Our Normal by Camille Birckhead
None of Frida’s friends have had to worry about where the hell their mother was. Frida has had to take care of her younger sister, Nico. Frida didn’t want anyone to know how her life was different from other kids. Kids can be cruel. Frida was already an odd ball, she tended not to fit in with kids her age anyway, so adding on this whole other piece for kids to bully her about and blame her for did not seem worth it.
One October afternoon, fifteen year old Frida was at Oskar’s big, traditional house in Saxapahaw, North Carolina. They were doing homework. Oskar had two loving parents who were mature and responsible. Both of his parents worked but somehow one was always home, waiting for him with a smile and freshly baked pies. He had everything she had always dreamed about.
“Hey, Oskar, can I ask you something?”
“Hit me,” he said.
“What is it like…not having to worry?”
“I don’t really have much to compare it to. Why? How would you describe it?”
Oh no, what do I say? I don’t want him to think of me differently, so what can I say? People tend to feel pity for me once they know, and we are best friends and what if him finding out ruins everything? My ‘normal’ childhood ended before I was halfway done with elementary school. People used to call me an old soul, but that’s what happens when you deal with things that are hard for adults, and impossible for a child. Childhood is supposed to be filled with the ability to remain naive and not be bogged down by baggage that rests on your shoulders. So what am I supposed to do?!
Raising your sister, who was only five years younger than you, before you’ve even been raised yourself is a journey there is no self help book for. Frida has looked. It tended to force you to grow up and abandon any hopes of having a traditional childhood. Even before she was the closest thing to a mother figure Nico had, her life was complicated. She has struggled with being perfect and staying in the shadows in order to not add any stress to the family. She has put her feelings in boxes for the majority of her life. This forced them to explode all at once. Frida had been having anxiety attacks recently, she wondered if they were genetic. When she was younger, she remembered her mother having them. She hoped it would never come to that.
“I guess it’s all we’ve ever known,” she told Oskar. “So it’s our normal.”
“What’d you get for this math prob-” Oskar was interrupted by his mom calling for dinner from the kitchen.
“Oh shitake mushrooms!” Frida said. “Thank you for having me over Oskar.”
She had lost track of time, and before she knew it, she was so late for dinner. She had to get back to her reality. She rushed to her house, if you could really call it that.
It was more of an old shack that her uncle had built, with her father, when they were young, and optimistic, hippie dreamers. Her uncle got married to his first love, very young. This was before life ruined his optimism. When Frida’s father disappeared, it made her uncle so bitter. It seemed pretty normal in their family, for the men specifically to run away when things got tough. Frida wasn’t allowed to ask if her father was still alive. Nobody would talk about it, and after he left, Frida’s mom changed. She never really recovered from the heartbreak.
Once Frida got home, she immediately began to get dinner ready, chopping vegetables at the sink, while ten year old Nico did her homework at the kitchen table.
“Where were you?” Nico snapped.
“Mama was supposed to be here, playing with you and helping with homework.” Frida sighed.
“How do you still fall for her promises?” Nico said.
“I don’t. I just wanted so badly for this time to be different. Different for you,” Frida said.
There was a long silence.
Finally, Nico interrupted. “Where do you think mama is this time anyway?”
“Not sure, but I’ll tell you what, after dinner, if she still isn’t back, I will go out to all of her favorite bars. I will find her, okay?”
The conversation was cut off by a knock at the door.
“Who could that be?” Nico seemed alarmed.
Frida felt that something wasn’t right. She originally thought it was just another anxiety attack, but something seemed different this time. More intense.
Her chest and throat close up.
Gripping the counter, she held her chest, in immense pain. She couldn’t breathe right. She kept pleading for Nico to call 911 but Nico was too scared to move.
“I can’t have my only family leave me too,” Nico said.
“I-I..I’m not gonna leave you, just please..I need help. This isn’t like those other times, when it just goes away in a few minutes.”
There was another knock at the door. Nico ran over, hoping whoever was there could help.
It was only Oskar. “Hi Nico, is everything ok? Frida left her backpack at my house.”
“We need your help Oskar!” Nico said.
Oskar ran over to Frida, who was lying down on their futon, clutching her chest.
“Has anyone called 911?”
“N-nn-no” Nico said.
Oskar pulled out his phone and dialed. Frida started shaking, a single tear fell down her cheek.
She pulled Oskar down, close to her face, and whispered so Nico wouldn’t hear, “If I die, please take care of Nico. I’m all she has left. Please Oskar.”
“No, I’m not promising you that, because there is no way I am letting you die!”
“Please, this is literally my only dying wish. If you let me die, it’s the least you can do.”
“Ok fine, but you’re still not dying.”
They heard sirens a few roads away. Nico couldn’t do anything but run outside and make sure the ambulance came to the right place. It pulled up to the side of the street.
“Here! You’re in the right place, now hurry!” Nico yelled. “We need your help!”
They came running, and found Frida panting and trying to save her breath. The EMT’s, two buff freshly shaven white dudes, took her pulse and then heartbeat.
“Wha-what happened?” Frida said, out of it.
“You had a panic attack ma’am. We need to take you to the hospital”
“Oh no no, sir, you don’t understand. Our insurance won’t cover the visit, besides I’m fine now, aren’t I? I’m feeling great, see?” She got up and tried to do some jumping jacks, yanking all of the medical equipment off of her body.
“I mean we can’t force you, but you’re going to need to sign a form stating that you’re not coming with us despite our advice.”
“Yea, yea. I’ll sign.” They took a few forms out of a briefcase and walked back over to the counter, where Frida signed.
“Alright, are you sure you don’t want to come with us? Just so we can keep an eye on you?”
“Yes, thank you sir, but I should be just fine here.”
“Ok, ok. Good day ma’am.”
Nico closed the door behind the EMT’s. “Frida, are you sure you’re ok? That wasn’t too scary for you? What can I do? I’m sorry I froze, I’m such a bad sister-”
“Nico stop, of course that was scary for me. But I’m fine now. I have you and Oskar, that’s all I need. You’re a wonderful sister, I’m sorry if I scared you.”
“It wasn’t like it was your choice? Was it..?”
“Haha, of course not.” Looking at the mess her panic attack left in their living room and kitchen, Frida decided she needed a change of scenery. “Ok so I need to go do something to calm me down, what do y’all say? Are you in?”
“Of course sis, anything for you!” Nico said.
“Uhh I think I’m just gonna go home for now,” Oskar said. “But I’ll see y’all tomorrow, ok? Hope you feel better Frida.”
“Oh ok, bye Oskar. Thank you for coming over.”
Oskar picked up his stuff and walked out. Frida looked around again.
“Alright, what do ya wanna do, Nico?”
“Umm how about a movie? Wonder Woman?”
“Sounds perfect! Let me just get a few things and then we’re out of here.” Frida went to her room and grabbed her bag, hoping there is enough money for tickets and maybe a few snacks for her sister.
“Should we walk or take the bus?”
“How about a bus? Please!”
“Then we have to walk home.”
“Whatever you want..”
They got on the bus, luckily Frida seemed to have just enough money for the bus, tickets, and a few snacks for Nico. She had been saving from chores she would do for her neighbors. They walked the few blocks from the bus stop to the theatre. Every few minutes, Nico asking if her sister really is ok, and every time Frida reassuring her that she is just fine.
“What snacks do ya want, Nico?”
“Umm how about milk duds and extra buttered small popcorn?”
“Ok ok, you silly goober.”
They walked into the theatre, went to the center of the third to last row and sat back, took off their shoes and got ready for the movie.
After the movie, they stood outside the movie theatre.
“So, how’d you like it Nico? Relaxing?”
“Empowering, I loved Diana, I wanna be her. Why can’t I be her? She’s a warrior princess, and so strong!”
“Sounds like I have a budding feminist on my hands. I’m glad you liked it! I agree, I’ll probably be having dreams about living as Diana.”
“Me too, soo how are we getting home, Frida?” Nico said, hoping her sister had forgotten about their walking plan.
“We’re gonna walk. What do ya think? Isn’t that what we agreed on?”
“My feet hurt! Are you even sure you’re ok enough to walk?”
“For the last time, I’m perfectly fine. It’s sweet of you to worry, but I really will be ok.”
“You just scared me.”
“I know, but I’m not going anywhere.”
They walked in silence for the remaining blocks.
Once they reached home, they found their mother, Lucy, sitting on the couch drinking a beer and watching an old movie.
“You’ve got to be kidding me!” Nico snapped, clenching her fists.
“Don’t, Nico.” Frida said. “She’s not worth it.”
“Where have y’all been anyway?” Lucy barked. “Dinner isn’t ready, and it’s late.”
“At the hospital, not like you care,” Nico said, trying to get a rise out of her mother, knowing she wouldn’t know the difference.
“She’s fine. Why waste our money?” Lucy said.
“The doctor said she has too much stress from being my mother!” Nico said.
“What are you talking about?! I am your mother,” Lucy grunted. “Not this one!”
“You may have birthed me, but you are no more my mother than any other rando in this town.” Nico shouted.
“I am the mother to you both! Otherwise I wouldn’t have to be here. I take care of you both, like a mother!”
“Whatever lets you sleep at night, but you know that Frida takes care of everyone, but nobody is there to take care of Frida,” Nico yelled at her mother. “She takes everyone's pain and puts it on herself and spares everyone else. You’ve got to change whatever has been going on, get a new job, grow up, whatever. I don't care. But something needs to change. We have to try something. Anything, otherwise we will just keep coming back here.”
It seemed as though Lucy was out of words at this point. She just went back to watching her movie, as if nothing had happened.
Frida could see there was nothing they could say to get her mother to understand.