Breaking Free

Joshua can almost feel the blood in his veins turn to ice. Though his heart is beating faster and faster—so fast he thinks it might burst—it feels, to him, like the blood is clotting and curdling. He returns the steady, cold, menacing stare of the man he stands facing, with, what he hopes, is a glare filled with boldness and defiance.

For many boys, living with no mother would be a dream. No nagging to clean your room, no chores to do, no responsibilities would be heaven to most; but when your mother is replaced by a bottle of cheap liquor, life becomes hell.

Joshua can't remember a time when his father's hand wasn't wrapped protectively around a bottle of something. Though he racks his brain night after night—searching for something to redeem his father—he can't separate the man from the whiskey.

Most six year old boys run around, scraping knees, playing 'war,' and getting into the neighbour's yard—Joshua was telling teary-eyed sob stories to bankers, explaining why the rent was late yet again.

Most fifteen year old boys run around, chasing girls, playing hockey, and getting into trouble at school—Joshua was using a fake ID to buy his father the only thing that keeps him going, alcohol.

And now, in his seventeenth year, Joshua needs to break free. The weight of the choices his father made bears down on him harder everyday. He struggles to hold his head above the waves of failure that pull at him with unending determination. With every decision he makes, he feels himself leaning toward a path that can have no happy ending.

"Sorry, I can't hang out tonight…No, I, uh, have a lot of homework to do…Yeah, I'll call you tomorrow…bye," Joshua says forlornly into the telephone. It's the third night in a row that he has to stay home, just to make sure his father stumbles up to his bed at a reasonable hour.

He thinks to himself for the thousandth time: I will never let a drop of alcohol touch my lips. I will not turn out like him.

The doorbell rings. As usual, there comes a slurred command from downstairs to answer it. As usual, Joshua rolls off his bed, makes the climb down the decrepit stair case, and to the door. And, as usual, his father's friends stagger by him, noisily and rambunctiously, slamming him into the wall as they go.

Joshua cautiously makes his way into the family room—where they are grouped on the threadbare couches and chairs—careful to go unnoticed. He makes his way around the room, removing the glass vases from the mantel piece, hiding the fire-poker behind a table, bringing the picture of his mother with him up to his room.

Holed up in the safety of his room, he pulls out his homework. As the noise level rises downstairs, so does the volume on his stereo. The clamour from downstairs succeeds his music, and he simply turns it off and waits for the inevitable.

Sure enough, about ten minutes after Joshua turned his music off, his father calls gruffly from his spot on the couch. Joshua sighs, puts his books back in his bag and slowly walks downstairs.

His father and his friends laughed loudly, red in the face, noses running, empty bottles strewn about the room.

"What took you so long, boy?" His father calls loudly, much louder than necessary.

"I was doing homework," he answers meekly.

"Doin' wha'? Homework? We got ourselves a little genius here, don't we, boys!" He shouts. His friends roar with laughter, their bellies bulging out over their belts, veins standing out on their necks. "You gonna go to Harvard, boy? You gonna be the President or something?" He yells, urged on by the other men in the room.

"Maybe…" Joshua mutters under his breath. He would never admit outright his dreams to his father; subject them to the harsh ridicule.

"'Course not! You ain't smart enough. You're dumb as a doorknob. You ain't gettin' into Harvard!" He jeers.

"I'm not dumb."

"What did you say?" He demands, standing up from the couch. "Are you talking back, boy?"

"No!" Joshua reassures quickly, retreating towards the stairs.

"I think you were!" He begins to scream loudly, taking one drunken step forward at a time.

"I swear I wasn't!" Joshua pleads, holding his palms outward in peace, backing away from his advancing father, right into the chest of his father's friend.

"Don't touch me, you twit!" the man bellows, pushing Joshua roughly to the ground.

"I'm sorry, I didn't mean to," he tries.

"Like hell you didn't mean to, you little brat!" the man says, kicking Joshua squarely in the stomach.

The men laugh as Joshua coughs and tries to regain his breath. He feels the familiar pain as the skin where the man hit begins to bruise.

Though he keeps his gaze on the rotting floorboards beneath him, Joshua feels the men converge around him. He smells the alcohol on their breath.

As the blows of the men bombard him time after time, and the tears roll down his cheeks, and his sobs of pain are drowned out by the slurred laughter, his hatred for the drink grows.

And grows.

And grows.

Joshua sits in the bathroom, sobbing into a towel stained with blood from his face, arms, legs, and chest. He tries to think of a believable excuse for the cuts and gashes, but he's used them all, and it's never been this bad before. Every small movement sends a new wave of pain through his body and a new river of tears down his face.

I'm so tired of this, he thinks. Turning his pain into anger, he stomps down the stairs as soon as he hears the men leave the house—finally deciding that it was time they staggered through the streets back to their own houses. His father is still sitting on the couch, a bottle of whisky still in his hand.

"Good, I was about to yell for you. Clean up this mess, boy." He orders gruffly as he walks into the kitchen.

Joshua follows him in.

"What are you doing in here, boy? The room won't clean itself up, you know! Go!"

"No." Joshua states abruptly.

His father stops mid-step and turns around slowly. "What did you say?" He inquires threateningly.

Joshua takes a deep breath and repeats himself. "I said: No."

Joshua can almost feel the blood in his veins turn to ice. Though his heart is beating faster and faster—so fast he thinks it might burst—it feels, to him, like the blood is clotting and curdling. He returns the steady, cold, menacing stare of the man he stands facing, with, what he hopes, is a glare filled with boldness and defiance.

Despite his shaking knees and sweaty hands, he holds his ground. Inwardly, his instinct to flee is begging him to give in, pleading with him to step down. However hard this part of him fights, the other part of him—the part that had been ignored for so long—wrestles back twice as hard.

No, he resolves. It will not happen this time. Gathering his courage, he takes a deep breath and spits with as much venom as he can muster: "You'll have to find someone else. I'm done doing things for you. I'm done with you."

He braces himself for the blow that is sure to follow. He shuts his eyes tight, balls his fists, and waits.

And waits.

And waits.

When the blow doesn't come, he opens his eyes tentatively. The once frozen eyes soften, only a slight change, but evident amidst the hardened features.

In that moment, Joshua sees his father remember a time when he was standing there, a time when he failed to stand up for himself as Joshua was. He sees a glimmer of regret and sorrow flutter briefly across the face of the man he feared so much.

In the place of the smack Joshua had so surely expected, he hears merely a whisper, a susurrus that could have been mistaken for wind blowing through the broken window.

"That's my boy," is all the man says. He turns quickly and walks out the room, surely to mix up the next round of drinks.

Joshua stays rooted to the spot on which he stands, dumbfounded. Was that all it took? Had he been waiting for that the whole time? he thinks to himself. Shaking his head silently, he creeps toward the room his father had entered moments before—carefully avoiding the creaky floorboard.

Uncertainly, he leans his head around the door frame. The slumped form sitting on the ripped and worn couch no longer looked intimidating or threatening—it simply looked beaten, tired, and defeated.