I was different than my parents. Everyone saw it. I was slow to anger, and desperately tried to love everyone. Confrontation terrified me, yet it stuck with me like my shadow. I never seemed to know when it was going to appear, but it was always lurking; licking its lips in anticipation of its next appearance. I never had to wait long. My parents argued about every little thing, and when they divorced, my mother chose to date, and eventually marry, another man she had little in common with who had a fiery temper to combat her own. She packed up our things, buckled me into my car seat and drove across the country to begin a new life and another toxic relationship with a man named Shane. We left conservative Birmingham, Alabama and found ourselves fully submerged in a community of open-minded liberals: Durango, Colorado. I was so enchanted by what this little town had to offer: the hippy culture, the happy, accepting citizens, the beautiful mountains towering over the man-made structures. It was all so strange and refreshing; I felt like I belonged here. But with my zest for life in this new place came an inescapable darkness. My mom and Shane used their words, and occasionally their fists, to tear each other apart. Anything could catapult them into reckless, cold-blooded war. Sometimes they fought about the things normal couples fight about, like not having enough money. Most of the time though, little, insignificant discrepancies about ridiculous things (e.g. the difference between potato slices and potato wedges) caused the most vicious battles. The sounds of barbaric shouting, shattering glass, unspeakable profanity, and fists breaking through walls echoed around my bedroom as I laid in my bed, wondering why the hell I was chosen to grow up on a battlefield.

Sometimes my mother would barge into my room, with tear-stained cheeks and wild eyes. Sometimes she blamed me for everything; for all of the fights, for all of the problems in her life. Sometimes she would sit on the edge of my bed. I could hear her tears splash against my blanket. I felt them soak through onto my skin; the warmth of her despair on my legs. I knew she hated the life she made for herself. She hated marrying and having my two little brothers with an angry alcoholic. I wondered if she hated herself too, for her bipolarism, and her equally untamed anger issues. My mother was bleach; Shane was ammonia. When they mixed, they created something toxic. My brothers and I tried to run from it. We tried to take cover; somewhere, anywhere. But nowhere was safe from their deadly poison. It filled every corner of the house, every dusty closet, every drawer, every cabinet, every possible inch of open space. And then, it filled us. It filled our lungs, and with every breath we choked, gasping for a healthy family, gagging on years of hatred and sorrow. They yelled at each other. They yelled at us. No one was safe. No one was free. I tried to protect my little brothers when I was home. I would take them into my room, hold them close, and put on a movie to drown out the noise. Nothing could completely cover up the discord, though. No matter how hard we listened to Scooby-Doo, or pressed our hands against our ears, we could never really tune out our parents’ voices. Most times though, when the tension was thick in the air, I left. I found an escape. I couldn’t bring my brothers with me, but I couldn’t stand suffocating in that house. God, I wish I could have done a better job shielding my little brothers from the fights, but I was still just a kid too. I knew that if I stayed in that house, I would crawl deep inside of myself, away from the pain, and I was scared I wouldn’t find my way out. So I went to a friends’ house. Or I went to my aunt’s house. Anything to escape the brutality. Finally, I was done with running. I didn’t want to cower in fear anymore. I just wanted out, for good. I wasn’t going to take it anymore. I wasn’t going to watch my mother and stepfather inflict this pain on each other for one more second, and I sure as hell wasn’t about to let them make me feel like shit anymore. It was the end of the summer of my senior year. I had let them scream at me, punish me unreasonably, call me hurtful names and do a variety of other emotionally damaging acts for far too long. I talked to my friends and grandparents about leaving, and they supported and encouraged me to remove myself from such a toxic environment. So I left. I should have done it years before, but I was scared. Now, I was ready. I told them I was moving out. I packed my things, and I started living with my good friends Rio and Colton, and their father, Barry. Things started to feel good. I felt like I did the first time I got to Durango. I felt refreshed. This new family never fought; we laughed together and made each other happy. I was content. But not for long.

The call came around 7:00 in the evening. I had been living at the new house for about four months now. I had just gotten home from a friend’s house, and was running up the stairs to Colton’s room to see what shenanigans we were going to get into that night. Then my phone rang. I answered it quickly, and right away I knew something was wrong. My mother was weeping. I stopped dead in my tracks. And then she spoke the words that no one ever wants to hear: “There’s been an accident”. Shane had been tiling the roof of a house he was building with his father when the ladder had become unstable. He fell two stories onto his head, immediately going into a coma. I couldn’t move. I couldn’t breathe. I felt as though I had sunk to the bottom of the ocean, its weight holding my body down, breaking me into pieces. But then the water rushed away, and I understood. My step dad was hurt, and I needed to go to him. I ran to my car and drove to the hospital with the windows down. It was January, and the icy wind chilled my bones, but it kept me from slipping into numbness. The wind kept me sane. Then I was there, running through the emergency room, the fluorescent lights a sickening blur in the corners of my eyes. As I approached his room it was chaos. Nurses and doctors were running in and out of the room with grave expressions on their faces. I heard my mother’s soft crying as I walked inside. I don’t remember his body, or his facial expression, or really anything else in that hospital room. The one thing I remember so vividly, the thing I will never be able to erase from my memory, was the blood. It looked like someone had spilled a bucket of red paint all over the back of his head. Blood pooled underneath his skull, and stained the skin of his shoulders. Blood trickled from his wound like a stream of rubies, and clung to each individual hair on his head. My mom had a faraway look in her eyes. She wasn’t here with us. She was on another planet, in another galaxy, dreaming about her husband when he was healthy and alive. I, on the other hand, was stuck in the present, alone, staring at the body of my dying stepfather, trying to have hope, desperately trying to muster up any bit of strength I had to get me through this. We were informed that Shane would have to be airlifted to Denver, so we followed the ambulance to the airport to see him off. My little brothers sat in the back seat. They had not been allowed to see him in the hospital; the scene was too gruesome. I wondered if they understood, if they knew that their father may never wake up again, but I never asked. We rode in silence, pondering Shane’s future. At the airport, he was rushed into a helicopter. We all got a chance to say our goodbye’s, and somewhere in his head, I think he heard us. And then we all stood back, and watched Shane fly away, on a silent journey through the night sky.

*          *          *

It has been a little over a year since the accident. I can barely understand what Shane says when he speaks. He is in a wheelchair, and just barely regained the strength to sit up on his own. He is fed everyday through a feeding tube, and must use a catheter. Despite all of this, he is happy. He is incredibly grateful for the people in his life, and he makes sure to express his love for us as often as possible. He now understands how destructive his words and actions were before the accident, and I know he is sorry for the way he treated my mom and the rest of us. My mom has realized a lot of her faults because of the accident as well. She has not changed as drastically as Shane, but she has begun to understand that she should not take out her anger on others, and instead find an outlet for it herself. I chose to forgive Shane. The accident was eye opening for him. I know that if he ever fully heals, he will never treat any of us the way he did before. There are times when I think about the past, the way he used to be, and I feel the anger beginning to boil in my body, but then I think about how he may never do the things he loved. He may never again feel the wind tickling his nose and blowing through his hair as he skis. He may never even have the luxury of going to the bathroom by himself. I cannot hold onto my anger at him when he is in a worse situation than I have ever been in. He needs my love and compassion during this difficult time. It will take more time for me to be able to forgive my mom, but I know that I need to let go. She still yells and screams at my brothers and I, and I do my best to block it out. I try harder to defend my brothers; I try not to run away from my mother’s words. I know she has love in her heart, but until she realizes that she should never direct words of malice at the people she loves the most, I cannot truly forgive her. She may never experience a life changing accident to make her realize her faults like Shane did, but I do have hope that she will one day want to be kinder. This hope helps keep my anger towards her at bay, and every day, I work towards getting rid of it, because storing anger and resentment in my heart will make me more like them. But I am not like them. An accident will not make me realize that I need to treat the people I care about with love and respect. I treat them that way because they deserve it. Because everyone deserves it. I grew up in a wooden house, with a family made of fire. They made the house go up in flames; their words burned it to the ground. But I had a choice. I could be like them, but I chose to be different. I choose to love.