say, “don’t be afraid.”  Laney would look dazed, trying to grasp what she’d heard.  But when Mom spoke about the future – another time, another place, where there’d be no more tears; Laney inhaled the words.  They revived her like a blood transfusion.    

I grabbed a couple of antacids off the end table and popped them in my mouth, then rolled over and put a pillow over my head.   It didn’t work.  Even in the silence, mysister’s voice confiscated any attempt at sleep.   And now, she’s the reason my marriage is falling apart.

I hate it when Shea’s gone.   Even worse, knowing it’s my fault that she took the kids and went to her parents is eating the lining out of my stomach.  I wish I’d opened the mail this afternoon and had a chance to digest it before she dropped it on me.

“What’s this?” I said, taking the letter she gave me when I got home from work.”

“Just read it, and then we’ll talk,” she said.

Let’s see.”  We’re recommending Ben for a special reading program…   My face turned blood red.  I glanced up at Shea.

“Keep reading,” she said.

The 6 for 6 program … 6 kids for 6 weeks…reinforcing basic reading skills that other kids in first grade have already mastered…

“This is Bullshit,” I said, waving the letter at her.  “No incompetent, test obsessed elementary school is going to put a label on my son.”

Shea put her hand on my arm, but I shoved it away.  Her eyes hardened.

“Look at this – deficiencies in processing…needs further testing…symptomatic of worse problems.  I’ve seen it all before, Shea, and I won’t have it – not with my son.”

The color drained out of my wife’s face.   I knew Shea read with Ben every night, working with him on vocabulary and comprehension.  She didn’t deserve this tongue lashing, but my pent-up feelings took on a life of their own.  She clenched her jaw, and locked her eyes on mine.

“Look, he could use the expertise, and bottom line – it’s what the school thinks he should do,” she said, speaking in stilted tones.  “And also…Laney thinks it’s a great idea.”

“You told Laney about this?”

“She stopped by this afternoon to see the kids.  They adore her.  She said she wished she’d had something like this,” Shea said.

“Of course she thinks it’s a good idea,” I said, raising my voice.  “Because he’s Laney all over again – Learning problems, hiding behind other kids, slower….”

“Yes, he is, and just like Laney, Ben has a father who’s eager to critique his every move,” she said.

“Well, somebody has to.  Look at my sister.  Do you want our son to turn out like her?

“What I want – is to get our kids out from under a father like you.”

Ten minutes later, Shea marched to the door with both kids and a duffle bag full of clothes.

“We’re going to stay with your grandparents,” she said to the kids.

“It’s because I’m dumb,” Ben said, lowering  his eyes and walking out the door.  We were horrified to realize he’d heard every word.  I ran after him, and hugged him with all my might.

“I want Daddy,” Samantha cried.   Shea hugged her 5 yr. old daughter, then took her hand and pulled her out the door.

They’ve been gone 3 days.  I call, leave a message, and then call again.  No answer.

It’s 3:45 in the morning.  An elephant sits on my chest.  When I try closing my eyes, sinking, releasing…  I’m bolted awake with that panic-stricken feeling that cuts off my air supply.  Laying here in the darkness, a message is becoming very clear.

God has pronounced judgment on me.  Those family traits, the ones I detested, hid from and wouldn’t face – those have been rebirthed in my loved ones.  Some people call it heredity. 

I call it penance.

I know this to be true.  The first evidence is me.

I entered into the office at 8:00 am.  The break room offered a box of glazed donuts, so I piled two on top of my big-gulp sized coffee mug. 

‘You look like hell,’ a co-worker said.

‘That’s better than I feel,” I said, and walked out with my calories and caffeine.  At least the sugar was coating the taste of smoky popcorn fumes still lodged in my throat.

I texted Shea, asking her to let the kids know I said to have a good day.  I reread at the text, and then added I miss you, and I’m sorry.

Our latest advertising campaign was formulaic, requiring little creativity.  I logged on my computer
and pulled the files.  My boss required completion of a spreadsheet showing the calculation of TV rates for our morning meeting.  I’d worked for 45 minutes plugging numbers in columns according to length, repetition and time of day when the phone interrupted.

“This is Alex.”

“I need to talk to you,” Laney said.

“Laney, I told you not to call me at work,” I said. “Are you taking your medicine?”

“No, because I don’t want to be a zombie,” she said.  “Stop ignoring me, Alex.”

“Dammit, I can’t talk now.”  I slammed the phone down.

My assistant peeked around the corner, raising her eyebrows. 

“Sorry, didn’t mean to get so loud.”

She pursed her lips and disappeared .  Message received.

I was glad for the staff meeting at 10:00.  Storyboards, demographics, hell, even budgets – anything for a distraction.  I was giving the totals for my spreadsheet when we heard loud voices in the hall.  My boss jerked the conference room door open.

“What the hell?” he said.

Oh God, no.  Laney pushed past him and stormed through the door.

“Ma’am, Ma’am, you can’t….”  my assistant said.

“Laney, what’re you doing here?” I said.  As I jumped to my feet, she rounded the table and stood on the opposite side.  All eyes were on me to see if I would start a chase to reach her.

“Alex, you have to talk to me.  Don’t tell me you can’t talk to me.”  Her voice was shaky.  “You’re my
brother – we can still climb trees a-and you can show me things on the computer.”  She shifted from one foot to the other.  “We just need to talk…now…just talk… 

“OK, come with me, and we’ll talk now.”  I held my arm out but she just glared at me.  “Please,
come with me.  I promise, we’ll talk.”  She took small steps toward me until I put my hand under her arm and guided her out into the hall.

Heads peeked around cubicle walls.  Heat rushed up my neck as I ushered Laney out of the office and into the elevator.  Fortunately, we were alone.  I leaned against the steel wall, closed my eyes and ran my hands over my face.

“I’m going to contact Rachel,” she said.  “Now, before the reunion – I want to talk to her.

I felt like she’d cold cocked me.  My breath caught in my throat.

“Leave her alone,” I said, “you’re the reason she left town in the first place.”

Ahh!  She gasped, widening her eyes.  Laney clenched her jaw and looked as if she wanted to hit me.

The elevator door opened, and she flew out of the elevator and into the parking garage.  “Wait,” I
said, and went after her, but she wouldn’t even look at me.

“No.  Dammit, Laney, no.”  I was yelling, but she rolled up her car window and backed out of the
parking space. 

I felt like an idiot.  Running red lights, swerving in and out of cars… hell, chasing my own sister.  

Nothing mattered, not the job, my safety, breaking the law – nothing, except keeping Laney from
contacting Rachel.   I had too much to lose.

I couldn’t let Laney contact Rachel, and knew of only one way to prevent it.  My hands shook as I dialed the number for a client who recently used our firm to project a rebrand his image.  His name was Dr. Prestwick.

The next morning, I picked up Laney at 8:30 am.  She thought I was taking her to see a new site for my office building.  While I drove down the highway, she chatted about the trees, wondering if she could climb them.

 “Remember, Alex?” she said.  “How we used to climb trees for hours?” 

“Uh-huh, we were kids then, Laney.”  I let her ramble on with her memories.  At least she was content.  My insides were a wrestling match.  I decided I couldn’t go through with it.  I put the left blinker on to turn around, but turned it off again.  I would go through with it, I had no choice.
I slowed down at the intersection, and steered into the right turn.  Then, Laney saw the sign.  She read the charcoal black letters painted against gray steel, “Wedgefield Mental Institution.”  Her eyes widened.  She gasped.  In that second, reality hit like a blunt instrument.  Laney whirled to reach me with both arms, but her seat belt jerked her back.

“No, no Alex, please,” she said.  You can’t take me there!” Her voice cracked.  “I-I’ll be good, Alex. 
I’ll take my medicine.  Please!”  

Laney twisted in her seat, thrashing her arms and pulling at her seat belt.  I fumbled for the power locks.  She jammed her thermos of ice water into the door handle until it came loose. 

“Laney, listen to me.” 
Her shouting escalated to screaming. “I hate you!” She swung at my chest.  I caught her arm and pushed it away, swearing. “You’ll pay for this, Alex!  I’ll get you, I swear.”

The car swerved.  Honnnk! Honk! Honk!  I jerked the steering wheel to the right as an oncoming car in the left lane sped past.  I couldn’t hear myself think.  I could barely keep the car on the road.  She was stomping her feet on the floorboard, pleading for me to take her home.
“Shut up, Laney, let me explain!”

A formidable looking red brick building with white columns stood at the end of the road.  Each side of the building was flanked by a wing with windows like hospital rooms.   Smaller one-story structures stood in close proximity to the main building.

“No, no, no,” she said, shaking her head.  Arrival at the building burst her tantrum.  Her screaming dissolved into childlike whimpering.  She stopped fighting.   Instead, she retreated.  Her eyes focused in midair, transfixed; seeing what no one else could.  Then she was gone.  Unreachable.   
In heart-stirring tones erupting like a volcano, she spewed prophecy with complete conviction: “In that day, the sun shall be turned into darkness and the moon into blood, before the great and glorious Day of the Lord comes.”
“Laney, stop that.  Stop talking like that.”  I grabbed her arm, squeezing it firmly.  It didn’t’ phase her.  She no longer acknowledged me.  Her tear-stained face relaxed. 

Scripture overflowed like a damn bursting within her.  She spoke every syllable in solid, distinct tones.  This complete surrender to the spiritual world – this was my undoing.

I surged through the parking lot while Laney’s divinely inspired discourse flowed in perfect rhythm.  The words haunted me, but I was powerless to stop them.

“He will wipe every tear from their eyes,” she said, and a faint smile crossed her face.  “The street of the city was pure gold.”

Laney never faltered.  She savored every word, then rolled it off her tongue like a delectable piece of candy leaving an aftertaste of pure joy.   Laney was unaware that I had parked the car, and opened his door.  I paused, wondering if she could walk up the steps on her own.  
“We’re here,” I said, but her cadence flowed uninterrupted.  She was on a different plane. 
I stood outside the car door, dialing the building’s main number.  Two aids in blue scrubs came outside immediately.  One gently pulled Laney’s right arm, catching the dangling door handle with his elbow.  The other aid put his hand under her left elbow, and they escorted her in. 

I felt nauseated, swallowing the sour saliva gushing up my throat.  I thought I was going to be sick.  The young girl at the front desk called Dr. Prestwick, who appeared and ordered an immediate injection.

“Meet me in my office,” he said.

“Not now,” I said.  “I can’t.”  I bolted toward the front door when the doctor grabbed my arm.  I jerked away.  “Tomorrow,” I said.  “I’ll be back tomorrow.”

I leaned against his steering wheel, trying to calm down.  I’d bought some time, but my story for Dr. Prestwick would have to be meticulous.  Driving home, my head pounded and the thickness in my throat made it hard to swallow.  I needed to think, to sort things out, and God, I needed a good night’s sleep.

vicki bell

About the Author:

Vicki’s childhood in Mesquite, TX, was great preparation for adulthood in Memphis, TN.  She believes fiction is a powerful setting for revealing truth, and looks for creative ways to portray the reality of the human condition.  She’s a free-lance writer who’s worked under contract for years, but is currently transitioning to her love of writing novels full time.  Inspired by a true story, Unrest is the first chapter of a novel exposing the blurry line between mental illness and the effects ensued from living in an emotionally dysfunctional family.