‘The garage is a strange place to be doing this,’ I was distracted from the moment we were summoned here. Ever since Dad had moved out a few months ago he and Mom were careful not to spend even one minute in the same room as the other. Now they were sitting within five feet of each other and had called a family meeting. Our first one ever. Little moths nibbled at my stomach, fluttering and biting until I wanted to slide out of my folding chair onto the immaculate cement floor. You could eat off of this floor. The walls were lined with hooks holding sports equipment and yard tools. The pegboard that used to display my father’s tools sat empty now.
Dad’s half-ton wooden desk was an island and he sat behind it on his old swivel chair. I had sat in that relic more times than I could recall, turning slowly round and round until I thought I’d puke. I could feel the cold, thick vinyl against the backs of my knees, sticking there. I heard the peeling noise it made as I gingerly raised myself off of it in the summertime.
Mom sat off to the side of the desk, avoiding the very air Dad was breathing. Chris and Katy and I faced them in our card-table chairs like naughty schoolchildren at the principal’s office.
“Mmhmm,” Dad cleared his throat, his eyes shimmery and his nose a bit too pink for my liking. I’d never seen Dad cry before and I didn’t want to start today. Mom was sniffling and wiping her red-rimmed eyes. She’d been crying for months. We were okay with that.
“We wanted to talk to you kids,” Dad said, eyes inspecting the heavy grain of the oak desktop. His forearms rested on the surface as he leaned toward us. Talk to us? They didn’t talk to us. We didn’t ask questions. Chris and I had gotten good at huddling up to piece together the information we’d gleaned, like crows with shiny bits of treasure. Nobody “talked” to us when Cameron was taken away suddenly. Disappearing after a year as our brother without so much as a warning or a word of explanation. It was as if he had never been there. Some imaginary friend our damaged psyches had dreamed up and then eliminated spontaneously. We weren’t privy to the discussion about Mom and Dad separating – he just moved out one day and rented a big white house a few blocks away. They wanted to talk to us now? The moths turned into pteradactyls in my gut.
“Your father has taken a job in Wyoming,” Mom spoke so softly I could barely hear her over the gnawing of the beasts in my stomach.
“We have decided we don’t want to put you kids through an ugly court battle. We’ve agreed to joint custody,” Dad used his official voice, the one we heard when he answered the telephone or on the soccer field or at his office. Joint custody? What’s that? I was only eight years old. I couldn’t breathe.
“Joint custody means we have agreed to share you kids. You get to decide who you want to live with. We won’t decide for you. Think about it and let us know,” he explained. Who you want to live with not where you want to live. This was a contest. Another contest. How could I choose between my parents? Mom was so sad and fragile and she lived to be a MOM. How could I leave her? But Dad was the one I’d been busting my hump to please my entire life. Not choosing him might mean he’d never love me the way I wanted him to. And what if Chris and Katy didn’t agree with me? I couldn’t lose them, too. I couldn’t protect them if they lived without me. I hadn’t protected Cameron and he was taken away. I couldn’t let Chris and Katy get taken away. The pteradactyls were having a feast.