Short Story by Jake Keim: “Family Matters”

Family Matters

Noel packed the last of her papers, notebooks, and folders into her bag. She made her rounds in her classroom one last time before leaving for home. The easels were clean, the paint tubes had all their caps on tight, and the tools were placed properly in their drawers. She was thankful that she didn’t have to clean the tables today. She checked to make sure that the supply closet was locked one last time, and once she was satisfied by the knob’s sturdy resistance, she turned out the lights.

The halls of the art building were lifeless. Noel checked her phone and saw the time was a little past 5 pm.

I doubt if anyone else would be here this late on a Friday, she thought to herself.

She noticed that her oldest son, Kyle, had left her a text message.

“Are you going to be leaving work soon?” it read.

Noel was working on her response when she was interrupted by a call. The caller ID read “Kyle” and a picture she took of him at his last birthday came up with it. She answered.


“Hey, Mom. Are you busy?” Noel could hear the higher pitched voices of her other children in the background as Kyle tried to talk over them.

“No, I’m leaving work now. Do you need something?”

“I was just wondering when you were going to get home. I wanted to go out with my friends tonight.”

“Have you done everything that you needed to do today?”

Kyle paused for a brief moment to think. “Let’s see,” he began, “I got home from school early enough to run into Dad before he left for work. I took out the trash. And I got take out for you, Lily, Ray, and Grandma. Was there anything else that I needed to do?”

Noel felt her back tense. “You didn’t leave Grandma with Lily and Ray when you went out to grab dinner did you?”

“Of course not! I know not to do that. I put them all in the car with me.”

“Sorry.” Noel let herself relax for the moment. “I just wanted to make sure. Wait, you didn’t get yourself anything to eat?”

“I was going to eat with my friends. That’s the first thing we are going to do.”

Noel sighed. “You know you can’t do that,” she scolded. “You can’t assume that you’ll be able to eat with your friends. You know that your dad is working tonight; I might need you. If I say you can’t go out with your friends, and you haven’t eaten, then what are you going to do? Besides, you didn’t even ask in the first place if you could go or not.”

Kyle doesn’t respond.

I know you’re annoyed with me always telling you this, Noel thought, but you need to remember that you have different responsibilities than others.

“Sorry,” he said. There was more silence.

“How’s Grandma been today?”

“I think she’s doing well today. She seems to have an idea of what’s going on, and everything she says seems to make enough sense.” Kyle spoke lower; the sound of the his siblings faded in background. Noel assumed he moved out of the room so they wouldn’t hear.           “She ate normally, talked about how the restaurant always gets it just right, and has just been watching tv in the living room with Lily and Ray.”

Thank God, Noel thought.

“Alright, how about this, Kyle? You can go out with your friends tonight, but you have to keep your phone charged and on the highest volume in case of an emergency back home. Deal?”

“Yeah! You got it!”

Noel and her son exchanged goodbyes as she was walking out of the facility. She was met with a cold breeze. Sun filled the world with a soft light as it descended on the horizon. The trees, various hues of deep red and yellow and orange and brown, were embellished by the light. It was Noel’s last chance to see bright color before the sky faded into pinks and purples and then light blue to navy and finally into darkness. She breathed in the cold air and cursed.

Why couldn’t I live somewhere warmer, she thought. The colors are nice, but the cold makes me feel so sluggish. It’s like there’s something sinister hiding behind the sunset.

Noel jumped in her car and turned on the heat.

There was another car waiting in the driveway when she pulled up. She recognized it as Aaron’s, one of Kyle’s friends. When she walked in the house, Lily ran giggling to hug her mother.

“Mommy,” she screamed.

“How are you, sweetie?” Noel picked up her six year old daughter to give her a hug. “Have you had a good day?”

“Yeah! Kyle bought me dinner and now he and Aaron are playing with me and Ray!”

“I hope Kyle got you something tasty,” she said as Lily led her by the hand into the living room.

Ray, the ten year old middle child, was trying to impress Aaron by going back and forth between his toys based on his favorite tv shows and the new things he had learned in school. Aaron seemed to be giving him his full attention while Kyle stood by his grandmother. Aaron was the first to greet Noel.

“Hey, Mrs. Pearce! I hope it was okay if I came in.”

“Of course Aaron, you know you’re welcome here.”

Kyle left his grandmother’s side to hug his mother. “We need to get going now. The others are already waiting on us. But please talk to Grandma; she won’t listen to me.” Kyle grabbed his coat, and the two teenagers walked towards the door, yelling behind them, “See ya!”

Noel walked up to her aging mother and knelt beside her recliner. “Hey, Mom. Are you doing alright?”

“Yes, yes, baby, everything’s fine,” her mother mumbled. Her words seemed to trail off towards the end.

“Are you sure? Kyle was saying that I needed to talk to you about something.”

“Ah! Yes, that. He wouldn’t let me take my medicine. He knows that I need it, but he kept saying no. I asked him to at least get me my cigarettes, and he said that there weren’t any left. I asked if he would run to the store and buy me some, but he still says no! He used to be so sweet and thoughtful. Now he’s just mean to me. As he’s gotten older, he seems to be more like his father. Moving away from me.”

“Mom, Kyle can’t get you cigarettes, even if he wanted to.”

“But you used to do it for me all the time! Remember when you were young, and you had that red bike of yours?”

“Mom. That was over thirty years ago. Things have changed.”

Gladys sat in here recliner, nodding her head slightly and looking tired. It took her a few seconds to admit it, “So they have. But!” She seemed to be more awake and readjusted herself in her chair, “but that doesn’t mean that he needs to be so cruel and stop me from getting my medicine!”

“When was the last time you took your medicine?” I hope this isn’t going where I think it is, Noel thought.

“It was…around 3. Right before…your husband left.” Gladys grabbed a tissue and coughed into it, removing the phlegm that had started to garble her speech.

Noel took a deep breath. “Mom, how many times do I have to tell you that you can’t take the medicine whenever you want? That’s why Kyle’s not giving it to you.”

“But…but Noel…I’m in so much pain.” Her mother was starting to lose track of their conversation and could no longer hold eye contact. “Ray, baby, where’s that bottle I asked you to grab for me? Can you bring to me?”

Ray reached into his toy box and pulled out a large prescription bottle, “Didn’t you tell me to keep it a secret from Mom though?”

“It’s alright, baby,” Gladys took a pause to collect her thoughts. It was like watching someone fight off sleep. “Your mom won’t know about it.”

Ray hesitantly brought the bottle forward.

Lily stared at the bottle. “What is that?” she asked. “Is it a special kind of candy?”

Noel crouched and sternly grabbed Ray’s wrist. “Ray. Give me. The bottle. And leave,” she commanded.

Sensing her wrath, Ray released the bottle into his mother’s hand. As Noel turned to confront his mother, he grabbed his sister and one of his toys and they ran out of the room. The door slammed behind them.

“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” Noel tried to keep her voice calm, low, and steady. She didn’t want to her children to see her lose it.

Before her thoughts could settle, Gladys seemed to snap to attention, as if being forced to wake up “Oh Noel! When did you get home? Did I doze off?”

“No, Mom, I’ve been here. Will you take this seriously? This isn’t the time for you to make a damn joke! You’ve really overstepped it this time!”

“What do you mean? What have I done?”

“Don’t play dumb! You’re already pulling Kyle into this nonsense, leave Lily and Ray out of this!”

Gladys was standing now. She grabbed her walker to slowly shuffle across the floor. “Why are you so mean to me? You watch me endure this pain and refuse to help me! You turn your own children against me when all I have done is provide them with my love. You teach them… that it’s ok to… treat family like this.” Gladys paused to cough. “You come in here, in my own home, and claim that I am corrupting your children, but I have done no such thing!”

Noel, shook her head, She doesn’t even know what she’s doing, she thought. “First of all, Mom, you do not manipulate my children around me to do your bidding. They do not know the consequences of giving you this medicine too frequently. They are too young to know that it will hurt more. Second, this is my house. You are staying with my family, remember?” She waited for a response, but her mother only seemed to stare off into space.

“How have I manipulated your children?”

“By having Ray hide your pills away from me!”

“How dare you accuse me, your own mother, of doing such a thing!”

“I saw him pull them out! You told him to do it! It happened right in front of me!” Noel wanted to scream.

Her mother pointed a shaking finger at her. “This is your husband’s doing isn’t it? He’s convinced you to try to put me in a home hasn’t he? He wants to put me away! He wants you to abandon me!”

“You’re insane.”

Gladys dropped her hand back to her walker. “How could you say that about your own mother?” Her frail frame seemed less stable now. “Why are you so mean to me?”

Noel was too weary to answer this time and only rubbed her head.

Gladys closed her eyes and stood still for a moment. In a split moment, her legs gave out from underneath her and she fell to the ground. Noel was quick enough to catch her before her head hit the ground, but she panicked.

“Mom! Hey, Mom! Wake up! Mom!” she yelled.

For a few moments, Noel thought that she wouldn’t wake up, but after shaking her for a few seconds, her mother jerked awake. With help from Noel, Gladys was able to stand and grab her walker.

“Mom, what happened? Are you alright? Did you hurt anything?”

“What do you mean?”

Noel went silent.

“Anyways, I’m tired. I’ll go to bed now.”

How far gone is she, thought Noel.

Noel sat in the recliner to gather her thoughts. She eventually picked up her phone. The time was 10:03 pm. He wouldn’t be off his shift until a couple more hours, but she thought it wouldn’t hurt to try to reach her husband. It went straight to voicemail. “Paul, it’s me. I need you to get home as soon as possible. Something’s going on with Mom. I could really use your help here. I’m going to get in touch with Kyle, too. I love you. Bye.” Noel dialed her son’s number. The phone rang a few times before he answered.


“Kyle, where are you?”

“I’m at Aaron’s.” Noel could hear his friends laughing and yelling in the background. “What’s going on?”

“You’re not doing anything important are you?”

“…not really.” Noel could hear him sigh. “You need me to come home don’t you.”

“Yes. As soon as possible.”

“Fine.” He hung up.

I’m sorry that I ruined your night, Noel thought.

Kyle returned about thirty minutes later. Noel was still in the recliner when he walked in. He glared at her through the doorway, “Well, what is it,” he demanded.

“Hey, careful with how you address me,” Noel stated. “I need you to check on your grandmother for the next few hours, okay? Make sure she’s still in bed or still asleep, as long as she’s not on the ground.”

“What happened?”

“I’ll tell you later.”

“Why aren’t you doing anything?”

Noel knew why Kyle would be pushing back, but she needed him to cooperate. “A lot has happened while you were gone, alright? Just do what you’re told. It’s important and I have other things to take care of.”

“Whatever,” he said and started to walk away.

“Hey!” Kyle stopped and glared at his mother. “Cut the shit, Kyle. I wouldn’t have called you if I didn’t need you. Drop the attitude and just help me out.”

Noel had never sworn at her son before. He was taken back. He nodded and went about his duty.

I should apologize to him later, she noted.

Her husband was home a little later. “Noel, you in here?” he called from the front door.

“I’m in the living room.”

“What happened?”

“Mom passed out. She didn’t even realize that she had. I don’t think she knows that she’s doing a lot of things.”

Paul sat in a chair across from her. “As in more so than usual?” He couldn’t help but smirk at his little joke.

“She had Ray hide her medicine away from us. It seemed like it had been going on for awhile.”

Paul’s smirk disappeared. “Jesus Christ,” he muttered. He buried his face in his hands. “This is enough. She’s always fought back, but this is beyond resisting. I don’t think we can keep her here like this.”

“You know that my family will just get her out. It’ll be just like last time.”

“Maybe they’ll be more understanding this time.”

Noel sighed, “My family is never understanding.”

The next morning, all six family members ate breakfast at the table. Bright light poured in through the large windows as they ate pancakes and eggs and sliced up fruit. It would’ve been nice if the events of last night didn’t weigh so heavily on Noel and Paul. Instead, the familial scene was taunting. Mocking Noel with what could be, but isn’t. Only Ray and Lily seemed to be speaking this morning, oblivious of the situation’s severity. The quiet and silent thoughts were broken by the sound of liquid dripping on the hard floor.

“Did one of you spill something?” Paul inquired, motioning towards his younger children.

“No,” they responded.

Everyone was looking around them for anything that fell over. Then came a terrible smell. Kyle exclaimed, “Holy shit!” and jumped out of his seat. A large puddle formed around Gladys, soaking her lower half and spreading across the floor.

“Kyle! Get your siblings out of the room!” commanded Noel. Kyle led Ray and Lily out of the room.

As he did, Lily asked, “Did Grandma wet herself?”

Paul helped Gladys up. “Let’s get you to the bathroom,” he goaded. “Noel, you clean her up, and I’ll take care of her clothes and this mess.”

As she got out of her seat, a large brown stain was visible on the backside of her pants.

After getting her mother clean and dressed. Noel sat her down in the recliner.

“Mom, what happened? Why’d you do that?”

“Do what?” Gladys said with half closed eyes.

“This is unbelievable! You just shit and pissed yourself, and you’re going to pretend that you didn’t?”

Her mother was silent. Noel patiently waited for something. Gladys stared into the corner of the room till she finally shook her head and said, “It’s not even noon, and you’re going to start making things up about me?”

Noel was finished.

Noel and Paul drove Gladys to the hospital an hour later. When she realized where she was going. Gladys fought back. She tried to claw at her daughter. She wasn’t able to leave any physical marks except for red streaks across her neck and arms that would disappear within a few hours, but Noel would never forget. The couple was able to drag her through the doors where the staff was able to take her away.

Gladys screamed as they were taking her away, “Why are you doing this to me? How could my own daughter do this?”

While Gladys couldn’t sign herself out, any family member could. Paul was optimistic and hoped that the family would understand, but Noel knew better than to hope that they’d see anything differently. Within the day, she received several calls and texts from her relatives.

They all said at some point,

“How could you treat your mother so poorly?”

“You’re a disgrace!”

“I can’t believe you would treat your own parent like this, she needs you!”

Towards the evening, Gladys was brought back to the house by her youngest brother, Murphy. He stormed up the porch the door and pounded on the door. Noel composed herself and answered it.

“I’ve brought your mother back where she belongs.” he started. Murphy was a large man in his youth, but the man, now well into his sixties, wasn’t what he used to. His arms were thin and he actually needed suspenders to keep his pants up on account of his massive gut that hung out and covered his waist. He wore a hat to cover his bald spot, but it didn’t really help when all the hair he had left were wispy strands.

“We’re not taking her back.”

“You ungrateful brat!” he began, “The woman who raised you with kindness and love needs you now more than ever, but you’re going to throw her away to rot away in some home where no one will ever care for her?”

“My mother doesn’t even know what she’s doing anymore! She can’t walk on her own, she can’t seem to keep herself awake, is now incompetent, and is willing to physically attack me. I have my own family to look after, my own life to attend, and all anyone else can think of is that I need to preserve my mother. She’s gone! I can’t take care of her anymore! If you want to deal with someone who is becoming more of a shell each day, go for it! But I’d say let someone who knows what they’re doing take over. Now go away. I don’t want you here.”

Noel closed the door on Murphy and walked back to her room. She soon found herself crying. Her husband came in and embraced her. “It’s okay.” he told her. “It’ll be alright. You did what you thought was best.”