Mariella pushed past Darrell as he unlocked the door to their third-floor apartment. In one minute flat, she tossed down her backpack, flung off her shoes, and gulped down half a glassful of her dad’s “lemonade”; aka lemon water sans any sugar whatsoever. Dad didn’t believe in kids drinking full-strength juice (“Too much sugar”, he said). Darrell suspects it might have more to do with him trying to cut corners and save a few pennies at the grocery store. If Darrell had to hear one more time, “A penny saved is a penny earned,” he would lose his mind; or at the very least, scream inside. At 13, Darrell was old enough to understand why his dad was always worried about money, but it didn’t make it any more fun to hear about.
Dad wasn’t always so tight with money. In the past, he didn’t go crazy with it, but he was nothing like he is now. But, then mom died of cancer three years ago and everything changed. As in, everything. Darrell’s dad moved him and his little sister out of their house and move into a small two-bedroom apartment on the west side of town; an area that could be described as working-class, if you wanted to be generous. They no longer had money to do the things that they used to do when his mom was here, like go out to eat, or go on trips. What Darrell missed the most were the summer trips out to the lake that they used to go on. It was so fun chowing down on Mom’s chicken and biscuits before wading in the water and going for a hike in the woods nearby. That was before Mariella was born.
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After Mariella was born, Mom started to get tired all of the time. Darrell thought it was just because the baby and her crying all of the time, but after a couple of years, his Mom couldn’t even get out of bed anymore. A few weeks after the doctor said she had cancer, she passed away. For Darrell, it felt like he lost two parents that day. Dad never mentioned Mom after that day; never really said much of anything since that day, really. He just worked all of the time.
All Dad was worried about now was making money. He woke up at the crack of dawn and went to his car lot all day trying to sell cars, then in the evening, he came back home for a couple of hours to eat before going to his night job as a janitor at the local college.
Darrell had to pick up a lot of the slack after his Mom died. It’s not that big of a deal, but it meant he wasn’t free to go hang out with my friends after school. He had to pick up Mariela from her school, bring her home, then make dinner real quick before Dad got home looking for dinner. Getting Mariela ready for bed was probably the hardest part. She was always bopping around, so it was hard to corral her into taking a bath without some degree of bribery.
Tonight Mariela was going on about a doll that she wanted to get. “It can tallk back to you!” she said, excitedly. “Do you think Dad can get me one?? It’s my birthday tomorrow.” Darrell wanted to say, “fat chance”, but decided to spare his 5-year-old sister’s feelings. Instead, he said encouragingly, “Maybe if you eat all of your dinner all week and clean up your room.” She appeared to ponder this idea for a moment, and smiled before bounding off to her room.
A sudden pounding at the door startled Darrell. “Yo Darrell, it’s me! Open up!” Darrell dropped the fork he was using to stir the pre-cooked Hamburger Helper and strode the few steps to the front door of the apartment. He flung the door open to a thick, squat kid wearing a big grin on his face.
“Darrell! My man! What took so long to open the door?” Ernie exclaimed as he crossed the door’s threshold and clapped hands with Darrell, bro style. “Whadya mean? It literally took me two seconds,” Darrell retorted.
Ernie smiled wider, if that were possible. “Man, that was one second too long. Didn’t you know I was coming?” Darrell contorted his face, annoyed. “You think I’m psychic or something? How would I know you were coming?”
Ernie said, “Did you think about what I told you earlier? You know…?” he prompted. Darrell said calmly, “Look, Ernie, there’s no way I can sell. My dad would kill me. It ain’t happening.”
Ernie looked somewhat serious for a minute. “You ain’t really selling, Darrell. You’re just delivering. You don’t even have to touch the stuff. Didn’t you say that you guys are hard up for money? Maybe you could help your dad out so he doesn’t have to work so hard. You know, you could pay for your own clothes and stuff. And get stuff for Mariela. If we do this together, we can go halves, and it’ll be easy. These dudes are pretty chill.”
Darrell hated to let on to Ernie that he was considering his proposal, but Ernie’s wide smile told Darrell that he knew he was getting through to him. Darrell was thinking about how it would be nice if Dad were less stressed, and Mariella. For once, it would be nice to get her something that she actually wanted. Like a doll for her birthday, instead of the pair of socks that she would probably be getting.
“C’mon Darrell, let’s just go and talk to Mitch real quick. You don’t have to do nothing but just talk to him.”
“Ernie, I got Mariela here, I can’t go anywhere. My dad won’t be here for a while,” Darrell replied. “That’s easy”, said Ernie. “We can take her with us. Mitch is at my place right now talking to my brother. It’ll just be five minutes, man.” Ernie lived on the floor right below Darrell.
Darrell, thought about Ernie’s request for a minute. It didn’t seem so bad. He would just talk to them for a minute and then come back home. Plus, it would get Ernie off his back a little bit.
“Mariela!!” yelled Darrell. After a few seconds, Mariela popped her head out of her door. “What?” she asked. “Hey,” said Darrell; “Do you want to go to Ernie’s for just a minute?” Darrell didn’t have to ask her twice. She said, “Sure!!” and ran to put her shoes on.
Something was nagging Darrell in the pit of his stomach, but he brushed it off thinking that all he was doing was talking to somebody for a few minutes in a place just below his own apartment.
Darrell held Mariela’s hand as she skipped next to him and Ernie down the stairs to Ernie’s apartment. When they got inside, there was Ernie’s brother talking to somebody sitting in the armchair in the family room. This guy didn’t seem that laid back to Darrell. He had small, black eyes that darted here and there, seeming to take in everything around him. Ernie introduced him to Darrell, and the guy’s blank expression didn’t change even minutely. Mariela wandered off as the guys started chatting with Darrell and Ernie.
Not even five minutes had passed when Darrell became aware of the silence. This is the ominous silence that meant that Mariela was up to something that she probably shouldn’t be.
Suddenly feeling frantic, Darrell ran out of the living room into the hallway that led to the bedrooms. The light from the open room at the end of the hallway bled out into the space in front of it.
“Mariela! Where are you?” Darrell yelled. “She’s probably fine,” he thought to himself. “Why am I getting so worked up?” As he entered the bedroom, the first thing he saw was the pills spread out on the ground, decoratively. Then he saw Mariela curled up on the floor in a fetal position, her hair fanning out around her.
“HELP!!!” screamed Darrell. “Help!!!” Darrell picked Mariela up and looked down at her small, pale face. Instinctively, he stuck his finger in her mouth and fished around. He pulled out remnants of a pill, partially chewed. Mariela’s breathing was shallow and ragged. Ernie and the guys piled into the room. “Man, get her out of here!” yelled Ernie’s brother. Bypassing Mariela and Darrell, he, Ernie, and Mitch frantically started gathering up the pills on the ground.
Darrell scooped up Mariela and ran out of Ernie’s apartment and up to his own, taking the stairs, two, three at a time. He called 911.
Darrell was oddly calm as he followed the directions of the 911 operator. And then a key turned in the door’s lock. Darrell’s dad’s shocked face was framed by the shrieks of the ambulance sirens as they preceded the ambulance’s arrival.
It was a slow-motion blur. Darrell allowed himself to be pushed away from Mariela by first his father then by the EMTs. He looked on weakly as Mariela was taken out on the stretcher and placed in the ambulance, his father next to her.
Later that night, Darrell and his father sat quietly in Mariela’s hospital room as she slept. “Dad, I’m so sorry,” Darrell whispered. “I didn’t mean for this to happen.” Darrell’s dad rubbed his weary face with his hands, and said, “Darrell, of course, you didn’t. I know you would never do anything to hurt your sister.”
His dad furrowed his brow and continued, “But what on earth would possess you to get involved with drug dealers? Haven’t I taught you better than that? And you know you should never leave your sister alone.”
Darrell shrugged his shoulders and said, “Dad, I wanted to make money like you.”
Moral: The moral of the story is to never take the family for granted. Also, it’s important to make time for family and not over-obsess about money. Spending time with family is more important than money.