Collateral Damage

by Karen Kinley

“I can’t stay with you anymore.”

The words stung Jeremy’s ears even though he’d heard them many times before. He quietly closed the door behind him and scooted across his bed, knocking a tattered stuffed animal to the floor in the process. He pulled his legs up to his chest, wrapped his arms around them, and ducked his head, a turtle retreating into his shell. 

“Who the hell is beggin’ you to stay?” The voice from the next room was gruff and slowed by bourbon. “There’s the goddamn door.”

Jeremy heard his mother respond but couldn’t quite make out the words. The walls of this apartment were thin, but not that thin. He was grateful for that. The last place was so bad that he could hear Hank breathing from the next room. God, how he missed that dog!

About a year ago, Jeremy and his mother moved in with some guy she had met at Costco, and Hank was part of the deal. A huge mastiff with floppy ears and soft brown eyes. And man, could that dog drool! But his heart was as huge as his head. And he was a calming presence in an otherwise volatile situation.

The guy who owned Hank was lanky and smelled like weed. Jeremy nicknamed him the Deadbeat because, although he was only 11, Jeremy already had a keen eye for losers. Anyway, the romance didn’t last long, and Jeremy had to admit that it was worth losing Hank to get rid of the Deadbeat. But he still missed that dog.

“I’m tired of being an afterthought,” his mother yelled. “I bust my ass around here to keep this place nice for you, and what do you do to thank me? Throw your shit on the floor and piss all over the bathroom. I’m not here to clean up after you.”

This guy came into the picture after Jeremy and his mother were evicted from their last apartment. The Deadbeat had drained Jeremy’s mother’s bank account so she couldn’t make rent. She picked up a second job waiting tables at Denny’s to afford the security deposit on this place. It was old, but clean, and even had a community pool. But, in truth, it was just like all the others in the same crummy town in the same crummy neighborhood where apartment complexes stood in formation like decrepit soldiers along railroad tracks that surely led somewhere better than this.

The argument continued along predictable lines. This guy was no more original than the others, Jeremy noted. They all said the same things. And none of it satisfied his mother.

“I can’t stay with you anymore.”

“What the fuck do you want from me?” The man sounded exasperated. It wasn’t the first time.

“Oh, I don’t know. Maybe give a shit just a little bit?” His mother’s voice was shrill, like a cornered tomcat.

Jeremy unfolded his body and scrambled onto the floor to retrieve the threadbare stuffed penguin from where it had landed. The hardwood floor was uncomfortable under his bony frame. Hugging the penguin close, he glanced around the sparse space, eyed its meager contents. Besides his bed, there was a tall dresser, muddy brown in color with two missing knobs. Atop it was a small television and an old PlayStation with a handful of games. An aging wooden chair cowered in the corner of the room with Jeremy’s school backpack slung over it. Summer break was coming soon, but Jeremy couldn’t muster up much excitement. He had switched schools again this year, and he didn’t have many friends to hang out with. His mother promised he would stay put for a while this time.

He stood, moved toward the door, then switched off the harsh overhead light. There was no lamp in the room, but the glow from the secondhand PlayStation provided just enough light to guide Jeremy back to the bed. He crawled under a comforter the color of pea soup. On the other side of the wall, the yelling continued.

“You don’t give a damn about me. I doubt you ever did,” she said, her voice and prospects hopeless.

“Well what would you know about that anyway? You’re hardly here. And I get stuck taking care of the kid.”

“Jesus. It’s not like I’m hanging out with my asshole friends at the bar every other night like you do. I’m WORKING, for Christ’s sake! You should try it sometime.”

Trying to distract himself, Jeremy looked around his bedroom again. He wished he could switch on the TV and watch “Shark Tank” or “American Ninja Warriors,” but there was no cable in here. His window, which overlooked the parking lot, was covered with a sheet to keep the morning sun from blinding him each morning. Whenever they moved apartments, Jeremy’s mother usually tried her best to make his bedroom feel like home. She’d arrange his furniture, organize his dresser drawers, and put a few posters on the wall. After this last move, however, she seemed too distracted to do much. Some nights, if Jeremy woke up in the dark after a bad dream, it would take him a few minutes to get his bearings—to figure out where exactly he was—before sliding out of bed to get a drink of water to try to shake the demons from his subconscious.

Jeremy’s eyes fell on the tiny closet. It held two worn suitcases, Jeremy’s three pairs of shoes, several of his mother’s beautiful dresses covered in thin dry cleaner’s plastic that hadn’t been worn in years, a plastic bin with old holiday decorations, and a panama hat that used to belong to his dad. The accident happened when Jeremy was four. He didn’t even remember his father.

A thump on the other side of the wall startled him. Jeremy sat up in bed, listening intently this time. He heard a loud sigh from the guy. “Here we go again.” Then he said something Jeremy couldn’t hear.

“FUCK YOU! Fuck you, you fucking asshole,” his mother screamed.

It was always the same argument. Same words, same emotions, different guy. Some women spend a lifetime kissing frogs, but the prince never shows up. Even princesses have their limits.

Being so young, Jeremy wasn’t exactly in a position to protect his mother. He often wished that he was older, maybe 15 or 16. He’d go to the gym, work out to get stronger, bigger. Get a job to make some money and maybe buy a handgun like the one his friend, Mark, once found in his dad’s dresser drawer. Only then could Jeremy protect his mother from all the creeps she seemed to attract. 

The voices clambered over each other. Neither was listening as the other hollered. Then, clear as day: “Stop talking about it. Pack your shit and go.”

“Maybe I will.” Jeremy heard his mother say, calm and resigned.

And Jeremy listened, frozen in his bed in his quiet bedroom, as his mother opened and then slammed dresser drawers, presumably put clothes in a bag, and left. Only later would he realize that she didn’t take him with her.

“I can’t stay with you anymore.”

5 thoughts on “Collateral Damage

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