My brother opens the door to my dad’s burgundy 1996 Ford Bronco and pushes the seat forward so he can climb into the backseat. I glare at my dad as I secure it back in place and plop down, sitting in defiant silence.
“How was school guys?” he asks.
In my continued silence, my brother pipes up from the backseat, “It was fine.”
“That’s good. Julianna?”
Arms crossed tightly across my chest, I glare at him once more from the passenger seat and remain silent.
“You gonna answer me?” he prods.
“You’re an hour-and-a-half late,” I accuse.
“You should be grateful you get a ride home from school at all.”
“Yeah right. How else would I get home?”
“If I woulda been walking an hour-and-a-half ago, I’d probably be home by now.”
Suddenly, my dad slams on the breaks. We haven’t even made it off the small side-street across from my elementary school, where my brother and I always wait after school. The pick-up spot.
“What?! Why?!” I squeal in disbelief.
“Get out and walk home. It’ll teach you to appreciate that you get picked up at all.”
“Fine, I will!” I scream through adrenaline, thrusting open the passenger-side door, grabbing my backpack by one strap and slamming the door with my other.
“Stupid dad. Stupid Bronco. Hour-and-a-half late. Too bad I’m actually happy to walk,” I slop together my defiant mutterings under my breath as I walk away, punching my arms through the straps of my backpack, only to cross them tightly against my chest once more.
Some ways up, I watch the Bronco become smaller and smaller as it nears the end of the street. It dawns on me that I perhaps should have apologized and pleaded with my dad — because here I am, walking the whole 2.3 miles home… by myself. I’m 11 years old and in fifth grade. I’ve ran a mile for the Turkey Trot at school but two miles? I don’t know that I can do two miles, even if it’s just walking.
I hold the anger on my face because I’m afraid of what’s underneath. Sheer terror. And tears. Lots of tears. I don’t want to cry because I’m still so mad.
But sure enough, they eventually come.
I see the small Bronco in the distance and know it’s about to turn left to transport my dad and brother safely home in a timely manner, while I’ll still be out here trotting home on foot.
But then… it doesn’t.
It appears to have stopped moving, although it’s hard to tell since it’s so much further ahead.
A pair of feet and some blue jeans hit the pavement first, a pause, and then a swing of the backpack, and a clap as the car door shuts once more. Head down, holding his backpack securely with one hand on each strap, elbows crooked into outward triangles like wings, my brother comes running towards me, clip-clap-clapping his feet the whole way. The Bronco turns left without him.
I wipe my tears as he closes the distance between us.
“What are you doing?” I ask in confusion.
“I’m walking home with you,” he picks up a stick as nonchalantly as if we were shooting out on one of our wander-the-world explorations.
I, too, pick up a stick. With him by my side, the doomed 2.3 miles home with no after-school snack in sight becomes a bit more bearable. The long journey home becomes a little better.
In middle school, we replaced sticks with cell phones. In high school, we replaced playgrounds with parties. And after high school, we replaced parents with the real world.
When we moved out of my dad’s house, we moved into the same apartment with one additional roommate. It was great until his recreational drug use turned a sharper corner.
I was oblivious at first. But then it became evident.
My brother got worse and worse. He hadn’t worked a steady job in over a year. His skin broke open where he picked it apart. Living with him weighed heavily upon me.
Pile, pile, pile.
Pressure, pressure, pressure.
I loved (still love) him but I also wanted to strangle him. It was hard to watch. I saw him losing control.
I saw him giving in to giving up.
I saw the McDonald’s, Del Taco, and Jack in the Box bags litter his bedroom floor. I saw his Rottweiler collect dirt in her fur, stillness in her joints, depression in her drooping eyes. I saw his bare mattress, stained a light yellow-brown from the cigarette smoke that clung to it, a stray sheet wrestled in dirty bundles. I saw trays filled to the brim with ashes. I saw clothes strewn across the floor amongst the fast food bags.
I smelled his rank room sift through the hole in my closet upstairs, only separated by a thin piece of plywood. I don’t know where that smell comes from. The meth? Lack of hygiene? I have no idea. I smelled the dog shit piling up in the backyard when I threw something in the garbage.
I heard his explosive anger in the slam of the door to move a car blocking him in the driveway. I heard the hate seething through the chorus of his complaints — fuck this, fuck that, fuck dad, fuck work, fuck people on the road, fuck the government, fuck the neighbors, etc.
Pile, pile, pile.
Pressure, pressure, pressure.
I eventually had to move out.
Months later, I’d find a therapist who would stress the importance of healthy boundaries, an act of love, she’d call it.
My brother’s journey through addiction is a roller coaster and our whole family rides through it with him. Up and down. Up. Down. Up and down, we go.
I’ve learned a lot. A lot about addiction. A lot about boundaries. The most important thing I’ve learned though, is that there’s not much I can do but to just love him. He has to do the rest.
I think of my brother hopping out of my dad’s 1996 Ford Bronco 15 years ago to walk beside me through my consequences. Those weren’t his consequences. They were mine. But he did what he could. He walked beside me and tried to make the long journey home a little better.
Fast-forward to today and, through his addiction, my brother has stirred up a mess of his own consequences. Those aren’t my consequences. They are his. But I do what I can.
I walk beside him and try to make the long journey home a little better.
Julianna Lembeck is a storyteller, both in her creative writing and professionally for marketing clients. She lives in Orange County and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.