“Silas, can you please give the baby his bottle? And Jeremy, stop aggravating your brother!” Silas sighed and dug underneath the plastic baby seat, looking for his two-month-old brother’s bottle. He hadn’t wanted to go on this “family” trip. He was twelve years old and on Christmas break and he’d wanted to spend time with his friends, going sledding and building snowmen. Instead, he was packed into the family Packard with his five-year-old brother Jeremy, who lived to taunt the three-year-old Neil, and a two-month-old baby brother who never stopped crying, on their way to “sunny” California and two weeks at his aunt and uncle’s house. Beyond the pain of knowing this torture was going to go on for at least a week before they even got there, the car kept sliding on ice and every time it did, his anxious mother would say, “Ray, keep it between the lines.” His father, Ray, would light another cigarette each time and say:
“Doing my best, dear.” The family had only been on the road for two hours, but to twelve-year-old Silas, it already seemed like days. He wasn’t even looking forward to that sun his mother kept promising either. Who the hell wants to spend Christmas some place where there’s no snow? Silas chuckled at the use of the word “hell” in his thoughts. His mother would stuff one of those pieces of lye soap in his mouth if she knew he was even thinking a bad word. She carried little slivers of them around in her purse, just in case he forgot and yelled one out. She was always telling him he was the oldest, so he had to set a good example for his brothers. Problem was, Silas hadn’t asked to be the oldest, and he damned sure didn’t want to be an example for anyone. He just wanted to be a kid and have a little fun.
“Silas! Why is he still crying?”
“I don’t know, Ma. He doesn’t want the bottle.” Silas was trying to stuff it in the baby’s mouth, but the little booger just kept clamping his pouty lips shut tight, and milk was running out all over his chin.
His mother sighed. She acted like the baby didn’t cry all the time, and this was Silas’s fault. Silas was seven when Jeremy was born and nine by the time Neil was born, and he didn’t remember either of them crying all the time the way little Billy did. Silas was sure the baby was broken, and he thought maybe it was because his mother hadn’t had him in a hospital like she did the other boys. Silas didn’t know much about the birthing process, but his mom had the last one in their home, with the help of someone she called a “midwife.” She had announced to them all one day that it was time and when the midwife got there they had disappeared into the other room. His mother had left them in the living room with a smile…but then for the next ten or twelve hours, the sounds that came out of her room were terrifying. Silas’s dad had finally convinced him she wasn’t dying and he’d fallen asleep at last, only to be woken up by the sound of a baby’s screams. After a few weeks of no sleep thanks to all the noise the baby made, and the sounds of his mother crying, Silas was sure that they were both broken and instead of wishing for things like a dirt bike or BMX like other boys his age, Silas got on his knees every night and simply prayed for one full night’s sleep.
“Ray, maybe we should pull over. Maybe he needs to be changed.” Silas sought out his father’s face in the rearview mirror. His father never argued with his mother, ever. Most of his replies to her involved “Yes, dear,” or “No, dear.” But Silas had come to learn the nature of the looks in his father’s green eyes, and at that moment he was sure the old man was thinking the same thing Silas was…there was no hope that changing him would stop him from screaming. It was just what Bobby did. He was broken.
“Okay, dear,” Ray Marsh said to his wife, “as soon as I can find a safe place.”
Silas’ father drove on, and Bobby continued to scream. Silas saw his mother dig in her purse and finally find what she was looking for, the little bottle of pills the doctor gave her, the ones she called “Mommy’s little helper.” She popped one into her mouth and swallowed it dry and for the next hour the toddlers fought, the baby screamed, Mom dozed on and off, and Silas felt like he was going to die, while Ray Marsh looked for a “safe place” to stop the car. It was only after the baby had blessedly cried himself to sleep and the toddlers had both passed out that Ray looked into the rearview mirror at his oldest son and said, “I think we missed our turn.”
Shit. Shit. Shit, was what the twelve-year-old was thinking. That meant they’d have to turn around and add another hour to their already excruciatingly long trip. To his father he said, “You want me to look at the map?” Ray Marsh was a quiet, docile man and sometimes that bothered his son. He’d always wished for a tough-guy father like his friends had…one that wouldn’t say “Yes, dear” to save his life. But Silas did count himself lucky that he had a father who was so good with his hands and things like instructions and directions. At twelve years old Silas could read a map like a pro, he knew all of his directions, and had already learned how to do most of the household repairs. What he was most proud of was his mechanical abilities though. By the time he was ten years old, the boy could practically dismantle an entire engine and almost put it back together himself. The almost was mostly just about the fact that he was small and skinny for his age, and not as strong as some other twelve-year-olds might be. But Silas was determined to fix that. He spent many of those sleepless hours since Bobby was born doing pushups and anything else he could think of to try and build up those overly lean muscles in his arms.
“It’s okay, Buddy, I’ve got it,” his dad said, reaching across Silas’ still sleeping mother for the glove compartment. He flipped it open and the map fell out on the floor.Silas saw his father’s head disappear after one more glance at the road, and watched him blindly reach around on the floor, trying to retrieve the map. With a tickle in the pit of his belly, Silas decided he’d rather watch the road. It was only seconds before the car was sliding off to the side where six feet of snow sat like a brick wall, just waiting for them to slam into it.
“Just a second, Buddy, I got it…” Silas had spoken just as he barely caught sight of the tree, doused and camouflaged as it was in the white snow. He wouldn’t really remember later, but he thought he might have screamed as the car made its way right toward it. Ray tried to sit back up but hit his head underneath the dash and then everything happened so fast that to Silas it like watching a movie screen through a blizzard. The car slammed into the tree and Silas and his toddler brothers were thrown into the tall backs of the seats in front of them. Neil ended up in the floor, and Jeremy hit his head on the window before bouncing back into the seat. They were both screaming, and Bobby was awake again and screaming as well. The baby’s seat was the only thing strapped in, and Bobby was strapped into it, so he didn’t go anywhere, but the glass that shattered when their mother flew through the windshield sprayed him like a water hose and the baby’s little bare arms and face were bleeding. Silas hadn’t seen his mother’s body leave the car, but he was able to see his father, crushed under the dash, and bleeding from every visible orifice, through the wisps of smoke pouring out from the vents and filling the car. Silas felt like he couldn’t breathe, but he was frozen, in shock maybe, and he couldn’t move. He barely heard his father’s weak, pitiful voice whisper, “The engine is on fire, Silas. You need to get your brothers out, and as far away from the car as you can,” before he even realized how serious their situation was.
Silas still sat in a daze, listening to the chaos in the car around him and trying to breathe through all the smoke for several seconds, until his old man spoke again. This time there was something in his voice that Silas had never heard…authority. “Damn it, Silas! Get your brothers out of this car, now! You keep them safe, Silas! You listen to me…keep them safe!”
Ray Marsh issuing an order, even to his son, was an oddity. It was so unheard of that it snapped Silas into motion. He unhooked the belt that was holding the baby in his seat and then reached across his still crying brothers and with all his might, he pushed on the passenger side back door until it opened. “Get out!” he yelled at Jeremy. The five-year-old was sobbing and muttering things that were unintelligible. The three-year-old was crying softly and gripping onto his older brother with both hands. Silas saw that Neil wasn’t going to be able to comply, so he put his feet up on the seat, and used them to nudge both of his little brothers out the door, into the deep, freezing cold snow. Then like an acrobat, finally with an appreciation of how small and wiry he was, he held onto little Bobby tightly, and leapt out himself.
The snow was so deep that three-year-old Neil was practically lost in it. With one hand gripping the baby, Silas took hold of the back of Neil’s coat and dragged the toddler behind them as he made his way through the deep snow, yelling at Jeremy to follow. Moving through the snow, around the trees and with frozen legs and feet was like swimming in quicksand, but the only time Silas stopped was to yell at Jeremy and urge him forward. Silas didn’t know how far they’d gotten before the explosion happened. Debris from the car was dropping from the sky all around them and the four little boys huddled together and watched with horror in their eyes. Silas realized when it was all over that they had something to be thankful for; pieces of the Packard were lying on top of the mounds of snow, burning like a bonfire, and giving the boys some much needed warmth.
Silas tried not to look back at the car, but he couldn’t help himself. It was a ball of fire, and the twelve-year-old had to fight the urge to run back to it and try to pull his father out. He was old enough to know that there was no way Ray Marsh could have made it out of that alive though, so he forced his thoughts to his mother. He positioned the boys about three feet from one of the biggest pieces of burning debris and then pushed the baby into Jeremy’s pudgy arms. “You watch him, hold him tight, and don’t put him down. Neil, you stay back from that fire. Y’all hear me?” When neither of the boys spoke, Silas yelled, “You hear me?” They both nodded, still sobbing and shaking. Silas didn’t know if he’d be too late, and if he wasn’t, how a skinny kid who weighed less than seventy pounds was going to help an injured and slightly overweight grown woman…but he had to try. He couldn’t leave his mother on the road, or in the snow, or wherever her body had landed when it was shot like a gun through the windshield. He looked at his brothers one last time and said, “Be good, boys. I’ll be right back with Ma and then figure out a way to get us outta here before we freeze to death.” Silas hadn’t wanted to be the big brother, to be a good example, or to take care of anyone but himself. But that day he was forced to realize that in life, what you wanted was rarely what you got.