Jeff was the black sheep of the three. He was born between his sister, Diane, and his brother, Matt, and was cursed with middle-hood. He played referee in their fights that were usually caused by each of their curses. Diane was always right, leading the way; with Matt always the rebel, fighting the system. Siblings create identities for one another, more so than parenting does. These three were no exception to this rule, but they didn’t fit the mold. Mom was bipolar and dad was a lazy brute. Jeff’s middle-hood didn’t only exist between his siblings.
Diane hated Jeff for his martyrdom, but mainly, she despised his efforts to take on what she felt was her role, the lead child, the protector of the sibling flock, the parent in the absence of parents. Jeff didn’t try taking on the leadership or parenting roles from her, but he continually tried protecting them from mom and dad. Diane responded by making her own way; leading by example she would say, “You don’t need to take the punishments, just work hard to make it out of here.” Jeff couldn’t listen to her. His curse was too ingrained, his life too melancholy. But he would make it out of there, even before she would.
Matt laughed at his older brother and despised the weakness in him. He heeded his sister’s advice, but lacked her morality.
For all their troubles and pains, they had a decent connection between them. At times, they were great friends to each other, in spite of all their fights. The bonds were tight, but breakable, and this was the case when all three were in high school: Diane a senior, Jeff a sophomore, and Matt a freshman.
Matt came home from an afternoon after school in which he’d been hanging with his friends. They were a crew like him, up to no good, but not hurting others or the world, they thought. He had this day off from his after school job; he’d been working since the sixth grade at the local hardware shop. Diane came home after her extracurricular activities that included an eighth class for Honors English and basketball practice. Jeff sat alone in his room for the hours after school they were away, excited about the first date of his life.
Suddenly, a scream, a male-holler came from down the hall and the floor shook as the large figure came slamming on his door. “Downstairs! Now!” This was repeated on Matt and Diane’s doors as well. Diane was about to shower, dressed in her robe. Matt was counting his money, and the stacks of change fell over on his desk with the vibrations of the house.
Money was missing. Someone had taken fifty dollars from mom’s secret hiding place. The place wasn’t very secret. All three kids knew where it was. Mom had shown them. In case dad ever… Wait, mom wasn’t here. Only dad.
The three sat without looking at him or one another. He was ranting; mainly so she could hear him from upstairs - tucked away in her bed, fake tears rolling down her cheeks. He would put on a show and find the culprit. His mane extended, his chest puffed, his stomach tucked – he would police the pride.
Jeff knew already how this would go. Diane was the good one. Matt was the bad one. However, money was missing and Matt had a job. Diane wouldn’t steal. He had no character of his own. He had no job, no track record to point to, and was starting to date. Why wait for a confession that won’t happen? Why delay the inevitable blame and risk this tirade’s actions through completion? On any other day, he wouldn’t risk it, he’d take the blame, get banished to his room, then look his mother in the eye hours later discovering her to be the culprit, and rediscover his impotence to challenge her and more importantly his impotence to heal her. But not on this day! He had his first date coming in one hour. He was willing to risk it.
Matt and Diane expected Jeff to be the martyr. Either he was guilty or he’d play the role. As time progressed, each started getting more and more uncomfortable. Why wasn’t he stopping this? Diane finally had her moment to go between this beast and her siblings. She had already paused too long.
“None of us did it. Quit boasting around here and threatening us!” she demanded.
She knew now how hard of a role this was to play. Fear raced into her throat. Her cheeks flinched, expecting a backhand they had never received in seventeen years of life. But, the father held back his follow-through. She’d taken him off guard. He focused on Jeff.
“You. You don’t have money. What are you using to go on this date tonight? Where’d you get the money?” He expected an answer - a confession.
Jeff didn’t give him one. He was going to be silent this time. He was making this date.
“Fine. If none of you confesses, even though we know who did it – you’re all grounded until the money shows up. Nobody leaves this house!” He stormed away, chest puffed, back to his queen for praise.
Diane turned to Jeff. “Did you do it?”
Jeff replied, staring her plainly in the face, “No. And I only have thirty bucks for my date tonight. I can’t fix this one.”
“Fix this one,” she was angry, “You don’t have to fix any of them. I’ve only got forty on me. I didn’t take it either. You guys know that.”
Matt jumped in. “I’ve got a couple hundred, but I’m not giving it to them. You guys know mom’s full of it. Nobody stole from her. I’m not giving them my money.”
Jeff and Diane knew he was lying, not about the theft, but about how much he had. He wanted to be strong, partly because Jeff wasn’t, partly because dad was. Like both Jeff and his father, Matt was broke.
Jeff inserted, “I’m going on my date.”
“How? Unless we get him the fifty, we’re grounded.”
“I don’t care. I’m going.”
So it was decided, they would not cough up the money. Not one for all or all for one – they were all simply grounded. It came time for Jeff to leave for his date. He slipped out the window, round the back yard, to the street, opened his car door, inserted the key, and left.
He had a terrific time for three hours until he dropped her off.
He spent the next eight hours driving around, taking naps on the side of the road, and simply being away until dad would be gone for work on Saturday morning. Exhausted, but happy, he returned to the street parking spot he’d left the night before around seven o’clock. Dad never missed work. He didn’t check the garage. He should have.
Upon entering the front door, he didn’t notice the brief case still there. He should have. He didn’t notice the coffee mug still smoking on the table. He should have. His mind sung songs of love and his eyes were blinded. He reached the top of the steps, turned to his door, turned the handle and walked into his bedroom. The lion leaped at him and lifted him from the ground by his neck. His toes wriggled in their shoes searching for ground, his hands wrapped around the beasts’ arm for support. The firing rage in those beady green eyes spilled fear into the object it held. Threats were shouted, demands were made, judgment had come, and he smacked the ball cap from his son’s head with his free hand. He dropped him. Jeff’s feet didn’t support him, but his knees caught him. Bowed, as if worshipping the lion, but really worshipping oxygen, Jeff finally caught the images around him. As his father’s feet crushed through the hallway and vibrated the second floor, knocking his framed family photo from the desk, he saw two bags stuffed with his clothes.
He walked to them and picked them up, straps over his shoulders. He walked back to the door, stooped to pick up his hat and the picture frame by it. He held them both in his right hand. Diane came to his door. He moved the hat to his right hand and placed it on his head, the brim far down to shade his watered eyes. He gazed into the photo, then stretched it forward to her, placing it into her stomach. He walked out of the house forever.
Or so he thought it was forever. Five years later, the lion died of a heart attack and the lioness was shivering under her bed sheets of despair. He came home for the funeral, and after many discussions with Diane, had agreed to stay in his former room. The home sickened him. Turning that handle to walk his travel bags into his former room, he paused, fearful of being lunged at. “He’s dead now.” He opened it and nothing happened. He almost wished something had.
Funerals bring stories.
The lioness was made to look perfect, and she walked around like a shadow amongst others. The look through or beyond them was forgiven due to circumstances although it wasn’t circumstances that caused this look. They had no real friends between them, but the children’s friends’ parents were kind enough to show. The home was filled with young adults and their parents. The parents would leave early. The kid’s friends would linger. As the adults departed, Jeff walked his mom to her coffin of satin and tucked her in without a word. She hadn’t said hello to him in the six chances over the recent day that he’d been home, and had not heard him in the first three when he spoke. He tucked her in and walked away when she finally spoke.
“You didn’t take it, did you?”
Jeff stopped, but didn’t turn to her. “Mom, let’s not do this. It was years ago.”
“And all this time you were innocent.”
“You knew that for five years and didn’t do anything.”
“He’s not here anymore. It can be different now.”
Now, Jeff turned.
“Different! Nothing’s different!” He stormed out, slamming the door with a roar, his mane flared.
Jeff went to the kitchen and grabbed his father’s favorite beverage from the bottom shelf, popped open the can, and sat with friends that weren’t his. Matt sat with his buddies, four of them, and not one of them was sober. They reeked of much more than alcohol. They were “remembering the time when”…
“Remember that time when your car backfired and Mrs. Johnson dropped her lasagna all over the sidewalk?”
Jeff thought to himself after seventeen or so similar “remembers”, “Matt has the worst friends.” He turned his attention to the living room and Diane’s friends sprawled out on couches and throw pillows. There were twelve of them. One of them looked very familiar. Was that her? Was that his love? His one and only date? Was that her sitting there, smiling with Diane? They’d hardly talked in five years, but she hadn’t mentioned her to him. He’d never talked to Matt, but guys just don’t need to. That’s why he could sit down at this table and not on that couch. At the table, they continued talking as if he wasn’t there. They were talking to Matt and one another; his presence was meaningless. The girl turned. She was more beautiful than before. He caught her eye - the moment was shared - when his ears interrupted.
“Remember that time we stole that fifty bucks from your mom to buy a bag and you got grounded for a week. You were such a crybaby about it too. ‘C’mon guys, we gotta pay it back.’ You nagged about that for a whole month. We finally get you the money and then your dad lets you keep it. He must’ve been a cool pops, Matt. Cheers to Matt’s pops.”
So they raised their glasses to honor the man, the wonderfully fallen father of three and provider to a mourning wife. Matt’s eyes fell deep into his lap, then he snuck a glimpse at Jeff. Jeff’s eyes fell deep into Matt’s, and spilled fear into the objects they held.
Jeff raised his beer, his eyes never leaving Matt’s, and spoke in a booming voice that forced all ears to listen, “Yes, good man, good man, let’s honor the lion. My brother, let’s honor him. Let us lift our glass to that tame lion that let you keep the money! Lift your glass with me.”
Matt would not pick up his glass at first, his brother’s stare still burned into his mind. Then he noticed his surroundings, the four friends staring at him strangely with some discomfort about his brother, and himself now in the middle. He stood and raised his glass. He could not bear to speak.
“Cheers to the lion!” Jeff shouted, and the men drank like desert camels. They slammed down their emptied cans on the table top, proud of their achievement, chests puffed out, stomachs tucked, life in their eyes.