When his mother leaves with the father of his worst enemy at school, nine-year-old Jeremy seeks to make sense of her abandonment. He throws himself into recreating the Book of Birds, a collection of drawings that his mother took with her on the day she left. While his father fights his own depression and his sister distances herself from their lives, Jeremy turns wholeheartedly to nature, and finds solace in the quiet comfort of drawing.
In this novel, James Prosek tells Jeremy's story without blame, without self-pity, and without excuses. The Day My Mother Left should be read by anyone who has gone through the pain of losing a parent, and by anyone who wants to meet Jeremy, a boy who can see inside himself the person he wants to become.
|Publisher:||Simon & Schuster Books For Young Readers|
|Product dimensions:||5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.80(d)|
|Age Range:||12 - 17 Years|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
1. I was tired of waiting up. We had baseball tryouts all afternoon, and my muscles ached from running around the field. I sat at my desk drawing a bird and almost fell asleep with the pencil in my hand. Then I heard the car pull up and the garage door close.
I switched off my desk lamp and got in bed under the cool sheets. The spring night was warm enough that I could leave my window open. Outside I heard the peeper frogs singing in the pond. It was raining, the type of rain that brought thunder. A wind blew a whoosh sound through the window screen.
The door slammed, and my mom and dad walked into the kitchen. Dad dropped his car keys and wallet in the top drawer by the fridge. Mom hung up her jacket in the hall closet. Before I fell asleep I hoped to tell her tryouts had gone well. As with every night, I would not let myself go to bed until she came into my room, kissed me on the cheek, and said, "Good night, sweet dreams, Jeremy I love you." But tonight my dad was angry.
"Phoebe!" he yelled.
"Leave me alone, Carl."
"No, I won't leave you alone."
Mom's footsteps approached the stairs. Dad's followed, harder and louder. Then crash.
"Oh my God," Mom screamed.
"I didn't mean to it was an accident," my dad said.
"No," she said. "No, it wasn't."
"What did I do to deserve this?" my dad yelled. "How was I supposed to know you were unhappy?"
"You should have paid attention."
I folded my blankets down and stood at the edge of my bed. My chest felt hot and tight, and I held my breath. I tiptoed to the top of the stairs where I could see what had broken. The blue and white plate that hung in our hallway lay in pieces on the floor.
I closed my eyes and saw the empty spot where the plate had been, the wallpaper blotched with water stains. The plate reminded me of the polished inside of a shell. It had belonged to my mom's mom and had traveled from the apartment where my mom grew up in Prague, Czechoslovakia.
"So, maybe it wasn't an accident," my dad yelled. "Now there's nothing left to remind you of your miserable childhood." I saw his hand reach across the floor as he bent down to pick up a piece of the plate.
"What are you saying?" my mom screamed, crying. "That I didn't suffer?"
"No," he said. "I'm not saying anything. Nothing at all."
There was silence and the sound of the rain falling again. The fight seemed to be over. I took a deep breath, tiptoed back to my room, and got in bed. My head sunk deep in the pillow. My eyes burned from being tired. I couldn't stay awake.
Will things be okay if she doesn't kiss me good night?
The rain and the peeper frogs sang me to sleep.
Hours later, while it was still dark, I woke up to the sound of thunder.
Was it a dream?
What if it wasn't?
I got out of bed and shuffled down the stairs to the kitchen. On the way I passed the bare spot on the wall where the plate used to hang. Under the kitchen sink, on top of the garbage, lay the shards of blue and white porcelain. I picked out the pieces, collected them in my shirt, and carried them upstairs. I hid them in the bottom of my sock drawer.
The next morning, at sunup, I grabbed my lunch and my book bag and caught the school bus. My dad had left earlier than usual for work. Both my mom and my sister, Julie, were gone too.
The bus ride was quiet, and I was nervous. Not first day of school nervous, or baseball tryouts nervous, or when I talked to a girl nervous. It was a different nervous, a kind I'd never felt. I was waiting for something to happen, but I didn't know what.
I looked for Josh in homeroom. My parents had been at his house the night before for a dinner party. Everything had been fine when they left for Josh's. Something must have happened there.
Josh sat at the desk next to me.
"You're wondering what happened, aren't you?" he asked.
"Yeah," I said. "Yes."
"Your mom was really loud and threw up on the table in the middle of dinner."
"On the table?" I asked, horrified. My stomach hurt, and I swallowed acid coming up from my throat.
"Yeah, it was pretty gross...I guess."
My mom threw up on the dinner table!
At first I felt better knowing. Adults got sick too, and sometimes they threw up. But then my mind played with the idea of my mom throwing up on the table in front of my friends' parents, acting loud and out of control, and I shuddered. Maybe she drank too much and made herself sick, like she did last New Year's. Is that why Dad was so angry?
I overheard students and teachers whispering about my mom in the halls, in the bathroom, in the classroom, by the lockers, in the gym, in the cafeteria at lunch.
Or was I imagining it?
During science class that afternoon, rain streaked down the windows, hammered against the pavement, tink-tinked on the orange school buses lining up to take us home. It fell so hard, it drowned out the teacher's voice.
After school, instead of going home, I took the bus to my friend Stephen's house. We threw our book bags in the garage, grabbed his dad's BB gun, and crossed the road into the neighbors' hay field. The ground was soaked from the hard rainfall earlier that day, and water seeped in through my canvas sneakers. But now the sun was out, and the grass was green. I was happy for a moment that it was April.
Stephen took a shot at an old can on a cedar post and missed. He put the gun under his arm to grab a tin of lead pellets out of his pocket. I stood nearby and watched him reload. I was there, but I wasn't really there. Questions burned.
Maybe Stephen knows something.
"Did your mom go to Josh's parents' party last night?" I asked.
"You mean, the party?" Stephen laughed.
I hung my head and covered my face with my hands.
"Natalie wasn't there," he said. Stephen was the only kid I knew who called his mother by her first name.
"So..." I hesitated. "How did you hear about it?"
"I overheard Natalie talking to Mrs. Filson, who heard it from Mrs. Boyd, who was there."
"God," I said, dropping to the ground. My knees sunk to the wet grass. "Everybody knows."
"So what?" he said, pumping the air gun. "Your mom threw up at dinner."
"So what?" I asked, getting up. I grabbed a rock and threw it as far as I could.
"It's not the end of the world," Stephen said.
"What did you hear at school?"
"You know," he said, "the same thing everyone else heard."
I picked up another rock and threw it at the old can. I wiped the mud from my hands on my pants.
"Look, Jeremy," he said.
We walked across the field to the pond, where wood frogs were quacking like ducks. The sun was warm, and the birds sang.
"Take a shot," Stephen said, handing me the gun.
I grabbed the gun, raised the wooden barrel to my cheek, and aimed at a bird sitting on a faraway telephone wire.
We heard the pop of the air gun and saw a puff of feathers against the blue sky. The bird dropped to the ground.
"Holy crap," Stephen said. "You hit it!"
"That's impossible," I said. "It's too far away."
We ran at full speed to the bird. It lay on the ground, a dark purple bruise on its breast.
"Lucky shot," Stephen said.
"Lucky?" I said. "I didn't mean to hit it. It was a mistake!"
I looked at the bird and thought I saw it moving, but it was just a breeze ruffling its soft feathers. I picked up the bird and cradled it in my hand. It was warm.
I wanted to keep it, maybe draw it, but the bird reminded me of all that had gone wrong. I didn't mean to kill it. I tossed it underhand into the brambles at the edge of the field and watched painfully as it got hung up in the thorns.
I reached in to grab the bird, but the thorns caught my jacket, and I had to fight my way out with my free hand. I dug a shallow hole in the ground with my heel and covered the bird with leaves.
"Come on, Jeremy," Stephen said. "Let's see what Natalie made for dinner."
As we walked back to the house across the field, a dark cloud covered the sun and a torrential rain began to fall. We ran to the garage, soaking wet, and sheltered under the eaves where it was dry. My wet clothes stuck to my skin.
"Where did that cloud come from?" Stephen said with his back to the wall, water dripping off his hair and down his forehead into his eyes. We went inside through the open garage door. Stephen put down the BB gun without wiping the water off the barrel, and stopped to feed his pet rabbit.
"Who left Roger's cage open?" Stephen asked as the rain pounded on the roof. "Natalie must have cleaned it again. He could've escaped. If he did, we'd find him and pow!" Stephen pretended to shoot his pet. "Dumb bunny," he laughed, holding out a piece of lettuce. "Your cage was open and you didn't even escape!"
I stood there watching. The rain made puddles outside the garage door.
"Do you think everyone at school knows?" I asked Stephen.
"You know. About my mom."
"What's the big deal, right?"
"I guess." Stephen shrugged.
The damp smell of sawdust in the rabbit's cage made me queasy.
"It's not that big a deal, is it?" I asked.
"No, not really."
"So why is it bothering me?"
Stephen was unusually quiet. He put down the lettuce and closed the cage door.
"Look, Jeremy," he said.
"That's not the whole story."
"What do you mean?" I started to shiver.
"It's bigger than you think," he said.
"What are you talking about?"
"We'll find out who he is," Stephen continued. "We'll blow up his mailbox or something."
And as Stephen told me everything he'd heard about my mom, and something else he'd witnessed by the baseball field one day, it became perfectly clear why my dad was so angry.
I didn't need to go home, and I didn't really want to. I had my mitt and my spikes for tryouts the next day and my books for school. I borrowed a pair of dry clothes from Stephen, and Natalie hung mine to dry. That night I slept on a mattress in Stephen's room. I tossed and turned, unable to clear my head. What was going to happen? I was worried about my mom, but also about the second round of tryouts the next afternoon. I'd be competing for an outfield position with my least favorite person at school, Evan Sullivan.
I would say I hated him, but my dad told me never to use that word. I disliked him a lot.
It started two years before in third grade when my mom gave me a jug bottle of wine to bring to school as a birthday gift for my teacher, Mrs. O'Connell. At recess, Evan stole my backpack and made me chase him around the swing set to get it back.
"What's in it?" he asked.
"None of your business."
"Feels heavy. Wonder if it'll break when I drop it."
"Don't you dare."
"Tell me what's in it and I won't."
"No," I said.
He swung it around his head like a lasso.
"Okay, okay!" I said. "It's a birthday present for Mrs. O'Connell."
"You geek," he said, and let go of my backpack, sending it high in the air. It went over the swing set bar, fell like a stone and hit the ground with a dull thud. A streak of brownish red liquid leaked through the canvas pack and down the pavement. A girl nearby screamed.
"Is that blood?" she yelled. "Oh my God, what's in there?"
Mrs. O'Connell heard the loud screams and came toward us.
I chased Evan, but he escaped into the gym.
"You sissy," I cried out.
"Jeremy, what's the matter?" asked Mrs. O'Connell.
"Evan broke it," I blurted out. "My mom's birthday gift for you."
Mrs. O'Connell examined the brownish liquid seeping out of my book bag and sniffed twice.
"Is that alcohol?" she asked.
"Jeremy, that's very thoughtful," she said, patting me on the shoulder. "I'll never forget you brought me this gift. But please...tell your mother you can't bring wine to school."
The custodian emptied my backpack of broken glass and rinsed off my textbooks, but I never was able to really get the smell out.
Since that day, every time I saw Evan, I wanted to strangle him. I dreamed about sticking a pencil in his hand, or in his eye. But we didn't run across each other much anymore, except at tryouts.
The afternoon was raw and cloudy. The coach lined all the players up by the backstop on the field and gave us a batting order. We took turns at the plate hitting balls the coach fed into a pitching machine. I made contact a few times, but not very well, and when I did, the bat stung in my hands. Then we had field tryouts.
Evan and I both had good arms, so we were sent with some other kids to try out for center field. If I made starting position in center, Evan would make my life miserable. But I didn't get the position that day. I'd probably end up playing right field most of the season, or sitting on the bench, but that was okay if it meant I could avoid Evan.
In school there was no contest. I usually got As. My parents didn't have to tell me to do my work. Teachers liked me, and Evan was on their bad list. I don't remember ever meeting Evan's mom. My mom said she was fat, that she'd let herself go. Evan's dad came to all our games and watched from the bleachers.
My own dad didn't watch baseball. He didn't know the game and didn't want to. He was born in Brazil, where soccer was the religion. So instead my mother came to watch me play.
The few times I had the chance to bat, I could hear my mother's voice screaming, "Go, Jeremy! Smack the ball!" I wish I had turned to see where she was sitting, or who was sitting with her. I was just glad that she was always there.
Most of the time I struck out, and when I returned to the dugout, Evan would take a bat and swing it like he was smacking a home run and say, "Go, Jeremy! Smack the ball!" Sometimes our teammates laughed. I even caught the coach smiling once. But they could all go to hell. I knew that when my mom said that, she meant it, which was more than you could say for the other parents who just showed up at the end of the game to pick up their kids.
"Jeremy," my mom said on our drive home from the game, "You are the first person I loved. Your sister came first, but she didn't want my love. She popped right out. When you were born, you struggled to stay in. You taught me what love was."
People thought my mom was strange for speaking exactly how she felt, but it made me feel special. I wasn't embarrassed when she cheered for me, but it bothered me when Evan called me a mama's boy.
That Friday after school we had our first game of the new season. When I grabbed a bat and headed for the plate I heard Evan say, "Let's go, Jeremy hit one for Mama." I turned. He made like he was sucking his thumb.
"I wouldn't talk that way to someone who has a bat in their hands," I threatened.
"The way you swing," he said, slapping his knee, "I'm not afraid."
"Boys!" the coach shouted. "Cut it out."
But when I got to the plate I didn't hear my mother shouting. I held the bat, my back elbow high, my feet planted in the dirt. I turned around to see if she was there. When I did, the ball hit me square in the back, and I got to run to first base.
After the game I stood outside the chain-link fence. I was happy. My white pants were dusty in the right places, a sign of my success. I'd slid into second and scored a run. But my mom hadn't seen any of it.
I sat next to the snack bar, under the tall pine trees. My stomach was growling. A silver sports car pulled up and a man stepped out.
"Jeremy," the man said, "I'm Mr. Sullivan. Your mother asked me to give you a ride home."
My stomach turned. Evan's dad? Why was he giving me a ride home?
Evan's voice came from behind me. "Dad, what are you doing talking to that geek?"
"Be quiet, Evan," Mr. Sullivan said, taking a steady breath. "I don't have the patience for your loud mouth right now. We're giving Jeremy a ride home. Grab your mitt."
Evan sat in the front seat next to his father, and neither of us said anything. I wasn't sure how Mr. Sullivan knew how to get to my house, but I was glad to get out of the car when he pulled into my driveway.
"Thank you," I said.
"Mom! Mom!" I shouted, walking into the kitchen. "I scored a run!"
"She's not home yet," my dad said, sitting in his reading chair in the living room, a book in his hands. "Go clean up for dinner."
I got undressed and took a bath, which I still did sometimes, even though I knew most kids my age took showers. Then I put on my pajamas and sat down to do my homework at the kitchen table.
When Mom came home, my father walked into the kitchen. He was angry again.
"Where have you been?"
"At school," Mom said, twisting her blond hair and fixing it in a bun with a pencil.
"You're three hours late. Why didn't you call?"
"I had papers to correct."
I thought she'd stop at the table as she passed, run her warm hands through my hair, kiss my forehead. But she didn't. She opened the cabinet, took out a pot, and started filling it with water.
Dad left the kitchen.
"Mom," I said.
She stared out the window. The water started flowing over the top of the pot.
"Mom!" I yelled.
She continued to stare.
"Mom," I yelled louder, "I scored a run!"
She turned off the water.
"That's great, Jeremy," she said.
The white around her blue eyes was red and glazed. She poured some of the water off the top and put it on the stove. She lit the stove with a match. "Clear your stuff off the table, Jeremy. The pasta will be done in a few minutes."
I began to collect my notebook and pencils, my textbooks.
It was a cold night, but the peepers were loud in the pond.
Mom and Dad sat down at their usual places at the table. There was an empty seat across from me where my sister usually sat.
"Where's Julie?" my dad asked.
"Who?" my mother asked.
"Your daughter, Phoebe, remember?"
"You know, Carl," my mom said, looking out the window, "it's Friday. Where does she go every weekend? To Carey's house."
Mom put some salad on her plate. She ate one bite, then took her fork and started to comb her hair with it.
"What are you doing, Phoebe?"
"Sorry," she said.
"What's wrong?" he demanded.
"Okay," he said, clenching his hand around his napkin. "I'm just a poor teacher." He was about to lose his temper, but instead he reached his hand out to my mom's. She put her hands under the table.
My dad took a drink of water, and after a long silence he slammed his glass on the table. I turned my head, thinking the glass might shatter. I wanted badly to leave the kitchen.
"What's wrong?" my dad said again.
Mom stayed silent. I tried to pretend things were normal and finish my salad. My mom got up.
"I'm going for a walk," she said.
I looked at my dad, but he was staring at his plate. I cleared my place and went up to my room.
That Sunday in the early afternoon I stood beside my mom in the laundry room as she waited for the dryer to finish its cycle. She was impatient, waiting, waiting, tapping her foot on the checkered floor. She stopped the machine before it was finished, turning the dial until it buzzed. Then she took the clothes out, put them in a basket, and went upstairs. I followed her.
Usually I'd sit on the bed and talk with my mom as she folded the warm, clean clothes. But today the clothes were cold and damp, and my mom stood there like she'd been hypnotized, holding a soggy towel, transfixed by the clock on the dresser.
The next-door neighbors, the Langfords, were on vacation, and Julie was getting paid to take care of their dog, Candy. But Julie was still at Carey's, so Mom was doing her job for her.
"Jeremy," Mom said, "I think it's time I go let Candy out."
"Can I come?"
"No," she said. "Why don't you wait here."
I hadn't done anything wrong. I just wanted to see Candy.
"But why?" I asked again. "Why can't I?"
"Because," she said, staring with her blue eyes, "I just want to take a walk."
I went to my room. I wanted to run after her it was a warm spring afternoon, daffodils blooming up and down the street, redwing blackbirds singing by the pond but something in her voice told me not to. I sat and stared out the window. The lawn was covered with robins pulling worms out of the soil like rubber bands. I was watching them when I heard my father come in.
"Jeremy, where's your mother?"
"She's over at the Langfords'."
"Why didn't you go with her?"
"She told me to stay."
My father looked nervous, playing with the buttons on the sleeves of his shirt. He walked down the stairs to the kitchen and out the front door. The screen door slammed behind him.
I ran downstairs and saw him walk quickly toward the Langfords'. I went back to watching the robins on the lawn. Then I heard a car pull up in the driveway. It was Mrs. Olson dropping off Julie.
She looked at me oddly when I opened the door for her.
"Mom went over to take care of the dog."
"Why?" Julie asked, putting down her overnight bag. "I told her I'd be back in time to do it."
"I don't know," I said. "She's been there so long, Dad just left to look for her."
Julie flipped back her hair. "I'm sure she's fine." She walked into the kitchen and opened the fridge. "There's never any food here," she said.
Just then, Dad walked in. He walked right past Julie, sweat showing through the back of his plaid shirt.
"Get in here," he yelled on his way to the living room, a spring draft following him. "Your mother has something she wants to say."
Julie and I sat on the couch opposite my dad. The windows were open, and a strong breeze carried in the dirt-sweet smell of hyacinth flowers. We heard the front door open.
My mom walked into the living room and sat down in the only empty chair. Her face was wet with tears. Her lower jaw was shaking.
"So, Phoebe," my father said, "tell us. We're all waiting."
"I'm leaving," was all she said, sobbing deeply, her voice thin and fragile. "I'm leaving. I can't take this."
"Leaving where?" I asked.
"Who is it?" my father interrupted. "Phoebe, tell us."
"Who, who?" my mother said.
"Who did I overhear you on the phone with at the Langfords' house?" my dad said, raising his voice.
"Do you have to yell?" Julie asked.
"Don't talk to me like that, young lady," my father said, getting louder and louder like a breaking wave. "This is my house, and I can yell if I want to!"
"Are you guys getting...?" Julie asked.
"Shut up, Julie," I said.
We all waited. My mother was silent for a long time. As we sat, the spring day became dark and cool.
"I met him at one of Jeremy's baseball games," she said, finally.
My dad put his head in his hands.
"Jesus, Phoebe," he said.
"He wasn't there at first," my mom said, almost smiling, but crying. "I didn't know how to handle all the attention."
"Who is he?" my dad demanded. "What's his name?"
"Why? What good will that do?" my mom said.
"Tell me," he threatened, raising his hand like he was capable of anything.
"Paul Sullivan," she said.
"Evan's dad?" I asked. My mom just stared at me. She didn't shake her head or nod or raise an eyebrow or move her mouth.
I ran to her and wrapped my arms around her neck.
"Don't!" I said, holding her, sobbing on her shoulder. I tried to look into her eyes, but she kept turning her head. She had a blank expression, like a doll.
My dad continued yelling.
"What did I do to deserve this?" he said, sitting up straight in his chair. "I love you! I give you everything. What have I done wrong?"
I looked into her blue eyes, and this time she held them still for a moment. I wanted to say, I'll run away! I'll hurt myself! but she turned again. Suddenly, I stopped crying.
I let go of my mother. I turned to Julie, who didn't look at all surprised. My mouth was dry and my face covered in dried salt.
I turned back toward my mom.
I wanted to shout.
Text copyright © 2007 by James Prosek