Matthew sat on the scratched and scarred wood of his bedroom floor, tape dispenser gripped between his dimpled fingers. There was no preschool today, so he had been left to his own devices. He was still in his pajamas, which were just a tad bit too small for him, and his brown curls were tousled and leaning against his forehead. His face was screwed up in concentration, tongue hugging the corner of his mouth, as he busied himself with the task of decorating his bedroom door with copious amounts of the clear scotch tape he had found on the coffee table downstairs.
There was no one around to tell him to stop. David would have, if he were home, but he was sitting at his elementary school desk several miles away. Momma was asleep after a late night out with friends; and Matthew didn’t really know his father. For him, the word “Dad” was attached to packages that showed up in the mail on Christmas and birthdays – and little else. David remembered Matthew’s father, but Matthew didn’t.
David was Matthew’s brother – Matthew’s half-brother really. He was small for his age and skinny, with mouse-colored hair and large blue eyes that, if he had been home, would have been quick to discover Matthew’s indiscretion and quick to correct it. He was only seven, but he noticed things.
Momma, on the other hand, never noticed much. Wrapped in her own little world, she moved from house to house, from boyfriend to boyfriend, from job to job. She liked late nights and avoided early mornings. She loved to sing, clear-throated and carefree. When she was in a good mood, she would dance around the living room, grasping the boy’s hands and swinging them around the carpet. David loved Momma – but he also knew that something was wrong somewhere, and he was troubled.
In the morning, Momma liked to sleep in, so it was David who would get himself and Matthew ready for school. He would pull a stool up to the kitchen counter to get the cereal from the high shelves. He would help Matthew get dressed and then hold his hand as they waited for the school bus. Momma would be there when they got home, full of smiles, but when evening came, she often slipped away to be with friends. So David would put Matthew to bed, first making sure that he scrubbed his face and hands with the blue washcloth that hung next to the sink and brushed his teeth with his red dinosaur toothbrush. They shared a bedroom, so when the lights had been turned out and they had both climbed into bed, David would tell Matthew bedtime stories. Some were stories that he had heard at school, and some were ones that he made up out of his own head. Rocket ships and dragons…dogs that could talk and cowboys who rode horses into the sunset. He told Matthew stories the same way that Matthew’s dad, Jason, used to tell him stories.
David had loved Jason. Momma had met Jason at the repair shop where he had fixed her car. He had a contagious laugh and hands that knew how to work. He would get up early in the morning to help David onto the bus and would sit at his bedside and read books to him at night until he fell asleep. When Matthew came along, Jason had wanted to marry Momma – asked her more than once, but she always said no, much to Grandma’s exasperation. David had heard Momma and Grandma talking in the kitchen one day.
“Jenny, Jason is a real good man – the kind that’ll take care of you and the boys.”
“I know,” Momma had said, “but I don’t want to have a husband to worry about all the time. The kids are enough of a burden as it is.”
David had gone to school the next day and asked his teacher to explain this mystery – this word “burden” – to him. The answer had dropped a seed of worry in his stomach that never went away.
After a while, right around Matthew’s first birthday, Jason left, taking his laughter and his stories with him. David cried bitterly for days until one sunny Sunday when Momma plunked her coffee cup down on the table in exasperation.
“David! Would you stop crying? Jason wasn’t your Daddy after all.”
David had swallowed his tears and left the room. Momma poured the rest of her coffee down the sink and sighed, a twinge of guilt stirring in her stomach. She knew how much David had liked Jason…but, well, Jason had just expected too much of her, that was all. She wasn’t a “settle down” kind of girl. She didn’t want that kind of life. She loved David, in her way, but she didn’t understand him. He was much too serious for a child.
So, from then on, whenever David missed Jason, he would swallow his tears until bedtime, when he would curl up on the floor of his closet to muffle the noise and sob brokenly. No, Jason wasn’t his Daddy (David wouldn’t know his own Daddy if he passed him on the street), but he had loved him just the same.
It was a long time before a knock on the door or the ringing of the phone stopped bringing a leap of hope to David’s throat. Surely, Jason would come back…but, after a few initial visits to little Matthew, he never did. Jason had met someone new, someone who did not like constant reminders of another child from a woman who was not her. And Jason did not like being reminded of what a fool he had been…so the visits stopped. Jason knew he was wrong, but tried to sooth his guilt by sending child support and presents. Nevertheless, there were times when Jason would get up in the middle of the night and sit at his kitchen table with his head in his hands, hating himself, because he knew he was a coward.
And David was left crying in the dark. But he was determined that his little brother Matthew should not know these tears – that Matthew should not feel the ache of something missing – of something terribly wrong – that he did. So he took care of Matthew the way that Jason had taken care of him, and tried to stop his anxieties from drifting into his laughter or the bedtime stories that he shared with Matthew at night.
So Matthew grew, knowing little of David’s struggles. He was young…and merely knew that he loved David with his stories that created new worlds, and his Momma with the voice that filled his afternoons with song. And he loved discovering new things – like this tape dispenser. So, sleeping Momma below and David safe at school, he tore more and more tape from the dispenser and stuck it to the door.
Five years later, a girl with long dark braids picked bits of tape off of the bottom of a bedroom door in an empty rental and wondered who in the world would stick this much tape on their door and for what reason…
…Several miles away, in a new town, David and Matthew walked home from school. Older, taller, David was still thin and his blue eyes were still just as serious and piercing. He had changed though – the confusion behind his eyes and the worry in the pit of his stomach had grown into something new. He no longer wondered what was missing or what was wrong; he understood things better now. The confusion and the worry had been replaced with other things…things that did not belong in someone so young…anger…resentment…bitterness. There was a certain dip in the eyebrows and a crease across the forehead that ought not to have been there.
He still liked discovering new things, and his face still screwed up into a tongue-hugging twist when he was tackling a problem at school. But there was no anger or resentment or burden of constant worry in his eyes. Instead, there was always a quiet hope…
because he knew…
no matter what Momma was doing…
no matter how many houses he lived in…
no matter what new boyfriend might be knocking at the door…
he would always have…