Growing up as military brats, we never really knew our extended families. I mean we knew names; we knew Uncle Scott and Aunt Cheryl, Cheryl’s husband Big Rick and her son Little Ricky, and her daughter Jamie. Uncle Scott shared my love of books and introduced me to science fiction. Uncle Buddy had seven kids, all with “J” names. But we didn’t know any of them well enough to, say, buy them the best Christmas gift. We couldn’t pick Grand -aunts and -uncles and cousins however many times removed out of a lineup.
When Joyce married Jerome, we got a new extended family. Jerome had one brother and three sisters, all with spouses and children of their own. Some of them lived in Minot, some still lived in their hometown, some lived in other towns in North Dakota. If we knew very little about our original extended families, we knew even less about these people, who all spoke with a strange German/Russian accent and didn’t sound at all like the family of Southerners we were used to. ( I hung up on one of Jerome’s sisters once because I couldn’t understand what she was saying and thought she was a prank caller!)
When Tonia, Sean and I were rescued and went to live with Joyce and Jerome, they were living in a two-bedroom apartment. There wasn’t enough room for 2 adults and 3 teens, so within a month or two, Joyce and Jerome bought a three-bedroom single-wide mobile home. Tonia and I shared a bed in the master bedroom and Sean had the smallest room since it was just him.
It seems like we’d barely moved in when Bonnie and Jerome Michael moved in with us. Bunk beds were bought for Sean’s room and that’s really all that could fit in the tiny room. The boys’ dresser was in their closet. Bonnie joined Tonia and me in our double bed. Even though we had the master bedroom, there was just no way to put three beds in there, even if two of them were bunked. The single double bed was quickly replaced by three foldout chair/beds, but we might as well have been sleeping in one bed, because once the beds were deployed, we girls were still sleeping shoulder to shoulder.
Our new home was already too small. So the summer between my junior and senior years in high school, Joyce and Jerome bought a brand-new three-bedroom, double-wide mobile home. Joyce and Jerome ended up with two closets in their room and a garden tub in their bathroom. They also bought a new bedroom set with a fancy headboard that was so tall, Jerome had to hang his gun rack on another wall, instead of over the bed where it had been in the last two places.
Bonnie, Tonia and I got a bedroom we could spread our beds apart in, leaving 2-3 feet between them when folded out. We also each got a wall to decorate however we wanted, and a walk-in closet. We HAD to make and fold our beds every day or you couldn’t really get around in the room, but when the beds were folded back into chairs, we ended up with a nice little sitting room.
Sean and Jerome Michael kept the bunkbeds, but now they had enough floor space left over to take the dresser out of the closet and still have room to play in their room. When I think about these new rooms compared to the ones in the single-wide, they seemed not only larger, but more full of light and welcoming.
Our new living room ran the entire width of the double-wide mobile home and it had a fireplace. It was pretty much open to the kitchen and dining room with something like a pillar in the center of the space to indicate the edges of each room. The bedrooms for all the kids were in the back of the house, Joyce and Jerome’s room was at the front, and the living room/dining room/kitchen was in the middle. If you walked down the hall from the kids’ rooms, you passed a laundry room/mud room on the left which held the back door. On the right was the second bathroom, which was the one all of us kids used.
You came out of that hallway right into the living room with the fireplace on your left and the front door on your right. From there you could go to the door of Joyce and Jerome’s room by going through either the kitchen on the left or the dining room on the right around the pillar; the door was directly in the center of the far wall. The house was new, not just new-to-us, and customized for our family.
I turned seventeen the August before my senior year of high school. I’d broken up with my boyfriend Steve that July for gaslighting me, and spent my birthday evening with Sue and Trish. I started my senior year heavily involved in the theater department and got my first lead role that September.
I hate driving and never really wanted to learn. But the Minot school system didn’t run school buses in town. School kids took the city bus to school, but it wasn’t free. Jerome did the math and decided it would be cheaper to buy a used car and have me drive everyone to school and home again than to pay for five kids to ride the bus twice a day, five days a week. Giving me a car also allowed us kids to go to after-school activities. Tonia and I had theatre, Sean joined Band, and Bonnie joined an exhibition jumprope team. I also got my first job, at Wendy’s. The five of us kids got along really well, despite being thrown together so suddenly.
Joyce and Jerome both worked out at the base, often leaving for work before we left for school and arriving home around 5:30. We kids were assigned to cook dinner on the weeknights, one evening per kid, with the parents cooking on the weekend. We got home before Joyce and Jerome and it was better to do your chores after school than to have to stay home on the weekend and do them. We all kinda just worked together and pitched in once a week to get them done: dusting, vacuuming, sweeping and mopping, cleaning the bathroom, and cleaning the kitchen.
The only times I didn’t celebrate Halloween in the snow as a kid were the two Halloweens we’d just spent in Florida, and we already had snow and bitter cold by my seventeenth Halloween. I remember a sunny and cold Saturday about a week before Halloween; Joyce and Jerome had gone grocery and other shopping and we kids were taking our time getting showered and dressed, deciding what to do with the day. I was back in my bedroom trying to make my hair behave and all my younger siblings were out in the main living area, eating and watching TV.
Suddenly my brothers and sisters started shouting my name urgently, insisting I come out there. Figuring I was being called to settle some piece of trivia or decide whose turn it was to choose the TV show, I didn’t rush to them, but I did go. As I came down the hall, I could see Tonia in the kitchen, pressed against the pillar, kind of peeking around it. A few more steps and I could see Bonnie in front of the pillar with her back to it, squeezed in behind Jerome’s recliner, looking in the same direction as Tonia was: toward the front door.
As I came to the end of the hall, I saw that Jerome Michael was at the table in the dining room, twisted around in his chair so that his hands were holding the back and he was peering over them, also looking at the front door. I took another step out of the hall and turned right, to see what everyone was looking at, wondering how it could be so quiet with five kids in the house. Sean was crouched on one knee in front of the coffee table, as if frozen in the act of standing up. I could see the tension in his body as he too looked at the front door.
At last I could see what they were all looking at: someone was standing inside our front door, swaying from side to side. It looked like a short adult, sex unknown because of the winter coat, jeans, and winter boots it was wearing, as well as the full-head halloween mask covering its face and hair.
I asked, “Who the fuck are you?” There was no answer, just the swaying.
I said, “Get out of here. Get out of my house!” And I stepped to my left, to get around the coffee table, and the stranger mirrored my movement to block my path.
I told them, “Tell me who you are or get the fuck out.” and I stepped to the right to go the other way around the coffee table. The intruder mirrored my movement again, moving them away from Sean. Sean stood up. The intruder stepped toward him. I grabbed Sean–already taller than me–and shoved him behind me.
I stepped toward the stranger again and said, “Get out of my house NOW or I’m calling the cops.” They took another step forward. Do I have to tell you I was terrified? All the sun seemed to have drained out of the day as this silent, masked intruder menaced us. Either me or Sean could probably get to the back door, but that left our brother and sisters alone in the house with this person. With the bulky clothes, there was no way to tell if they were armed or not. They just stood there, swaying, mirroring any movement we made.
I didn’t dare look away from the intruder. I said, “Jerome Michael, call 911. Tonia, get the rifle. NOW.”
Tonia and Jerome Michael moved at the same time. The stranger stepped toward them and Sean and I blocked its advance. They reached up and pulled off the mask as Tonia came out of Joyce and Jerome’s room with the rifle at her shoulder. Jerome Michael hung up the phone.
It was Jerome’s youngest sister. She was laughing. “You shoulda seen your faces! You were so scared!”
I was furious. Furious. Yes we certainly had been scared. So. Funny. Telling this story forty years later, I can still taste the fear, I can still feel the fury rising up to burn my cheeks.
“Get the fuck out of my house this second or I’ll tell Tonia to shoot you.”
Neither Tonia or I knew how to fire the rifle; we didn’t know whether it was loaded or even how to do so. But Tonia snugged that rifle into her shoulder and took aim. Jerome’s sister got the fuck out of my house. I locked the door behind her, screen and big door. Sean and I went and made sure the back door was locked. Tonia put the gun away. We all sat in the living room and waited for our parents to come home.
It wasn’t a long wait and when we unlocked the door for Joyce and Jerome, it was easy for them to see we were all upset. When we told them what happened , they were just as furious as I had been. Jerome called his sister and when she heard his voice she started laughing and telling him about her funny prank on his kids.
Jerome asked her if she was stupid or crazy. Did she realize how close she’d just come to being shot? What made her think it was a good or funny idea to scare us like that? How would she feel if he did it to her kids? She finally admitted she wouldn’t like it.
But at the family Christmas she told the “funny” story all over again, this time adding on how funny it was that Jerome was so angry. He let the whole family have it; wouldn’t stop shouting until they all admitted it wasn’t funny at all and if the sister had been shot, she would’ve deserved it. That was the last time we heard her talk about the funny prank. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to hear she kept telling it to other people who weren’t as sensitive as Jerome and his family.
She never apologized.
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