The first time my mom told me liars didn’t go to heaven was when she tried to get me to confess to hitting my eight-year-old brother. I was seven. She had knelt down in front of the brown leather couch where the two of us sat at opposite ends. Micah hugged his left arm—evidence of the deed still a bright red mark an inch or so above his elbow. He whimpered for effect, while I remained stubbornly silent. After waiting for some time, my mom stood up and said very softly, “You know, liars don’t go to heaven.”
My mom used this phrase throughout my childhood, expecting it would be a deterrent to bad behavior. She didn’t know that the thought of pearly white gates, white mansions, and an eternal soundtrack of harps disturbed me. I mean, who even listens to harp music? And then there was the singing. I’m sure angels’ voices are beautiful and everything, but how long would I be expected to sing? What about the people who were tone deaf? Did that change when they passed on?
What kind of food would we eat? What if we didn’t get to eat? I was terrified of being sent to a place where I thought I’d be bored out of my mind after ten minutes.
Besides, lying came naturally. “Who ate the last cookie?” I’d point to my brother. “Where did my money go?” Cut to me shrugging. “Are her parents going to be there?” My head nodded on cue, though I knew her parents were away for the weekend.
I learned to lie by watching Micah. He’d keep his amber-brown eyes steady and look Mom straight in her eyes. He didn’t smile or talk too much to give himself away. He remained calm, quiet even. The trick, he told me, was that a part of him actually believed the lies.
He took me under his wing, and we began covering for each other. I didn’t tell Mom or Dad where he was or what he was doing, and he didn’t tell them whom I secretly dated or when I came home late. We had an unspoken pact. We lied to our parents with ease. We lied to our teachers. We even lied to each other.
The truth? Everyone lies. Every single person. Even my mom. When Micah didn’t come home one night, she looked at me the following morning and told me he went to visit my uncle in the Bay Area for the summer. She said the change of scene would do him good, and then she raised her left hand to her temple. The subtle movement was her tell. I knew her signs, having studied her my whole life, as if we played some high-stakes poker game together, even if the winnings meant only that I got to stay up a half an hour later.
I thought Micah had bailed for the night and crashed at some friend’s house like the last time. I didn’t allow my thoughts to take me to the darker places. But when I walked into his room and saw his guitar stand lying on its side next to his unmade bed, I knew. His Cali Girl case was gone. He had taken his Gibson Les Paul. I stood in the middle of his room very aware of the silence surrounding me and understood that heaven must be a big empty space.
* * *
Sometimes I couldn’t sleep. I’d hear these sounds through the wall between Micah’s and my bedrooms. Light feet on the floor. Pacing. The squeaking of his old bed. More pacing. Another roll of springs grating on metal. The quiet strum of his guitar. The whispered conversations to God knows who. His door opening at hours when it should’ve been closed. I eventually started sleeping with a small fan on next to my bed to block out all the sounds. It helped, mostly.
My parents first asked me about Micah and drugs a little over a year ago. They wanted to know when it started. I lied. I told them I didn’t know. I told them I knew he’d experimented here and there, but I didn’t think it was anything serious. I pretended I was as shocked as they were.
I didn’t tell them that the first time Micah used meth was at a party he’d played with his band over two years ago. While he’d tuned his guitar, someone had given him a small white pill and told him it would take the edge off. Classic. He took it and didn’t sleep for two days. I knew because I heard him through the thin wall. A couple of days later, after finally sleeping it off, Micah strolled nonchalantly into my room and started touching the books on my shelf, which usually meant he was in a talkative mood.
“You gonna say anything?” Of course he knew that I knew. He didn’t even try to insult me with a lie.
“What?” I said.
“It was only one time.”
He pulled out The Stranger, a depressing book I’d had to read the year before and had enjoyed simply because I could check it off my list for the “college bound.”
“It’s weird.” Micah fanned through it, stalling, looking for words. “I felt . . . it was . . . the best I’ve ever felt. This super rush. I didn’t know I could ever feel that way. Like I could do anything, you know?”
“No, I don’t know.” I didn’t mean to stifle his moment, but I didn’t want to encourage him either.
He looked at me like I was the little sister who didn’t know anything, put the book back on the shelf, and left the room.
I walked over and returned the book to its proper place. If I had known that his mind had already been altered with that first try, that the seed of addiction had taken root, maybe I would have done more. Maybe. But I didn’t.
Micah claimed he used as an artistic experience, saying that he connected with the universe when he was high. He used to create. He used to perform. He said it gave him his magic mojo, like he became some kind of different entity, some superpower. But that was in the beginning. Eventually he needed it to function. No one noticed, or maybe they didn’t want to notice, the change. He was the usual warm body in class. His grades weren’t great, but they never had been. But he soon turned from my older brother into a walking cliché.
Maybe if I’d sent an anonymous letter to my parents in the beginning, everything could have been avoided. We could have had an intervention, like the one I watched on TV where the family and two friends sat in a living room and ambushed the guy when he walked into the room.
The guy said, “Hell no!” over and over again, along with a few other expletives that I could read on his lips, though they were edited out for TV.
By the end of the half hour he was crying and hugging his mom. The mediator was all smiles. I could have been the hero of the family. Instead, I lied and told myself that it was just a phase. Micah would be able to quit when he wanted to. Now I carry that burden.
* * *
Mom and Dad had supported Micah doing the band thing, even showed up at some of the gigs. My dad bought him his first guitar. They’d more than tolerated his colored hair and the tattoo he got right before senior year. When the school called about his missing classes, they had a more serious talk around the kitchen table. By that time, they were witnessing the effects of his habitual drug use, but they had no idea how bad it really was. They forced him to attend one substance abuse meeting, and he returned saying he’d seen the light and wouldn’t use anymore. But I overheard him telling someone on the phone that the people there were all old, and losers. That they were nothing like him.
After Mom found some crystals at the bottom of one of Micah’s drawers, she and my dad formulated a new plan. They gave him an ultimatum. They told him he had to go to rehab—a six-week program designed for teens ages twelve to eighteen. They said they were employing tough love, something they had learned from a book and a TV talk show. Only seventeen at the time, a minor, Micah had to go.
As part of the program, my parents attended weekly group sessions. They thought it best that I not go, out of concern for Micah’s comfort. I’m sure he felt so comfortable living and sharing his innermost, deepest feelings with strangers. Whatever. I stayed home or hung out at Michelle’s.
Besides, I had my own problems to deal with. Namely, Keith. We had almost broken up, and I didn’t really want to get into it with my parents. My mom loved Keith. He had that way, that charm with women of all ages. It began with an infectious smile that spread to his eyes as he looked at you. Mom gladly fell victim to it every time. Keith’s smile even worked on teachers, male and female, which was why he never had to worry about making grades to stay on the baseball and basketball teams.
But him getting with Marcie Armstrong? I could have gotten some disease. Keith told me it was a one-time thing, just some party that had gone out of control. Marcie had thrown herself on him, and he said he was too drunk to even remember what had really happened. He actually had tears in his eyes when he told me. That killed me. I held him and whispered that it’d be okay; we’d figure it out. I ignored the small thing that felt like it was dying inside.
When I’d ask my parents how it went after a session, they’d always give the same answer, “Your brother is going to be fine.” Then the TV would turn on and my dad would sit in front of it and my mom would take the stairs to their room. I’d disappear and remain invisible until the morning rush to school and work.
I was surprised when they asked me to go to one of Micah’s sessions. I didn’t really want to, but they said it would be good for our whole family.
It played out something like this . . .
We entered a large white office with pictures of nature above motivational slogans like “Life is a journey, not a destination” and “Opportunity will arise when you ride the wall of change” hanging from the wall. Metal chairs formed a circle in the center of the room. People I did not know, except for Micah, looked up at us and nodded when we entered the room. We were late. The counselor or shrink, whatever he was, invited us to sit down. His dreads flopped about when he turned his head and indicated a chair. I sat below a picture of a sunset. Its caption read: “Today is the first day of the rest of your life. Make it happen!”
The session began with the counselor leading everyone in a kind of prayer. “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.”
It was weird. I didn’t know they had sent Micah to a religious thing. My family didn’t go to church, like Michelle’s. Mom was raised Catholic, so we got dressed up and went to Mass on Easter Sunday, when we’d hear sermons that were mostly the same year to year, something about death and Jesus.
Mom enjoyed the music. Dad liked it when the priest was funny. Micah liked the part where they tortured and killed Jesus, which was the part that bothered me the most. I thought it strange that people believed in a God who could watch His son be killed, although I supposed He seemed tame in comparison to all the Greek gods. At least Jesus didn’t have His insides pecked out by a vulture for eternity.
Church didn’t make much sense to me. And then there was the whole problem of evil and suffering in the world, and child molesters, and zits. Michelle had tried explaining it once, but again, I didn’t really see the point.
Religion would leak from my mom every now and then in a series of catchphrases she’d learned growing up, like liars not going to heaven or “for the love of all that’s holy,” or “sweet Mary, mother of Jesus.” Sometimes I’d catch her making the sign of the cross, her hands performing the ritual out of muscle memory more than anything else.
When I was really young, I gave God a name. I called him Frank. I don’t know why, the name just seemed to fit. Even Micah started calling him that. Mom became nervous because of its being sacrilegious or something, so we eventually stopped. I didn’t speak to Frank for years. But a couple of nights after Micah left, I tried to talk to Frank. I asked him to find Micah, to help out. I tried to take back what I had secretly wished, the part about wanting Micah to disappear.
I waited in the dark of my bedroom, but Frank didn’t say anything. I wasn’t that surprised because Frank had always been more of a listener, a bit evasive, mysterious—kind of like socks that go missing from the washer to the dryer. One moment I thought He was there, the next I found myself groping around in the dark for the intangible missing sock. In my opinion, God didn’t really have anything to do with what had been going on with Micah, but I figured it didn’t hurt to ask for His help.
Peace. Serenity. I remembered that one from an SAT list. How was there peace in accepting what couldn’t be changed? I heard my parents and Micah stumbling through the words. Micah slouched a bit in his chair. His long legs stretched across the floor and crossed at the ankles.
After the opening prayer, those who were part of the rehab program were asked to share what they had been learning, what they had been feeling with their families.
A girl named Mandy spoke first. Her long black hair masked half of her face but revealed a black eye that fluttered around like a bird as she talked. She looked my age, sixteen, although she seemed older because she was skinny, real skinny. Anorexic skinny. Her face sunk in on itself, giving the illusion of a model’s high cheekbones. Her mouth stretched to cover large white teeth that hung from her gums. Every so often she pulled her lips back and made a sucking sound as she swallowed the spit.
Mandy confessed to the group and her parents that she used to sleep with guys to get heroin. She didn’t have a number, just that there were a lot of men, and an occasional woman. She’d already had some kind of STD, and she was trying to work up the courage to get tested for AIDS.
The girl sitting next to her, who could have been her twin with her same too-skinny look, held her. Mandy’s mother smiled encouragingly, revealing her own large horse teeth.
“Thank you, Mandy. That was very brave of you today.” The counselor responded with a heavy kindness. He shuffled his loafers underneath his chair, and I couldn’t make his dreadlocks and the loafers work together in my mind.
All of the inmates, or residents—I wasn’t sure what to call them—then took a turn sharing something with their family members in the circle. Each story sounded similar, with the details shaken like we were playing a big game of Boggle. After someone shared, questions were asked or encouraging comments given. The counselor always thanked the person speaking. There was something awkward in the release of so much emotional pain, but it had also been cathartic. It meant no more hiding. No more secrets. No more telling lies. My right foot bounced on the bottom rung of the chair. I didn’t want to be there.
“Micah, you’ve been a little quiet today,” the counselor said suddenly, turning to face my brother.
Micah shrugged and slouched a bit more in his chair.
“I see your whole family came today.”
“Yep.” He didn’t look up at us.
“Is there anything you’d like to say?”
Micah looked like he wanted to hit the guy in the face, but he restrained himself. He hesitated and said, “I’ve gradually been siphoning off my college fund to, you know, pay for things.”
“Pay for what, Micah?” the counselor asked.
Micah sucked in some air, clearly annoyed. “For the meth.”
Dad went rigid in his chair. This was clearly new information to him. “How much did you take?”
Micah stared at the ground, and I followed his gaze. I imagined the white tile, cool against my face if I could just lie down and close my eyes. If I could just lie down and escape the pulsing in my head.
“All of it.” The next words came in a rush, strung together. “I’m sorry. I’ll pay it back. All I need are a couple of shows when I get out of here. The guys say some people are really interested.”
“We’ve been saving that for years.” The words hissed out of Dad’s mouth.
“I said I’d pay it back,” Micah whispered.
Mom placed her hand on Dad’s leg.
“Fine,” he said. “You’ll pay it back.”
“Maybe he can get a scholarship,” she offered.
Dad grunted. “A little late for that.”
“Maybe I won’t go to college,” Micah said in the same subdued voice. “I mean, my grades aren’t that great. I’m not smart like Rachel.”
When I heard my name, I picked my head up, annoyed that my attempt at invisibility had been foiled.
“You are just as smart as Rachel, honey,” my mom said. “You’ve just gotten a little sidetracked.” She spoke of his addiction as if it were a small speed bump on a suburban street. “When this is all put behind us, you’ll see. Next year you’ll be in college. It’ll be so much better.”
“You’re not listening to me.” Micah sat up in his chair. He grasped his hands in front of him and spoke very slowly. “I’m not going to college. I don’t want to go. After graduation, I’m going to LA with the guys.”
Dad couldn’t hide his anger anymore. “The guys? What are you going to do? Play music on the streets? How are you going to live? You’ve got a serious problem here that you’re not even dealing with.”
The counselor tried to interject, “Now, Mr. Stevens, I think it’s important that we allow Micah to express his—”
Dad cut him off. “I’m tired of all of this psychobabble. Micah, this isn’t you. It’s the drugs talking. I get that. I really do. This isn’t you. When you get out of here, we can talk about this some more.”
“You’re not listening to me!” Micah yelled.
Then everything became quiet.
“Go on, Micah, tell us what you’re feeling.” The counselor spoke softly, but looked at my dad with threatening eyes.
Micah started out slowly. “This is me. I’m not you or Mom. I know I have some issues, but I’ve got it handled now. I’m fine.” And then he said the biggest lie ever. “I’m not perfect like Rachel.”
The shock must have registered on my face because the counselor asked me, “Rachel, is there anything you’d like to say to Micah? It’s okay. This is a safe space.”
Safe spaces exist only where people aren’t, I thought. I shook my head, no.
“You sure?” the counselor said, prodding. This time his dreads reminded me of small snakes, coiling and uncoiling. Micah looked in my direction. He hadn’t changed. His brown eyes still held the same dead expression as they had since he’d chosen meth over everything else in his life.
My mouth made a smile. “It’ll be good to have you home,” I lied.
* * *
The funny thing about a lie is that once it has been said and believed, it lives and becomes. It can’t be taken back. It sucks all the air from you until you give up and it takes over and you forget how to breathe on your own. It is like those parasitic relationships, but not like the shark and the little remora that politely cleans the shark’s skin and sometimes attaches itself to its underbelly. No, it is more like a tapeworm eating someone from the inside out.
My AP bio teacher caught one when he lived somewhere in South America for a summer. He came home and started feeling sick and couldn’t gain any weight. Turns out, he had a twenty-foot tapeworm feeding and growing in his intestine. He knew we wouldn’t believe him, so he brought some of it to class in a jar, where it floated, looking like the longest piece of linguini I had ever seen.
How gross was that? He had actually asked the doctor if he could keep the tapeworm when they removed it.
Just like a tapeworm, sometimes a lie has to be physically removed. The problem is, most of us still carry the lie around inside a jar like a souvenir.