Breathe Deep & Swim
“A timely and moving ode to the lengths we will go for our family…Teen readers looking for realistic contemporary adventure and strong sibling dynamics will delight in the Thomas brothers’ quick-moving journey.” —BookLife
Perfect for fans of We Are Okay and The Thing about Jellyfish, this witty and achingly beautiful coming of age story will tackle what it means to be alive, loved, and trusting in a world gone mad...
All 14-year-old Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart Thomas wants is normalcy. But a global pandemic prevents him from having anything close to a typical teenager's life. When Wolfgang discovers his father dead in bed from the coronavirus, his world is thrust into even more turmoil and chaos. Wolfgang and his 16-year-old brother, Van Gogh, know that they must do everything they can to stay together and avoid foster care. In a cross-country road trip, they hit the road in their father's Pontiac to find their only hope: the mother who abandoned them a decade ago. As they journey for answers to their mother's whereabouts, they uncover devastating mysteries about her that they never could have imagined. Just as they near their destination, tragedy strikes once more. Wolfgang is drowning in fear and pain, but he must pull it together or lose his family for good. Can this broken adolescent find the strength and courage to Breathe Deep & Swim?
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"I loved Breathe Deep & Swim by Jenna Marcus and want to share it with the world. This book speaks of hope, innocence, and challenges from the perspectives of teenagers. Highly recommended." —Readers' Favorite
"...compelling...memorable...An often moving portrait of brotherly love.” —Kirkus Reviews
"Jenna Marcus’ incredible story captures the depths of brotherly love and the determination of a spirit faced with insurmountable odds." —Manhattan Book Review
“Do yourself a favor; take the time to pick up and read this novel. It serves as a reminder towards trusting your instincts, the importance of bonds with others and, in the face of challenges or what seems like overwhelming odds, we all need to pause for a moment, “breathe deep and swim’.” —★★★★★ Reader Review
“...this book is very symbolic of current times. It shows how we all currently live, and in future years, I’m sure people will read it and wonder what we actually went through. This book will be a great addition to school and classroom libraries.” —NetGalley Review
“This was a solid read, I greatly enjoyed it! It's very interesting to see COVID-19 in books as well. Breathe Deep & Swim left me heartbroken, but it also made me optimistic. This novel taught me that sometimes all you need to do is go with the flow. Overall, this was a sweet book with a lovely message!” —NetGalley Review
“This book took me on a ride! Finished this in one sitting just to know what would happen to the brothers, and had me hoping they'll finally see their mom. I like how it was written, the characters are engaging and as mentioned, they make you want to root for them. I love how there are references to some classic books, which give clues on what could be waiting for them.” —NetGalley Review
Jenna Marcus is an academic leader and published author of the YA novel, My Unusual Talent. She has a fervent passion for leveraging her decade of expertise to robustly enhance and redefine the quality of teaching and learning. As an avid reader, she believes that every child should find a book to love. In addition to her profession experience, she holds a MS. ED in Educational Leadership, a MS. ED in Middle Childhood & Adolescent English Education and a BA in Literature; she is also certified in School Building Leadership and ELA. Currently, she lives in New Rochelle, NY.
Chapter 1: Not Midnight
It felt like a phantom clock was striking midnight.
I thought I heard twelve chimes, but maybe they were ringing somewhere off in the distance. Maybe I was just imagining it because the sound of midnight—that finite clang—would have fittingly stamped this moment. But even without hearing the distinctive ringing of a midnight bell, even without confirmation of the time, I’d always remember this moment. At some point in the night, Dad had died, and we’d been left to figure out the rest of our lives, or at least the next few hours.
I’d never seen a corpse before, not in its organic form, before being preserved in a coffin—only after being coiffed and cleaned to a perfection that never replicated the actual living person I once knew.
At Uncle Earl’s funeral, he’d worn an intensely black suit with a matching tie, but he’d once said he would rather die than wear one. Well, I guess the suit was fitting then, because if he’d taken one look at that Windsor knot, he would have dropped dead on the spot.
Lying in that shiny coffin, Uncle Earl had been like a wax statue, a pristine, unnatural representation, not the Uncle Earl we knew. That wax figure wouldn’t ruffle my hair while saying, “When are you going to cut that thing? Are you looking to grow a pet?” It’d always driven me crazy when he said that, but he was being true to who he was; he was his authentic self. In that coffin, any semblance of authenticity he’d once had dissipated, leaving a body in a proper suit. I supposed he’d been prepared and preserved to look like that for an audience, to appear “more palatable.”
This was different though, and not because the dead man lying in the bed was my dad. This was different because my dad still looked like himself. He wasn’t made up for anyone; his life had just faded away. His lily-pad-green eyes were dull and staring at nothing on the ceiling. His jaw was slack. He looked like he was waiting to sleep, but his soul had left his body instead.
The most potent difference was the absence of living movements. He was missing those subtle movements, like adjusting himself under the bedspread, or twitching his nose from time to time. He was missing his stare, when he would focus on a particular point as if to turn it over in his mind before slightly shaking his head to refocus his eyes. His dark-brown hair somehow had lost its sheen, which seemed impossible since it had grown oily from not showering for days on end.
It was his stillness that filled the room. His severe lack of movement connected him to all other corpses, but because he wasn’t in the standard coffin, in the standard funeral home, I couldn’t shake the expectation of seeing him move. It was almost like I was taking for granted that people could move. Even if you were a quadriplegic, your eyes could move back and forth, and your chest would rise and fall with every breath you took.
It was impossible to mistake a dead man for what he was, and however I felt about this situation, I knew that he was dead.
“Wolfgang, why is this door open?” Van Gogh called from the hall. His footsteps began to slow to a stop as he hesitated to enter the room. We both knew this room was off-limits, and we both knew why.
Normally I followed the rules, especially ones set by Van Gogh, but I’d felt compelled to go into our dad’s room, almost as if…as if I knew that I would find my dead dad lying in his own filth. As I mentioned, it had been a while since he’d showered.
“Wolfgang, why are you in here? You know you shouldn’t—holy shit!” Van Gogh shouted, stopping a few feet away from the bed.
Although my brother’s eyes were usually a mirror image of our dad’s lily-pad-green ones, his naturally seemed livelier. In fact, they seemed to be expanding and retracting, if that was even possible.
I had no idea how to respond, other than to say what we both knew was a lie.
“I don’t know what happened. He just … died.”
He just died. Yes, he had, that was obviously true, but we both knew what happened, we both knew the cause.
Van Gogh ran his fingers through his short dark-brown hair, staring down at the body.
“Shit, shit, shit.” My brother didn’t always know what to say in uncomfortable situations, but that was probably because he was rarely uncomfortable. Even when he got into verbal boxing matches with Dad, he didn’t seem uncomfortable, just angry and disgusted. But now, as he continued to run his fingers through his hair, it was obvious that he was severely uncomfortable.
“I know. I don’t know what happened. I just found him here,” I repeated. Normally, I was very verbose. It probably came from the fact that I was a bona fide bookworm, at least that’s what my teachers told me. That was one of the reasons I did so well on my compositions, especially in English class. I usually knew how to sew together sentences that sounded articulate, but not obnoxiously so. Dad always said I was too smart for my own good, and that he couldn’t understand a word I was saying—but that was because he wasn’t really listening. He never really tried to understand.
“What are you even doing in here? You know you shouldn’t be in here without a mask!” Van Gogh exclaimed, adjusting his white N95 mask.
“I mean, does it really matter anymore? He’s dead,” I said, reaching for the mask tucked in my back pocket.
“Wolfgang, we don’t know if he’s still contagious!” Van Gogh cried as he pulled a pair of gloves out of a pocket in his tattered Levi’s. He handed them to me before helping me adjust my mask. “There, that’s better.”
We simultaneously looked down at the stiffening body. I didn’t feel his skin, but I knew my dad’s body was getting colder and that rigor mortis would set in at some point; it was only a matter of time. However, how much time we had, who knew? I couldn’t tell you what time it was.
It was at that point that I asked the obvious yet complex question I knew was on both of our minds. “Now what?”
Van Gogh took a deep breath, so deep that I could feel him holding it for some time—as if he needed the oxygen, any oxygen, even if it were contaminated. He slowly exhaled as he looked over our dad’s body.
“Now? We need to get out of this room,” he said, taking hold of my hand and walking me into the hall. My brother hadn’t held my hand since I was eight years old and he was ten. Even though Dad had never instructed Van Gogh to do so, he’d always taken hold of my hand as we walked across the street.
Although it was six years later, and I knew that as a high school freshman I was a little too old to walk hand in hand with my older brother, I was reluctant to let go. Van Gogh had always been my life raft. I knew I needed him, and I also knew I could always rely on him.
Although my brother’s plans weren’t always fully thought through, I knew he would have one. I knew he would do everything in his power to get us safely across that street.
When we were in the hall, Van Gogh released my hand and walked over to the couch, but he didn’t sit down. Instead, he just walked around it, circling it like a vulture waiting for the right moment to land.
I pulled off my mask and tucked both the mask and the gloves into my back pocket. I couldn’t help but watch my brother as he continued to circle the couch, looking down at the brown carpet.
“What should we do?” I just needed to ask this question. Van Gogh always knew what to do, even if he acted on a whim, which he usually did. Me, on the other hand … it took me forever to construct a plan. I had to think it through too much; I’d always anticipate the worst-case scenario and would end up scrapping fully formed plans. But not Van Gogh. No, he would just go with it and whatever happened, happened.
Also, my brother would take full responsibility for his actions, but he never seemed to regret them. For example, when he’d been caught tagging a wall when he was into graffiti art, he said that if Keith Haring could do it, why couldn’t he? Granted, I’m sure Haring’s younger brother didn’t have to use his lawn mowing money to bail his brother out of jail, like I did. Even though our dad had yelled at him for a good hour about getting arrested and focusing more on his art than anything else, Van Gogh didn’t seem remorseful. Although he never apologized to Dad for his actions, he did apologize to me because he knew that it had taken me a while to earn what became his bail money.
The following week, I’d found my money paid back with interest on my dresser. It was only later that I learned that my brother pawned some of his new art supplies to pay me back. I didn’t even attempt to get them back because I knew that if I did, it would hurt his pride. We never spoke of the incident again because there was no need to; we were brothers. We would do anything for one another. That was just a fact.
For this reason, whatever decision Van Gogh made would affect the both of us, and he knew it. He normally worked well under pressure because he never let it get to him, but this was different. We both knew whatever decision he made would determine our fate. Nevertheless, he would figure out what to do. I didn’t need to worry because whatever he decided, that was what we were going to do. Even if it wasn’t the perfect plan, he would make sure it all worked out in the end. He always did.
I knew not to disturb my brother while he was thinking, so I calmly took a seat in the chair adjacent to the couch. I was tempted to pick up the book I’d left under the coffee table, not to read it but just to feel it in my hands. There was just something about holding a book, any book, that just put me at ease.
I eyed the spine, a cracked white crease severing the dull orange spine that read: The Catcher in the Rye, by J.D Salinger. You only needed to read the book once to know why the publisher chose to emphasize the words “catcher” and “rye” in the title, but I chose to read it about a dozen times, to the point where the annotations I jotted in the margins could be time stamped by the evolution of my penmanship. I really liked it when even the publisher would provide readers with a subtle hint about the book’s deeper meaning. It was as if even those binding the book recognized its potential greatness.
As I was just about to lean forward to pick up Salinger’s coming of-age tale, Van Gogh stopped in his tracks. He turned toward me but didn’t really see me. He seemed to be looking off in the distance, at an indiscriminate part of the wall. It could only mean one thing: Van Gogh had come up with a plan.
“Pack,” he commanded. “Empty out our backpacks and pack everything we can carry,” he said, marching toward our bedroom.
Pack? Following him into the bedroom, I watched him riffle through his canvas backpack, pulling out every textbook and notebook that he could find until the backpack was completely empty. I don’t even think that he left a single pencil in there.
“Pack? Pack for what?” I questioned.
“We’re leaving,” Van Gogh stated, opening up his dresser drawer and pulling out a few pairs of socks and some of his boxers.
“We’re leaving?” I sounded like an echo, mirroring his statements but recreating them into queries. “Why?”
“We have to,” he stated, not looking up while continuing to shove his clothes into the backpack, trying to fashion it into a makeshift suitcase. “Damn, this may not be big enough.”
“We have to?” Van Gogh didn’t even bother to address that echo. He just walked over to my side of the room and emptied out my backpack.
“I know you’re going to want to take some books, but don’t take too many,” my brother warned. “We’re probably going to have to carry these backpacks for a while and if they’re too heavy, we won’t make it.”
“We won’t make it? Make it where?” Getting tired of my own questions, I shook my head, as if to reconfigure my brain, trying to prevent myself from being a parrot. “Van Gogh, where are we going? Why do we have to leave? What is the plan?” My questions came flooding out, a waterfall of inquiries that just seemed to spill out of me. I felt like I was talking a mile a minute, but I couldn’t help it, my mouth was trying to catch up to my brain.
“Just pack first, ask questions later,” he stated, punching down his clothes. “We need to make a list of essentials. What we absolutely need, not what we would like to have, okay?” Before Van Gogh could move toward our closet, I grabbed his wrist, giving it a firm hold.
At the touch of my hand, he finally looked into my eyes. His were a steady wash of green, with slightly dilated pupils, all nestled under a furrowed brow.
“Van Gogh, please, I need to know what’s going on. Why are we packing?” I pleaded. “I’m not going to fight you on this, I never would, but I need to know what we are doing.”
Van Gogh nodded, knowing me too well.
Although I would follow any plan my brother would put into motion, I needed to know the intricacies of the plan. This applied to anything, really. I had a habit of resisting something unless I knew exactly what was happening. For example, when I was little, I would scream when the dentist began to work on me because he had never explained what he was going to do before he stuck his instruments into my mouth. Apparently, I was screaming so much that the dentist was afraid to continue unless my dad agreed to having the dental assistants hold me down and give me a sedative. Although my dad agreed to this, Van Gogh yelled at the dentist when he heard the plan. Unfortunately, since Van Gogh was a kid himself, the adults won in the end.
Maybe it was that instance that caused me to hate doctors. I knew that we needed doctors to survive, especially now that we were in the midst of a global pandemic, but I just couldn’t get over this underlying hatred. Well, actually, it wasn’t not that I hated them, but that I didn’t trust them. I would always trust Van Gogh, though. I trusted him more than anyone else, so whatever we had to do, we were going to do it, but I just needed to know what exactly we were doing. I needed to make sense of it first.
Van Gogh took a deep breath and placed my now empty backpack on my bed.
“Wolfgang, we can’t stay here. Pretty soon, the state will discover that Dad died. As far as I know, he is our only living relative in this state. Uncle Earl was his only brother, who never had any kids, and Dad’s parents died a long time ago, so it’s just you and me. So, since there is no one who can take us in, we are now wards of the state, which means that we will be placed in foster care. I’m sixteen, so in the state of Florida, I am still a minor—if I were eighteen, it would be a different story, but I’m not. So, it’s inevitable that we will go into foster care and then we will be separated. I know that you don’t want that to happen, and neither do I, so our only choice is to run away.”
Van Gogh’s tone was so calm, but more than calm, it was steady. His tone was a stark contrast to my mind, which was still racing with questions and trying to process what he was telling me.
Words like “foster care” and “separated” kept flipping over and over in my mind. Was he right? Would we wind up in foster care? Would we be separated? He spoke as if he was speaking from experience. Even though I knew he’d never been in foster care, we did go to school with a few classmates who were not only in foster care, but who seemed to jump from home to home. Actually, to call the places where they lived a “home” was entirely inaccurate. They were more like temporary landing bases until they found a home—if they ever found a home. I did have one friend, Sophie, who’d found a permanent home with her foster family. Sophie said that she looked so much like her foster parents because they all wore the same black-framed glasses, and like her, her foster mom also had asthma. Although Sophie was adopted by a family that she loved, they’d adopted her when she was a lot younger than us, and she was not adopted with a sibling.
Van Gogh was right. Who was going to adopt two teenage brothers? It was a possibility, but we both knew that it was too slim. Van Gogh was right—we couldn’t take that chance, we needed to leave. However, he still hadn’t answered all my questions.
“Okay, but where are we running to? We have to be going somewhere, right?”
Van Gogh looked down at my hand, which was still gripping his wrist. When I let go, he placed both of his hands on my shoulders, and continued to look me right in the eyes. His gaze was even steadier than before, but his pupils seemed to retract a bit, so he looked more like his normal self.
“There’s only one living relative I know about … our mom. I know that she ran away when we were both very young, but I remember Dad once mentioning that she lived in New York when they first met. It’s a long trip but we have to make it. It’s our only chance to stay together.”
As I looked up into Van Gogh’s eyes, I nodded, still processing the plan. Van Gogh always had a few inches on me. For this reason, although we were both pretty lanky, his hand-me-downs were always too long for me. I knew that if our dad was still alive, the blue T-shirt and matching jeans that Van Gogh was wearing would be passed down to me in a few months—but now who knew what would be passed down. Our dad was no longer alive to make those decisions, or any decisions at all. So now, we sought a new decision maker. Our mom.
Our mom. I had not heard that phrase in a long time. She left when I was three and Van Gogh was five years old. Dad never spoke about her and didn’t keep any pictures of her in the house. I barely knew anything about her, except that she ran away and that she was the one who named us. I think that’s why Dad felt the need to shorten our names to “Wolf ” and “Van.” He couldn’t stand any memory of her in his house, and our names—our existence—were constant reminders of her imprint on his life.
“How are we going to get there?” I quickly pulled out my phone and did a search. “It’s nearly 1,200 miles away, and we don’t even know which part of New York she lived in,” I stated, tucking my phone back into my front pocket.
I could feel Van Gogh’s grip tightening a bit before he took his hands away from my shoulders and turned back to my empty backpack.
“The Bronx,” Van Gogh stated, picking up my empty backpack and handing it to me. “She used to live on Pelham Parkway in the Bronx. So, that’s where we’re going—the Bronx, New York. Now, pack.”
“How do you know that?”
Van Gogh shrugged as he looked at my backpack. “I just do.”
“How are we going to get there?” I asked, feeling the weightlessness of my empty backpack.
“I have an idea. First, I need you to pack. We are wasting too much time,” he said.
As he started pulling a couple of T-shirts and light sweaters off hangers, I took a look around our room.
I tried to relive that ubiquitous scenario when your house is on fire and you need to grab everything that is important to you. But I was coming up short.
Van Gogh didn’t have to tell me that we would never return—that was a given.
As I scanned the room, I saw cracking white walls that really needed spackling. Aside from the cracks, the walls were dull and bare. In fact, essentially everything was bare. It was almost as if we lived a utilitarian lifestyle. The unmade beds and the clothes in both of our dressers and in the closet were the only signs that the room was lived in, but aside from my books and Van Gogh’s art supplies, you would never know that we lived in this room.
Before packing any clothes, I decided to put on a few of the bulkier items so I could fit more books in my backpack. As we were nearing autumn, with the temperature cooling, I decided to pull on a sweater and wear my jean jacket over it. I was already wearing a pair of jeans, and my sneakers, so I thought I was wearing enough layers to be warm. Even though it was the middle of the night, I never bothered to change for bed. It was only at night that I could read my books in peace, without hearing Dad’s cough reverberating throughout the house, or hearing him calling to Van Gogh to bring him something. With my dad’s death, the house had become eerily silent, but I knew that even in this silence, I could never read here again. Van Gogh and I could never stand still here; we needed to keep moving.
I sized up my backpack and determined that I could take about ten paperback books, a few shirts, pants, socks and underwear. After I riffled through my dresser drawer and closet, I picked out my clothes and smooshed them down into the backpack.
As I scanned the bookcase, I noticed how engorged it was from years of hoarding books. Between the school letting us keep our paperbacks, birthday gifts from Van Gogh, and the library’s weekly bookfairs, I genuinely had an abundance of books.
“Not too many,” Van Gogh warned as he walked out of our bedroom. “I’m going to see what cash we have lying around.”
Alone with my books, I determined that, like with my clothes, I could only take the essentials. But how do you determine which books are essential? They were all important to me, every single one, whether they were assigned or I’d chosen them myself. Each book carried a memory for me. I could tell you exactly when I read and reread each of the texts. Only a few were annotated, though. These were irreplaceable, so these would be the ones I needed to take.
I narrowed my selection down to seven essentials: S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders; Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451; Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart; John Knowles’s A Separate Peace; Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club; Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner; and Jean-Paul Sartre’s play, No Exit. Every single one of these texts had Post-its hanging out the sides and annotations in the margins.
After I put each book in my backpack, I zipped it up and swung it over my shoulder. Although it had more heft now, I could still fit a few extra items in there.
I quickly found J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye underneath the coffee table, unzipped my backpack, and added this to the collection.
I can fit a couple more books in here, I thought as I turned back to our bedroom. But before I could take another good look at the bookcase, I heard my brother calling for me down the hall, from Dad’s bedroom.
“Van Gogh?” I questioned, as I inched into the room.
“I’m in the closet!” he yelled. I could see his feet sticking out of the open closet door as he was kneeling on the rug.
I diverted my eyes from looking at our dad’s corpse, trying not to imagine it slowly deteriorating.
Van Gogh moved over so that we were both kneeling, looking into the closet.
“So, I was trying to find some money, and I think we hit the motherload,” he said as he held a huge wad of cash in front of me. “There has to be over $1,000 here, easy. I’m sure there is more back here, we just need to look.”
I nodded, still trying to process seeing that huge bundle of money. It was wrapped in a dingy, white rubber band, so Dad must have had that money for a while now.
“I checked his wallet too, but there was only about $20 in there. He had a few credit cards, but those are useless to us,” Van Gogh said, as he sifted through a few pairs of shoes and pushed aside our dad’s toolbox.
“Why is that useless? Do you think that they are maxed out?” If they were, that wouldn’t surprise either one of us. Between paying the bills and our dad’s growing bar tab, he had maxed out his cards a few times.
Van Gogh shrugged. “Maybe, but they are traceable. Once someone discovers his body, he will be in the system. If we were to use the credit card of a dead man, the card would be considered stolen, and the police would find us. At least if we use cash, the police can’t trace us,” Van Gogh reasoned.
“Well, they could trace the serial numbers,” I noted.
Van Gogh smirked and shook his head. “You read too many detective stories. Hey, what’s that?” he asked, pulling out a small, wooden box, buried deep in the closet. Before I could look at the box, I noticed that hidden behind the box was a stack of papers and two paperback books.
The papers seemed delicate and a little crumpled. In the middle of the papers, there was a photograph of a woman holding a swaddled baby. Before I could inspect the photo, my brother said, “This box is locked.”
“Yeah.” He pointed out the small brass padlock dangling from the middle of the box. “I didn’t see a key, though, did you?”
“No, but it doesn’t look like you open it with a key,” I said, pointing at the four small, metal loops jutting out from the bottom of the lock. Each loop had a set of numbers, zero through nine, etched into the metal. “It looks like a combination lock, but I’ve never seen one like this, have you?”
Van Gogh shook his head as he inspected the lock. “Maybe there’s a slip of paper with the combination on it. Did you find anything like that?”
“No, but I did find this,” I said, showing him the photo.
As my brother inspected the photo, he smiled. “Mom and you. Wow, I almost forgot what she looked like.”
I’d completely forgotten what Mom looked like, as I stared at her shoulder-length, wavy light-brown hair and light-blue eyes. She was smiling down at the baby, who was apparently me. I couldn’t have been older than a few weeks, maybe a few months.
Our dad never displayed any photos, let alone kept any of them, especially of our mom. It was almost as if he was trying to erase her existence from our lives because she left us. However, to our dad, she really left him.
“I also found these,” I said as I handed Van Gogh the papers. He placed the box next to him as he carefully, but quickly, unfolded the papers. Once again, he smirked.
“You know what these are? These are our birth certificates.”
I inched over to him to take a closer look. As we inspected the birth certificates, there was no surprising information. Granted, now I knew what the Mayor, Commissioner of Health, and the City Registrar’s signatures looked like, but aside from this, the time of birth and the hospital in Florida were unsurprising. Mother: Ann Miller. Father: Benjamin Stephen Thomas. It all seemed pretty standard.
My gaze lingered on our full names though: Van Gogh Vincent Thomas. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart Thomas. I couldn’t help but wonder why Mom chose those names. Clearly, Van Gogh’s name matched him perfectly. Although he never expressed a particular interest in post-impressionist art or the need to replicate Starry Night, he was unquestionably an artist. Maybe that’s why “Van Gogh” was his first name. Mom had known that his artistic talents would emerge sooner or later. Maybe that’s why she chose “Mozart” as one of my middle names. Perhaps she was questioning whether or not I would be a prodigal musician, like my namesake. By making “Mozart” my second—not even my first—middle name, it was almost as if she were planting the seed of musical genius, but she still doubted whether or not it would emerge. Perhaps she had been right in doing so because I couldn’t play any instruments, and I enjoyed reading much more than I enjoyed trying to learn how to play music.
“I’ll put the certificates in my bag. We may need these,” Van Gogh said, as he pulled out his backpack and placed both the wooden box and our birth certificates inside. “Do you see anything else?”
“Just these books,” I said, holding up the two paperbacks. One was too thin to be a novel. I inspected the orange cover with a black border, and what looked like an upside-down building with white smoke or clouds bleaching the orange cover and a tiny white airplane shooting out as if it was flying into the lower right border. I read the title to myself, All My Sons by Arthur Miller. “I wonder if he was related to Mom?” I muttered.
“What?” Van Gogh asked as he stood up.
“Oh, nothing. I was just wondering if Mom was related to Arthur Miller. I mean, they both have the same last name, but maybe that’s a coincidence.”
“I don’t know. In any case, we need to leave soon. I’m going to see if I can find anything else. Meet me by the front door in a few minutes, okay?”
I nodded as Van Gogh left, leaving me to scan the other book cover. A lonely woman, who looked like she was from the Victorian age based on her attire, stared out at the reader with an expression of boredom. The title, Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert, hung over her head. Although I had heard of Arthur Miller, I had never read anything by Gustave Flaubert. As I tucked the books under my arm, and stood up, I couldn’t help wondering why these books were in the back of our dad’s closet—a man who rarely read. Despite not knowing who owned these books, I decided that these were the last two books that I would take with me.
Chapter 2: Stealing a Dead Man’s Car
“What now?” I asked Van Gogh, standing outside of our house. It was practically pitch-black, and it felt like the temperature had dropped quite a bit. Wearing layers was definitely the right choice.
I looked back at the house, as if trying to etch it into my memory. I don’t remember living anywhere else other than the house our dad inherited from his parents. Uncle Earl already had a house, so when their parents died, they left their faded blue home to my dad and his new family. Maybe it was a home to them, but it never really felt like a home to me.
Oddly enough, I didn’t feel a sense of attachment to the one-story, pale-green house. For the past fourteen years, I’d slept in the same room, read on the same dingy couch, and mowed the same patchy lawn. But it’d never really seemed like a home to me; it was more like a building where I could rest, read, and refuel. I once read a poem that began with the verse, “People are made of places.” Perhaps this was the case for that poet, but I have to disagree. Maybe some people are made up of places, but it was difficult for me to believe that this house was a part of my identity.
Maybe that’s why I did not feel an ounce of sadness as I stood in front of the closed front door. This “place” wasn’t a part of who I was. This was never my home. Van Gogh and I were each other’s home. Nevertheless, we could not live on brotherhood alone.
Van Gogh dug into his front pocket and pulled out a set of keys.
“Now, we drive,” he declared, walking toward the driveway.
“Drive?” I asked as he approached our dad’s 1995 Pontiac Bonneville— another “inheritance” from his parents. The sea-green car was caked with grime and dirt from years of shunning car washes. When Van Gogh opened up the driver’s side, you could see the tears in the beige interior from miles away.
“Get in,” Van Gogh commanded as he pulled off his mask, flung his backpack on the backseat, and eased into the driver’s seat. Following suit, I slid into the front passenger’s side, placed my N95 mask next to me, and tossed my backpack next to Van Gogh’s, praying that the car would start.
“Do you really think this is a good idea?” I asked, as he fought to turn over the engine.
After a few more tries, Van Gogh muttered that he would give the car a minute. Then he gave it one more attempt, and as if sensing Van Gogh’s determination, the car obeyed with the prompt rumble of the engine.
Van Gogh smiled as he shifted the gear into reverse and looked back at the dark, empty street as we backed out of the driveway.
We sat in silence for a beat before Van Gogh said anything.
“Did you bring your charger?” Van Gogh questioned as he gripped the beige steering wheel.
Charger! Damn! I’d known that I was going to forget something.
“Sorry, I forgot,” I admitted.
“That’s okay, I brought mine, but it’s in my backpack. Can you pull up Google Maps?”
As I was scrolling through my apps, I repeated the question, “Do you really think this is a good idea?”
As my brother eased the car to a stop at a red light, he turned to me.
“We need to get to New York, right? As you said, it’s around 1,200 miles away. I can’t think of a better way to get there, can you?”
Although I felt there was probably an alternative to this plan, which did not involve us stealing our dad’s car, I just nodded.
“Just take a deep breath and relax. Everything will work out,” Van Gogh assured me, hitting the accelerator as soon as the light turned green.
Breathe deep and swim, I said to myself, as I closed my eyes and inhaled all of the oxygen that I could take in. I may not have remembered our mom’s appearance, but I clearly remember that that was her phrase. Her voice was like honey pouring into my ears. “Breathe deep and swim,” she’d advised. Although I clearly remember this statement, I don’t remember being near a body of water. The setting is fuzzy and frayed, but I distinctly remember a lack of swim gear. No water, no inflatable, neon water wings, no swim trunks. I don’t even remember being wet or preparing for this eventuality. However, that phrase had stirred a sense of comfort and assurance in me, especially in that moment. Maybe it was because she was the one who said it, or because there was something about that moment that I couldn’t recall where that phrase would make sense—I didn’t know. All I knew for certain was that she’d said this phrase directly to me, and that this was my only memory of her.
Breathe deep and swim. Perhaps, when we found her, I could ask her what she’d meant when she said those words. Of course, I had a million questions to ask our mom, like, “Why did you leave? Why did you leave us with Dad? Did you leave us, Dad, or both?” The list was endless. However, one of my first questions would inevitably be, “What does ‘breathe deep and swim’ mean?”
Without knowing her intention, I had to apply my own meaning to the phrase. Whether or not it was “correct,” there was no way to tell, but I always said this to myself in order to prepare for a challenging task. First, you take a deep breath to build your confidence, as if you are breathing
in the world to absorb its strength. Then, you just go. You apply yourself to the task and do not stop. You just need to swim. You have to trust in the proverbial water and your own intuition to take you to where you need to go. So, you navigate the watery depths to make your way to your destination. Maybe that’s what Van Gogh did every time he took a deep breath. Maybe I was not the only one who ever received this advice. I could’ve just asked Van Gogh, but I didn’t. I liked to think Mom gave me—just me—one thing that she didn’t give both of us. Even if that wasn’t true, it could be my own personal truth.
“What do you remember about Mom?” I asked.
Although I might’ve been the only one who was told to “breathe deep and swim,” I knew that Van Gogh knew more about Mom overall—after all, he had two years more with her than I did.
My brother stared at the road as if he were lost in thought.
“In 100 feet, turn right on Cleveland Avenue and then keep left to continue onto US-41 North,” the feminine, robotic voice instructed. Although I was the one who’d plugged our destination into Google Maps, the sound of “her” voice still made me jump.
“I don’t know,” Van Gogh admitted, gripping the wheel, preparing for the turn. “She looked exactly the way she did in the picture you found. You know, you look a lot like her, actually. Same wavy, light-brown hair and light-blue eyes. I also remember her reading to us each night. I mean, that is until she left. Maybe that’s where you get it from. I had never seen her reading any books to herself, but I can’t recall a night when she wasn’t reading to us. She mostly read us the Golden Books. I’m not sure what happened to them. Anyway, that’s pretty much what I remember,” Van Gogh concluded, and we took a slight left onto US-41 North.
“Continue on US-41 North for 17 miles,” the female voice instructed.
“I don’t really remember anything,” I admitted. “That picture didn’t even trigger a memory.”
“Well, you were only a baby in that picture. Plus, Mom left when you were really young. It stands to reason that you don’t remember her.”
“I wish I did though,” I confessed. “It’s like a part of us is missing, you know?”
Van Gogh nodded as he concentrated on the road. “Yeah, I get what you mean—but hey, we are headed there now, so she can fill in the missing pieces,” he said encouragingly.
“Maybe,” I responded, playing with the strings of my N95 mask, wishing that I had more than one for the trip.
I hesitated before asking my next question. I knew my brother wouldn’t know the answer, but I was compelled to pose it anyway. I knew it was a question that he must have asked himself. However, I could’ve been wrong. Sometimes, my brother was easy to read. He didn’t believe in keeping secrets, especially from me. He was very upfront with his intentions and beliefs, especially with Dad, which was why they had such a turbulent relationship. However, every once in a while, Van Gogh seemed inaccessible. I didn’t know if this was deliberate or instinctual, but there were moments when he was pensive and withdrawn. Although these were rare moments, they felt isolating. I never admitted this to him—that I needed him to be accessible and open, that I needed to know that I could rely on someone, and that person would always be him for me. If not Van Gogh, then who? Our mom abandoned us. And to our dad, I was just a nuisance that he didn’t really understand. In any case, he was gone now, so it didn’t really matter. Whether or not we found our mom, Van Gogh would still be that person because, unlike our parents, he was always there. Even in those rare moments when he seemed to be living inside his head, I knew that eventually he would snap out of it.
“Why do you think Mom left?” I asked.
Van Gogh’s knuckles began to turn white as he gripped the wheel a little tighter. Even though we were moving, everything felt very still as I waited for his response. It felt like a good minute before he said anything.
“I wish I knew what to say,” he admitted. “I don’t know, Wolfgang. I just don’t know. She must’ve had her reasons, but they were always a mystery to me. I’d like to think she left a note, explaining why she chose to leave. It just never made any sense to me. But the fact of the matter is that she left, and if she did leave a note, I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t have changed anything. She still chose to leave. What’s worse is that she chose to leave us with Dad.” Van Gogh paused to take a deep breath. “But, in spite of all that, she’s our only chance.”
I nodded, knowing he was right about everything, especially about the fact that Mom not only left us, but that she left us with Dad.
Although we both loved Dad, it felt like an obligatory love. This may seem harsh, but I doubted either of us would associate with Dad if he weren’t related to us. Yes, he was our father, but to say that he raised us would be a lie. Van Gogh raised me and himself. Our dad provided us with a dwelling, food, and clothing—but that was pretty much it.
Some might argue that that was enough. He was a provider, even if what he provided wasn’t consistent. Although he was supposed to provide money for groceries, there were days when our refrigerator was bare. Even though he was supposed to pay the electric and gas bills, there were nights when Van Gogh and I huddled together underneath a blanket, when he held up a flashlight to a book that I was reading so that I could finish the chapter. Since we didn’t have a mortgage, we never feared losing our house, but I remember a few times when Dad almost forgot to pay the property taxes.
None of these actions were done out of spite. I just think Dad envisioned a life for himself where his wife took care of these tasks. I would’ve never said this to him, but I firmly believed that he wasn’t prepared to be a responsible adult, let alone a single father to two sons. But even though I would never criticize Dad to his face, Van Gogh was much more confrontational and open about his feelings. In fact, my brother had even told Dad that he was an unfit father.
It happened pretty recently after we first suspected Dad had COVID-19. His cough was so dry and persistent, we couldn’t help but wonder if it was from our dad’s irrational insistence on smoking one pack of cigarettes a day, or from something else. However, when his frequent coughing fits left him lightheaded and out of breath, Van Gogh and I began to suspect that he had the coronavirus.
Despite our suspicions, Dad had continued to go to his job at the construction site—until he was too tired to move, at least. At that point, Van Gogh called in sick for him. That was only a couple of days ago.
Dad never admitted that he was sick. Even before he got sick, he never wore a mask or socially distanced himself from others. Once it became impossible for Dad to take care of himself, my brother ensured he remained in his bedroom. It became a makeshift hospital room, without a ventilator or any monitoring system. It was the best we could do since neither of us could carry him to the car, and any time we even attempted to call 911, Dad forced all his energy into yelling at us, screaming to get off the phone. By the time he could no longer scream—or speak, for that matter—he was too far gone. Near the end, Van Gogh and I knew there was no point in taking him to the hospital.
However, before this point, Van Gogh had one final confrontation with our dad. It was essentially the last conversation they ever had.
“Face it, you have COVID-19!” Van Gogh had exclaimed as Dad doubled over from his latest coughing fit. “You need to go to the hospital.” Dad cleared his throat and leaned against the wall, trying to balance himself. “Look, Van, it’s just a damn cough,” Dad asserted, wiping the beads of sweat forming on his brow. “Mind your own business.”
“Mind my own business! Are you kidding me?” Van Gogh had screamed, clenching his fists while taking a step away from our dad, trying to keep his distance. “This is my business! We”—Van Gogh pointed to him and me—“are in this house with you! You are putting us in danger!”
“You don’t know what—” Dad was cut off by another coughing fit. He pressed his palm against the wall as he coughed into his fist, which barely covered his mouth. I slid deeper into the couch and raised the book I was reading up to my face, as though I could shield myself from his illness through the sheer force of literature.
“I don’t know what, Dad? I don’t know that you can’t get out a damn sentence because you are coughing up a lung!” Van Gogh raked his fingers through his hair as he scowled out our dad, who continued to cough. “I don’t know that you are endangering the guys on the site! I don’t know that you are endangering everyone in that damn bar who refuses to wear a mask! What don’t I understand, Dad?!”
After his coughing fit, Dad stared directly into Van Gogh’s matching lily-pad-green eyes. They were both so piercing, and so stubborn—firmly believing in their own opinions, deeming the other one as an adversary. But maybe that was appropriate. These fights had come to define their relationship. If they weren’t fighting, they weren’t interacting. They merely coexisted in this house; their relationship was marred by their refusal to try to understand one another.
Dad didn’t understand me either, but unlike Van Gogh, I never confronted him about his beliefs or conjectures. I just stayed out of his way, resigned to the fact that he would never try to understand me, so why bother to fight with him? Why waste my energy? While this attitude came naturally to me, Van Gogh had a hard time letting anything go. Unlike me, he was a fighter, but so was Dad.
When you put two fighters in a ring and do not expect a fight to break out, you are just a fool.
“You don’t know anything!” Dad had growled. “Just stay out of it.”
“Unbelievable! Stay out of it!” Van Gogh’s veins were prominently bulging from his neck as he continued. “You go on about how COVID-19 is nothing and talk about how ‘fake news’ sensationalizes this pandemic! But even when you catch it, you don’t believe in it! To you, it’s none of my business, but it is my damn business because you can give it to me–to Wolfgang! Don’t you care? Don’t you give a damn about yourself, about us?”
To that, Dad said nothing. He just continued to look Van Gogh straight in the eyes. I don’t know what he was trying to accomplish in doing so, but Van Gogh played the game and stared back. I don’t even know if he was waiting for an answer to his question, but Dad’s silence said it all.
“You know what?” Van Gogh scoffed, “You don’t. I mean, how could you? You’ve never been a damn father. You’re only related to us biologically, but you don’t have it in you to be a father.”
By this time, Dad was fuming. His face was as purplish red as a beet, which was caused by a mixture of coughing and rage.
“Get out,” Dad had growled.
Before he could say anything else, Van Gogh picked up his sketchpad and pencils from the coffee table and marched out of the house. As the door slammed shut, a flood of regret had poured over me. Why didn’t I go with you, Van Gogh? What if you don’t return? Why didn’t I follow you?
As I sat next to Van Gogh in the car now—looking down at Google Maps, watching us inch closer and closer to New York—I knew I wouldn’t make the same mistake again. I knew I would follow Van Gogh wherever he led. It was the only way that we could survive.