The staccato sound of a phone alarm fills Sam’s darkened room. He opens his eyes, the darkness a welcomed feeling. Daylight will fill his room in an hour. Slowly creeping across his floor. An impending doom.
He pulls his phone into bed with him, the white harsh screen causing him to squint to see the words. The texts that came in overnight.
“You okay?” The timestamp reads 1:47 am.
“Just want you to know I’m here if you want to talk,” she says at 1:54. He puts his phone back under his pillow, somehow hiding from the truth. But he knows Jessica will keep texting. There is no running away.
Sam curls his hands under his head. The weight of his dog, Clementine, shifts at his feet. She isn’t ready to get up and face the day, either.
“Yeah,” Sam says, looking down at her. “Me too.” Her eyes move up toward him without lifting her head. She can feel when Sam is sad. Her whole body takes it in.
He rolls over and works to calm the sickening feeling in his stomach. He hates it when he can feel the anxiety brewing. Like a storm raging inside him.
He should be used to this by now. After all, he has been doing it for his entire life. The constant in and out of it all. The never knowing how the story will end, but still moving in the daily pieces and parts of it.
He pushes himself up and leans against his headboard. Clementine moves toward him, laying down just to his right side and looking up at him.
“Hey girl. Today is going to suck,” he says. She stares at him, moving her eyebrows up and down as if she actually understands the words coming out of his lips.
He moves her toward the edge of the bed, and she jumps down, shaking out her sleep. And stretching on her front and hide legs. She moves toward the door and then turns to look back at him.
“I’m coming,” he says. He pulls the sheets back and steps out into the cold room. He pulls his sweatpants on and heads out the door and into the hallway.
The house is quiet. But he knows no one has slept. No one ever sleeps the night before. As if sleep is an elusive partner in making it all go away. Or pretending this isn’t happening.
The living room lamp is on, and Sam steps slowly into the shadows of the hallway. He can hear low talking, and he knows they must have been up all night, taking it all in. One last time.
There are times when Sam really can’t stand his parents. Them harping over grades. Cleaning his room. Walking the dog.
And then there are moments like this. Moments that make him feel small again. A little boy looking in on them dancing in the kitchen. And thinking they were all that his world needed.
“I’m just tired, Dan. I’m worn out from all of it. Just when we get to a point where we might feel normal, you leave again,” she says. “It feels like we can’t really get started in being a family before another workup, and you head out again. And then the whole cycle starts again.”
“I know,” he says. He inhales deeply and then lets out a slow exhale. Sam looks into the living room to see all the bags there. The ones he has come to dread. And the ones he once climbed into, trying to sneak his way into his father’s heart. And out to sea.
“I’m tired too, Karen. Some days I’m so exhausted, I’m just not sure I can do it anymore,” he says. He works to pull her close to him, but she stiffens.
Sam knows that feeling so well. The need to be with him so great and deep and thick. But the desire to stop the hurting—the need to just rip off the bandaid and get it over with—taking over and protecting.
“I sometimes wish we had just never started this life,” she says. Sam exhales. He knows where this usually takes them. Down a road of rehashing whose choice it was and why they keep doing it.
It is hard for Sam to listen to. The idea of dreaming of a different life feels like a luxury to him. One that he can’t afford to entertain.
He moves into the kitchen and opens the fridge, hoping the noise will distract them and end the conversation.
“Morning, Sam,” his mom calls from the living room. “Morning,” Sam says.
“How did you sleep?” she asks. “Fine,” he says. “Where’s the milk?”
They both stir in the living room, moving toward the kitchen. Sam works to hide his face in the cold shelves. Tears spring to his eyes, but he pushes them back down. He isn’t in the mood to hear their same old lectures.
“You will be the man of the house,” his dad would say. “You will need to be strong.”
Sam had once felt pride in hearing that. To think of wearing his father’s shoes in any way. But now he hates it. To hear that he has any responsibility beyond just being a fifteen year old makes him angry. And jealous of his friends. The one hurdle of going to school off base: the kids had no idea what it meant to be without a parent for months at a time. And they had no idea how good they had it.
And then his mother would often follow with, “It is okay to be sad, Sam. I’m sad too,” she would say.
Sad is always allowed. Isn’t that how a military kid is supposed to feel when a parent is gone? Sad and missing at all times? That, or pride. The pressure to be so proud of a father who continues to choose work over him. He knows that isn’t true. But the truth, and how it feels—that doesn’t always fit together so easily.
His mom always expected him to be sad or teary eyed about it. But after a while, there are no more tears to shed. There is only anger. Or resentment. Or such a deep aching that the thought of expressing it feels like tumbling a house of cards.
He will be the one to hold her when she cries. He knows this. And the tears will be there for him too. He will feel them well up. Feel them want to fall. And then he will push them down again. Deep inside.
Perhaps there, he can ignore them. Perhaps there he can control it all.
Until he can’t.
“You hungry?” his mom asks. “How about I make you your favorite blueberry pancakes for breakfast?” She smiles at Sam and moves forward to hug him. She takes him in her arms, and he lets her. He knows she needs a place to land. He squeezes her shoulders and kisses her cheek.
“Sure. Sounds good,” he says.
“You sure you want to go to school today, bud?” his dad asks. “I can call and get you out of it.”
Sam shrugs his shoulders. Unwilling to allow the truth forward. He would love nothing more than to skip school and play video games all day. But he knows his mother will be here. She will work throughout the day not to cry. Or might offer ice cream for dinner as a consolation prize.
As much as he loves her, her sadness can be overwhelming.
“Nah. It’s cool,” Sam says. “I have a test today anyway.” The lie moves through his teeth and out his lips. He has no desire to pull it back in. The truth feels too heavy to give.
“Okay,” his dad says, lowering his eyes. Sam knows he feels guilty. He knows that his father is torn between the love of his family. And the love of the Navy.
“Sorry I am going to miss so many soccer games,” his dad says. “I was hoping to see you as forward this year. But mom is going to send me videos, and you will have your biggest cheerleader out there on the boat.”
Sam nods his head. “I know, dad. Thanks,” he says. Their knives and forks clink in the silence.
They sit at the table in the thick quiet for several minutes. What is there to say when a family is being split? How do you make conversation and pretend like it isn’t there?
“I gotta get going,” Sam says, pushing himself back from the table and carrying his plate over to the dishwasher.
His dad moves over to him. The look of sheer pain pulling at his eyes. His mouth. Sam works to contain all that wells inside him. The fear. The anger. The sadness.
At the end of the day, no matter how old he gets, Sam never gets used to sending his father off to sea. Toward wars that could take him. The ache never ceases. It only grows and deepens.
His family will do all the right things to work on it: counseling, communication, conversations about thoughts and feelings. But none of it changes the truth of the pain.
And the pain is always the hardest part.
“I love you, Sam. I’m proud of you, son,” he says, pulling Sam into a hug. Sam looks over his father’s shoulder to see his mother wiping away tears. She stares toward the wall. Unable to bear witness.
Sam wraps his hands around his father and closes his eyes. He takes in the smell of his uniform. The light scent of sea salt and fresh air. He goes through the flipbook of memories as he clings to his father’s torso. The football in the air. The soccer ball at their feet. The movies. The popcorn battles. Paintball. The laughing as Clementine pulled over the Christmas tree.
A tear leaves Sam’s eye, and he lets it fall onto his father’s shoulder. A small item to carry forward and out the door.
“I love you, too, Dad,” Sam says. His father claps him on the back a few times before releasing him. “I’ll be back before you know it,” he says. He nods his head, hoping to make the wish a certainty.
Sam knows that wish never works. He will notice his absence every night as they sit at the table, just the two of them. As he walks by her room when she can’t seem to get out of bed. As he works to try to focus on schoolwork and Jessica and his friends. Only to feel a gaping hole in his chest.
“Hurry home, Pops,” Sam says as he turns to leave. Jessica’s horn beeps just as he makes his way out the door. He does not turn to see his father staring after him. But he knows he is there.
Sam opens the door and gets into the passenger side of Jessica’s blue, battered Camry. “Hey,” she says.
“Hey,” he says.
“You okay,” she asks. Sam works to keep his gates closed. The last thing he needs is to fall apart in front of the girl he has been hoping to date for two years.
“I’m fine,” he says. “Let’s go.”
Jessica eases out of the driveway and onto the road. They drive to school in silence.
Sam moves into the main hallway and the immediate chaos engulfs him. The noise. The music. The laughter. All of it feels foreign to him. Like none of it matters.
He steps into the bathroom and moves toward the sink. He bends down to splash cold water over his face. He looks up into the mirror to see a face he hardly recognizes. His eyes look empty. His face seems long.
Just seeing it on him makes him rush to the bathroom stall. There is only one in the boy’s room, and he works to close it, offering him a small sanctuary.
The tears roll before he can stop them. He stuffs his sweatshirt into this mouth to work to silence the sobs. Boys move and talk just outside the stall, completely unaware that Sam’s world has fallen apart.
He cries for several moments. Allowing it to release. And slow.
Sam knows this won’t be the last time. He has enough experience to know the waves will hit him all day.
He pats his eyes dry and clears his throat, then flushes the toilet. He washes his hands, looking into the mirror once again. Pull it together, Sam.
He takes a deep breath and places his hands on the bathroom door. He pushes the door open and steps out into the chaos of the hallway.
He melts into the screams and peals of laughter. He moves through the maze undetected. Unnoticed. Unseen.