Chapter 4:

Downward Spiral

Galaktika Gamble: Stolen Light

Returning to school was easier than I expected it to be, but it didn't feel right. With Sally gone, it felt strange walking to my class alone. Even if it had been a few months, it was still hard to adjust to daily life without her. I felt so lonely and empty. I could only imagine how Neil must have felt, since she was his sister. All of the kids walking to their classes together and having a fun time talking about their summer break felt surreal to me. I felt like I was in a completely different world. When I arrived to my class, I saw a familiar face.

John: Ivan! Your desk is over here next to mine!

I walked over to my desk and placed my backpack over the back of my seat. It felt strange sitting next to John, since the last time I had seen him I felt jealous of him while he was talking with Sally. It's not like I had a choice though, since the teacher still picked our desks back in elementary school.

John: Everyone missed you! I know the past few months were bad but I have something for you if you want it.

Ivan: What is it?

John: Well...the last day I saw Sally she asked me to draw something. She intended to give it to you herself, but...

John trailed off in his sentence. It was as if he didn't want to say that she was dead. I couldn't blame him. Even I had a hard time accepting it after all that time. He reached into his backpack and grabbed a blue folder.

John: I hope you like it, I tried my best.

He handed me a drawing from the folder. On the paper was a drawing of Sally and I holding hands with hearts around us.

Ivan: I...I thought you liked her?

John: What? Hahaha no silly, she really liked you!

Ivan: But you two were always talking together..

John: We liked to talk about our crushes together! She's the only one I could trust knowing about my crush.

Ivan: Who is your crush?

John: Well...I'll tell you, but only if you PROMISE to keep it secret.

Ivan: Of course, I promise. I won't tell anyone.

He looked around the room nervously and leaned in to whisper in my ear.

John: I really like Zack, I think he's really cool! If he knew though I'm afraid he would think I'm gross so please don't tell anyone.

Ivan: Your secret is safe with me.

John: Thank you. Want to be friends?

Ivan: We can be friends. Thank you for the drawing.

That day was when I officially started my friendship with John. Though he was Sally's friend before, I had always been jealous of him so I never really tried to befriend him until that day. During that school year, I started to hang out with him more during recess. I would invite Neil to join us, but Neil always seemed hesitant. Eventually one day he agreed. We were so happy he finally opened up and joined us.

John: Hey, let's go play on the slide!

Neil: I'll race you guys there!

They ran to the slide as fast as they could. John made it there first, which didn't surprise me much since he was always a fast runner. I started off in a run, but I stopped halfway there. I had a really strange feeling. The feeling was familiar to me, but I wasn't able to pinpoint it. John climbed the ladder and sat at the top. Neil followed after and waited at the top of the ladder for John to slide down. They called my name, trying to get me to hurry. As I started to walk towards them, one side of the slide broke off, throwing John to the ground. Neil jumped off the ladder quickly as John started to cry.

Neil: I'll go get a teacher!

Neil ran to find a teacher as I hurried over to try and comfort John. He looked like he was in a lot of pain, laying on the ground holding his arm close to him. Some of the nearby kids started to circle around us, curious about what happened.

Ivan: Give him some space! The teacher needs to be able to get to him!

Neil returned with a couple of teachers. I explained to one of them what happened while another teacher tried to control the kids surrounding us. As the teachers were taking care of the situation, the bell rang for the end of recess. All day I had wondered if John was okay, but the teachers would hush all the kids anytime they started talking about what happened. I decided that when I got home I would call John's house to see if he was alright.

When school ended for the day, I ran home. Neil didn't run after me, but I assumed he wouldn't mind since he usually preferred being by himself. When I got home I ran through the door and to the phone on the table next to the couch. My mom looked at me curiously.

Jessica: You sure do seem to be in a panic. Everything okay? Where is Neil?

Ivan: I ran home, he's still walking..

Jessica: What did I tell you about walking to and from school?

Ivan: Uh...

I avoided looking into her eyes.

Ivan: We have to stick together..

Jessica: Yes! If you guys can't stick together I'll start walking with you to school.

Ivan: But mom! That's embarrassing, we are big kids! The school isn't that far..

Jessica: You're only 8. Yes, you're a big boy but you're still not big enough to walk completely by yourself to and from school.

Ivan: But I'll be 9 in March..

Jessica: It's only October.

My mom checked out the front door to see if Neil was in view. The street was completely empty. She started to worry and grabbed her car keys, but then breathed a sigh of relief. Neil had turned around the corner and started walking down the street toward the house. She turned to look at me.

Jessica: Don't do that again, okay?

Ivan: Okay..I'm sorry. I just want to call John.

Jessica: Didn't you see John at school?

Ivan: I did, but I haven't seen him since recess. The slide broke and he fell off. He looked like he was really hurt!

Jessica: You said..the slide broke?

Ivan: Yeah!

Jessica: Here, let me call him. Okay, sweetie? I'll talk with his parents and figure out how he's feeling, okay?

Ivan: Okay!

My mother grabbed the phone and called John's house. No one answered.

Jessica: He's probably not home right now. We'll wait for them to call back later, okay? For now, I want you to do your homework.

Neil walked into the house and set his backpack on the floor before falling back on the couch.

Jessica: Neil, keep your bag out of the doorway, please. Also, you need to do your homework too.

Neil groaned in disapproval before lazily getting up and grabbing his backpack off the floor. He slowly made his way over to the kitchen table to join me in working on our homework. After about an hour I was finished, yet Neil looked as if he didn't even start. He just sat there staring at his paper without filling any of it out.

Ivan: If you finish your homework we can play a video game together. Want to?

Neil: No.

I was surprised he would turn that down. Usually anytime I wanted to play video games he would join me.

Ivan: Are you sure? We could play the one you like most!

Neil: I said no.

Ivan: Okay then..

I wondered what was on his mind. He looked as if he wanted to cry. Suddenly the phone rang. My mother answered it. As she stood there chatting on the phone, I made sure to speak to Neil quietly so we wouldn't bother her.

Ivan: Do you..want to copy my homework? It looks like you're not able to focus today.

Neil: No, that wouldn't be good..

Ivan: But it's even worse if you don't do your homework at all. It'll be okay, just sneak my paper in your folder and copy it.

Neil: Okay..But only this time.

I looked at my mom, making sure she wasn't looking at us as I carefully pushed my homework folder towards Neil. He quickly opened it and snuck my worksheet into his folder. By the time my mom turned around to look at us, it appeared as if nothing happened.

Jessica: That was John's mother, she told me what happened. She said John broke his arm.

Neil frowned and put his pencil down on the table. He went back to staring at his homework.

Neil: I didn't mean to..

Jessica: What do you mean? The slide broke. You didn't do anything.

Neil: But I was on the slide when it broke! It's my fault!

Jessica: No silly, that's not your fault. Sometimes bad things just happen...It's unfortunate, but it's out of your control.

My mom ruffled Neil's hair before walking to the kitchen cabinet.

Jessica: What do you boys want for dinner tonight?

Ivan: Can we have spaghetti?

Jessica: Does that sound good to you, Neil?

Neil: Yeah..that's fine.

As my mom turned around to start making dinner, Neil snuck my homework out of his folder and quickly copied it before placing the pages back in our folders and returning my folder to me. I placed my folder back in my bag and took it to my room. For the rest of the evening, I played video games. Though it took me enough time to complete a few levels, eventually I was able to get Neil to join me in multiplayer mode. Everything seemed fine, but then my dad came home from work. He wanted to watch TV as usual so we had to find something else to do until dinner was ready. When it was done, we sat around the table quietly at ate our spaghetti. Feeling nervous about the silence, I decided to tell my father what happened at school that day.

Ivan: John broke his arm at school today.

Mikhail: How did he do that?

Ivan: The slide broke and he fell off.

My father suddenly gave my mom a weird look. She shook her head and silently mouthed the words, "Not now". He looked away from her and went back to eating his meal quietly. Sensing the mood had become awkward, I changed the subject.

Ivan: My teacher said that we'll be having a Halloween party in class and said we could wear our costumes.

Jessica: Ohhh that's interesting! Do you know what you want to be for Halloween?

Ivan: Yeah, I wanna be a pirate!

Jessica: And what about you, Neil? What would you like to be for Halloween?

Neil: I want to be a zombie.

Jessica: Alright then! I'll keep that in mind! Next time I go grocery shopping you guys can come with me and we'll look at costumes!

Suddenly my father stood up from his seat and walked away, leaving half of his food still on his plate. My mother looked concerned as she watched him walk down the hall.

Jessica: Mikhail? Where are you going? Are you not hungry?

My mom got up from her seat and glanced at us for a moment.

Jessica: I'll be right back, okay?

She chased him down the hallway. By the time she got to him, he had already slammed the door. Despite the door slamming in her face, she didn't seem to let that discourage her from following him in the room. The house was quiet for a moment, but I noticed Neil looked as if he was focusing on something really hard.

Ivan: What's wrong?

Neil: Are you not able to hear them?

Ivan: No, I can't. They are speaking too quietly. Can you?

Neil: A little.

I tried to focus on listening harder. I'm not sure if it was because of my effort to listen or due to their voices increasing in volume, but I was able to hear.

Jessica: Are you fucking kidding me, Mikhail? Why do you always bring this up?

Mikhail: I don't believe it's a coincidence. That child is followed by danger and if we keep him in this house it's only a matter of time before one of us gets hurt. What about Ivan? What if it had been Ivan on that slide today?

Jessica: But it wasn't Ivan! Just because a slide broke while Neil was on it doesn't mean anything! It could've been an old slide!

Mikhail: What about that time the bookshelf almost fell on you three? Or that time the front wheel on Neil's bike popped off when he was riding it and he had to get stitches? That wasn't an old bike. We helped Kyna buy that for his 7th birthday and it was brand new. I made sure that the bike was in top condition too. I could go on forever about this but do I need to list every single incident? I thought you were smarter than that, Jessica.

Jessica: Weird things happen in life, Mikhail. Just because he happens to be there when bad things happen doesn't mean he's the cause. He actually blamed himself for what happened today and it's because you keep saying things like this and making him feel guilty.

Mikhail: I haven't said anything to him, so it's not my fault if he feels guilt. He probably feels guilty because he knows something is wrong with him. He's dangerous to be around and I don't want him in our home or around our son anymore! He doesn't have to be homeless, he can just go into foster care.

I looked at Neil. He was looking at the small amount of spaghetti left on his plate in front of him, trying his best to hold back tears. I got up from my seat and tried to comfort him by patting his back. He hid his face in his hands as he started to cry.

Jessica: You don't get it, do you? For as long as Kyna isn't here Neil IS my son. I refuse to abandon him like that. Kyna grew up in foster care and I won't allow Neil to do the same. Kyna and I made a promise to each other that her family will always be mine and mine will always be hers. If anything had happened to us instead, I know for a fact that Kyna would've taken care of Ivan no matter what struggles may come from it! I refuse to go back on my promise to her! Neil is our family now and if you don't like that, you can move out and live with your father where it's "safe".

The door slammed again. Within a few seconds, my mom returned to the kitchen. Though she looked absolutely livid, she tried her best to hide it behind a smile. Neil wiped the tears off his face with his sleeve.

Jessica: Come on boys, let's go find some Halloween costumes.

Ivan: But I thought that was for next time we go grocery shopping?

Jessica: Well, sometimes plans change sweetie. We can get some milkshakes while we are out too! Sound good?

Ivan: Yeah!

Neil: Okay..

Though that night started off rough with my father, the rest of the night seemed to go pretty well. We found our perfect costumes and we were able to get Neil's mind off the drama for a bit by making him laugh with jokes while enjoying milkshakes.

Even though we got home kinda late, we were able to get enough sleep to wake up in time for school the next morning. The day started off like usual, except a few of the other students seemed a bit strange when they would look at Neil. It was almost like they were trying to get out of his way, backing up a little bit as he walked by. Thinking that maybe they weren't sure what to say to him after the slide incident the day before, I shrugged it off and moved on to other thoughts. When I arrived to my class I saw John at his desk, wearing a cast.

John: Ivan! Come sign my cast!

Ivan: I..uh..okay?

I was surprised to see him in such a good mood after what happened the day before. I took the marker from his hand and signed my name. He smiled.

John: I heard you called me! Thanks for checking up on me!

Ivan: No problem!

Since class was about to start, I opened up my homework folder. Inside the folder was Neil's homework. I started to sweat nervously as I realized he must have accidentally put our homework away in the wrong folders. John seemed to notice this anxiety as he immediately asked me what was wrong.

Ivan: I have Neil's homework and he has mine..

John: Uh oh, do you think you can sneak to his classroom?

I looked at the clock. Within a few seconds, the bell rang. Our teacher walked in the classroom, greeting all the students with enthusiasm for the new day. John leaned over and whispered to me.

John: Maybe you should tell the teacher...she should understand because you live together, right?

Ivan: I guess so...

I hesitantly raised my hand, hoping the following situation would go smoothly. Once the teacher noticed, she pointed at me and allowed me to speak.

Ivan: Neil and I live together and we do our homework together...and I think we got our folders confused because I have his homework in my folder! Can I go give it to him?

Mrs. Anderson: I'll go switch them out with his teacher during lunch, okay? Just hand me his homework and I'll make sure it gets to him.

I was nervous, but I gave her the homework. For the whole morning, all I could think about was how careless we had been about it the night before. I worried about it all the way up to recess.

John: I don't know why you're so nervous! It'll be okay! I'm sure the teacher will give it to him!

Ivan: I don't know...

After a moment of scanning the playground, I was able to find Neil, sitting by the fence alone. I ran over to him quickly to explain.

Ivan: Our homework got mixed up! I tried to see if I could give you your homework but the teacher said she would give it to your teacher for me. Has your teacher asked for the homework yet?

Neil: Yeah, I told her they got mixed up too. She didn't seem upset about it.

Ivan: Thank goodness..I was so worried.

John: He really was though! Haha, he was shaking the entire morning in class!

Neil became tense as he saw John behind me. He looked at the ground and stayed silent, ignoring John. Trying to break the awkward silence, John spoke up again.

John: Hey Neil, do you want to sign my cast? Everyone is doing it!

Neil: No.

John: Why not? You can even draw a little picture on it!

Neil: You need to stay away from me. You got hurt because of me.

John: I got hurt because the slide broke-

Neil: And it broke because of me.

John: That's impossible, silly! I was on the slide before you were!

John stepped toward Neil in a friendly manner but Neil backed away.

Neil: Things break when I am around them. I never meant to hurt you but if you stay around me longer you'll get hurt again. Stay away from me! Go away!

John: But-

Neil: Never speak to me again!

Neil darted off as fast as he could, leaving John and I standing there wondering how that escalated so fast.

Ivan: I'll talk to him when I get home.

John: Okay..

We spent the remaining time of our recess playing together as usual and talking about comic books we liked. Once class started, my teacher quietly called me over to her desk.

Mrs. Anderson: Follow me into the hallway, please.

I followed her into the hallway, wondering why she seemed so upset. When we turned the corner in the hall, I saw Neil and his teacher standing there waiting for us with some papers in hand. My heart started to race as I realized what had happened.

Mrs. Anderson: We can understand accidentally grabbing the wrong homework folder when you live together, however...cheating is never okay.

Mrs. Brown: I can tell by the way these answers are worded that they are not Neil's, and everything is copied exactly the same as Ivan's paper. Did you know about this Ivan?

Neil looked at me and slightly shook his head as if to tell me to deny knowing about it. I looked at the ground in guilt.

Ivan: I told him to copy me last night because he had a really bad day..It was my idea.

Neil looked at me in shock. He started shaking his head and spoke up quickly.

Neil: No, I just copied him! It wasn't his idea!

The teachers looked between us and each other. My teacher sighed with disappointment.

Mrs. Anderson: Ivan, you've always been a very honest kid and this really surprises me. It's okay to help your friends sometimes, but cheating is never okay. I'm sorry, but we'll have to give you both a zero on this assignment.

I felt my heart sink. All I could think about for the rest of the school day was how upset my mom would be when she found out. When we finally got home that afternoon, I saw my mother waiting at the door with her arms crossed. I knew exactly what was coming up.

Jessica: Your teacher called me today and said you were both caught for cheating.

I avoided her eyes as I walked closer to the house.

Jessica: Anything you boys have to tell me about?

Neil: I copied Ivan's homework.

Jessica: And what else? Ivan?

I hesitantly glanced at my mom for a moment before looking back at the ground.

Ivan: I told him to copy my homework last night.

Jessica: Do I need to sit with you guys when you do homework?

Ivan: No, I'm sorry. I won't do it again!

Jessica: Alright. I know life has been rough lately but you can't do stuff like that, okay? I don't want to do this because you two have already been through so much already, but I'm going to have to give you some form of punishment for this. Grounded for one week. No video games, no phone calls with friends, and only 30 minutes of tv a day. Okay?

Ivan: Okay..

Neil: Alright.

It was a bummer to be grounded but I knew she was only trying to be a good parent. I'm not sure if she felt bad about grounding us or not, but that night after dinner she baked us some cookies. While we were eating our cookies, I realized something was off.

Ivan: Mom?

Jessica: Yes?

Ivan: Where is dad?

Jessica: He's not coming home tonight.

Ivan: What? Why?

Jessica: He said he needs to visit his father for a few days.

Neil: It's because of me, isn't it?

Jessica: No sweetie, it's not because of you. Mikhail is mad at me, that's all. It's not your fault.

Neil gave her a look of distrust but kept it at that. He didn't speak anymore about it, but I could tell he wasn't convinced by her. Though I didn't know it at the time, I feel like this day was the day that changed Neil's life forever. It was the beginning of his self-blame. At that time the dangerous situations that followed Neil may not have taken any lives, but he realized that it would become a pattern and it wouldn't affect only him. The fact that John got hurt really shook him, and my father leaving the situation for a bit didn't help.

I would learn as time went on that these situations would only increase in number and severity. I can't blame my mom for wanting to take care of Neil and keep her promise. She was always a strong woman in that sense. However, I was never able to blame my dad either. I could understand his point of view, wanting to escape the danger and wanting to keep me safe as well. I grew up seeing both views of my parents and I believe they became a part of me. My dad ended up being my internal thoughts, while my mom ended up being my actions. Though at that time I didn't know it, eventually I would become afraid of Neil as well, and that battle with myself to be a good friend was not an easy one. I constantly had to remind myself of what my mom taught me. "The situations that followed Neil were never his fault." However, just because they weren't his fault didn't mean it wouldn't ruin my life.

My life may have changed with Sally's death, but my downward spiral started with the death of my mother.

Leanne Ormus