Jennifer Meyer
technical writing
contact me


It’s four o’clock when the phone rings, right on time, and I wake as if I’ve never slept. Heartbeat pulsing in my ears, I grab the phone before the second ring. “Yeah,” I answer, my voice low, almost reverent.

I reach for Kate’s hand under the covers. Her fingers clutch mine and she looks through the dark at me, her eyes searching. “Fifteen minutes,” I say when I hang up, then click on the bedside lamp.
She is trembling, her breath shallow, and I know if I falter she’ll crumble. We rise from bed like rigid ghosts, slipping into yesterday’s clothes, brushing teeth in the dim light from the bedroom. I don’t want to see myself in the mirror. Don’t want to catch her eyes in the reflection.

The hallway floor is ice, even through my socks. The living room lit only by the colored lights on the Christmas tree. Presents encircle it, a few unwrapped from the night before, paper still wadded on the floor.

We perch on sofa cushions and wait. There’s nothing to say. Too much to say. Kate’s face is pale and fearful. Eyes so wide they could swallow the moon. She presses her fingers to her mouth. I lean forward, elbows to knees, and jiggle my legs, until I can’t sit any longer.

We put on coats and go to the driveway to watch for them. Outside the air is brittle, the sky still with winter stars. A frozen quiet. Ours the only house with a light. I shift from one slippered foot to another, clench my arms against my chest. My breath furls in gray crystal clouds. Finally, I hear a car, half a mile away, its studded tires drumming the bare pavement. We peer down the street until headlights round the corner.

It’s a white SUV, mottled with snow-dirt. The man and woman who emerge are a mismatched pair. He is short and burly, dark-skinned black. She is pale and wispy with a sympathetic smile.
When we bring them inside, I hush the dog and wonder if Jesse has heard the barking, the car doors slamming. Then I remember that he wakes for nothing anymore. There isn’t a clock alarm he doesn’t sleep through. Besides, I slipped him a sleeping pill with his meds last night, just to make sure he stayed put.

Riley, our golden retriever, escorts us to the living room, bumping our legs with full-body wags. The stuffed toy in his mouth only slightly muffles his persistent whining.

Kate and I sit like attentive schoolchildren on the couch while Denny goes over the details. We’ll wake Jesse up. Introduce Denny and Mary and say that they are here to take him to a program. We will exit quickly and go to our bedroom. We will turn on the radio, lock the door and stay there. They will call us from the road.

Denny is all business. He asks about firearms and knives. “Anything in Jesse’s room that could be used as a weapon?” Years as a Marine sergeant have ravaged his vocal chords, and he speaks in a graveled whisper. Godfather without the accent. But his eyes are kind and he has assured me his methods are gentle. “The goal is to complete the transport without any physical contact, and ninety percent of the time, kids go without a fight.” He leans closer to us as if about to share trade secrets. “Timing is the thing, see. That’s why we come when we do. Most the time, kids’ll be so groggy and out of it, they’re sitting in the car with their seatbelt on before they even wake up enough to get what’s going on.”

“I know how hard this is,” Mary says, but one look tells me she’s never had a child. She’s not much more than one herself. She lays a hand on Riley’s wide silky head, quieting his whines. “I’m sure Jesse will be fine. Denny might look scary at first, and it’s clear he’s not to be messed with. But he’s Mr. Nice Guy with the kids. They all think he’s cool.”

Denny slaps his thighs and rises, and we take the cue. I put Riley in the bedroom and come out with a Zip-Lock baggie full of prescription bottles, and an envelope of signed forms that I hand to Mary. That’s all that goes with him. Everything else, from underwear to sleeping bag, will be supplied.

Kate hands Denny a stack of folded clothes for the ride: Polarfleece sweatpants, flannel boxers, wool socks, an AIDS Ride for Life tee shirt, and Jesse’s favorite Oregon sweatshirt. It will all be bagged when he gets there, but she handpicked and washed each item as if it were the last thing she would ever do for him.

Jesse doesn’t stir when we open his door. The room still smells of pot from the night before, when he was too far gone to even try to hide it. The hall light catches on the disarray: inflated popcorn bags spilling onto the carpet, dishes of half-eaten Spaghettios, soda cans, uncased CDs, all scattered across the floor. For once, I’m not embarrassed. Don’t feel compelled to apologize. This is the place we have come to.

I’m the one who wakes him, glad now for the tenacious slumber that buys me a few precious seconds. I sit on the edge of his bed and run my fingers through his unruly black hair, freshly washed at our insistence last night. Kate kneels on the floor beside me, and for a moment, he is ours again. I cup his soft, pale cheek, and he doesn’t flinch.

“Jesse.” My voice begs love. One eye opens and he squints and moans sleepily. He looks from me to Kate, then twists toward the light, the silhouettes in the doorway. In an instant he is sitting upright. “Jesse, this is Denny and Mary,” I explain quickly. “They’re with a program.”

Jesse frowns at us and for one long moment, I wait for his reaction, girded for anger, terror, tears. But he asks only, “Are they going to take me away?” My voice catches when I answer. “Yes.”
He slumps back down on the bed, knees to chest, and pulls the covers over his bare, skinny shoulder. At sixteen, he’s still so small. He stares forward, vacant, resigned. Kate sniffles behind me, and Denny steps forward.

“I love you, Jesse.” Through the blanket, I wrap my fingers around his arm. I want to explain, to remind him of all that has brought us to this, to tell him that this is not punishment, it’s the help he needs. But I remember Denny’s instructions, the warnings not to engage. I give his elbow a quick squeeze. “We’re going upstairs now. Denny will help you get ready.” I step away so Kate can say goodbye.

When we leave the room, Mary is standing in the hallway. Denny has crouched next to the bed, and his voice is friendly. “Hey, man. How you doing?”

I linger at the doorway, unwilling to leave until I see Jesse’s response. “I’m good,” he answers, and the confidence in his voice surprises me. He swings his feet to the floor and pushes the hair out of his eyes while he looks around the room.

“I gotta tell you, man. You don’t look so good.”

And Jesse actually laughs. He shakes his head and says, “No, probably not.”

I see how this works now. It’s the cool dude connection. Whether it’s bravado or fear or true camaraderie, Jesse will go peacefully so as not to lose face, because it’s all good, man.
Behind our bedroom door, Kate wrings her hands and paces the floor like a character in a poor melodrama. I turn on the clock radio and crouch in front of the wall heater. Let the hot air blow over me until the wool of my sweater smells scorched. But it doesn’t quell the shivering below my skin. Doesn’t thaw this clump of ice in my chest.

Who would do this? Send their youngest away two days before Christmas, transported by strangers in the night? Sentence him to thirty days and nights in the high desert snow?
Not us, surely. We were the parents who let a gift certificate to a bed and breakfast expire because we couldn’t bear to leave our little ones overnight. Who found ways to live on one income so we wouldn’t have to put the boys in daycare. Who walked our children to school every morning and stood waiting by the gate at 3:00.

Riley pushes his muzzle into my shoulder, whining again. I wrap my arm around his neck and pull him close, shush him in a low voice.

There is an unfamiliar noise and Kate clicks off the radio, stands by the door. It sounds like keening, or a distant dog howling. “He’s crying,” she says and presses her palms to her heart, eyes filling. But I hear it again and step closer, listening.

“No,” I shake my head. “It’s whistling.”

Kate presses her ear to the door, and we can hear them moving up the stairway now. It must be Denny, warbling a bold, slow song in a baritone whistle. Kate and I exchange cautious relief. Could it be this easy? No fight? No tears? No pleading for another chance?

Only after we hear the front door close do we venture out of hiding, edging down the hall like timid stowaways. I wait until headlights sweep across the front windows before I rest my forehead on the glass, watching red lights receding in a cloud of fumes.

Then comes the silence. Voluminous silence that drums my ears and pushes at my throat. It’s a silence that will dog me for months to come. Follow me from room to room, mocking the starkness of my life.

Kate’s chin presses into my shoulder and I reach behind me for her hand. I turn, eventually, and fold into the circle of her arms. It’s safe to cry now, but neither of us do.

© Jennifer Meyer. To reprint, please ask for permission.

Back to Essays


Tribute Web Design