"In Case of Emergency," by Helene Dunbar

Fifteen-year-old Gordie Allen’s life shattered when he was ten and his mother drove her car into the river, killing herself and his younger siblings. He knows he was lucky to survive, but all he feels is guilty for not saving the rest of his family and for the secret he’s kept about what happened the night before.

Survival for Gordie has meant living with his “spins,” memories that play over and over in his head, not to mention the embarrassing way his hand spasms when he’s stressed. He’s coped by keeping to himself, caring only about school, hockey, and his older half-brother Kevin, who has been his best and only friend for as long as he can remember.

The challenges of Sophomore year are tough though. For some crazy reason, gutsy Sarah Miller seems to like him and doesn’t make him feel like a freak because of his twitches or flashbacks. But at the same time, even thinking of Kevin heading off to college and leaving him alone makes him feel like a scared, little kid. Worst of all, his abusive father, the person he blames for his mother’s tragic decision, wants to barge back into his life. When Gordie learns he has a younger brother who is suffering abuse at his father’s hands, he's determined to save him; even if it means confronting the demons of the present to keep from drowning in the past.




The last thing I saw before the car hit the water was an eagle pasted against the sky.

And what I remember is this: his tapered wings filled up the width of the dirty window; the air held him up with the promise of magic; he looked free.

I used to dream about that bird.

But I don’t have dreams any more.

All I have are memories.


My arms are pinned. Water rushes past my ears and the kids cry in the backseat as they start to wake up. My mom’s hands are wrapped around the steering wheel and she prays, saying words that make no sense, but that sound something like poetry.

I’ve left the car window cracked open, and the river takes that as an invitation to pour in. At first it feels good against my hot skin. Cool. Cleansing. The sound it makes is music to mom’s words.

But suddenly there’s only water. I throw my shoulder against the window trying to break the glass. I hold my head up to catch the little bit of air left in the car and gasp for as much as my lungs can hold.

“Gordie,” I hear. “Ice. Hey, Ice.”

The sound belongs to my brother, Kevin. My brain wraps around it like a kid around a security blanket. His voice climbs into my head and replaces the crying, the praying, the water.

“I didn’t die.” My mouth forms the words easily enough. It’s harder to get my mind to accept them.

One part of me knows I didn’t drown, but another part of my fucked up brain thinks I did. Just like the kids in the back. Just like mom meant me to.

I’m aware it’s my brother holding my arms down on the bed. He thinks he’s keeping me safe now like he couldn’t before. I know I’m here, clenching my teeth to stop from repeating the words. But part of me is still in the river and Kevin knows that.

“You’re okay,” he says. It isn’t a question.

He doesn’t trust me enough to release my arms immediately. But once he does, they automatically fold up around me, stiff and sore like the broken wings of a gull. It hurts worse than after a hockey game where I’ve fended off a ton of shots on goal. Worse than it did on That Day, when it actually happened.

My eyes take a minute to focus, but when they do, it’s on the bashed up wall next to my bed. The blue paint is chipped and the edges of the holes in the plaster are tinged with blood stains we’ve given up trying to wash away or paint over.

This is what happens when Kevin isn’t around. I try to claw my way out of the car and to the surface. I can’t let anything get in the way. The wall, the lamp, my own skin. All of them have been bruised at some point from the dream which is really a memory.

Without either of us saying anything, Kevin pulls the sweat-damp blankets off me and replaces them with fresh, dry ones from the closet just like he’s done hundreds of times over the past five years. And just like I’ve done hundreds of times before, I wrap up in them and try, unsuccessfully, to stop shivering.

“Sleep,” he says. “You have a game tomorrow.”

Tomorrow. School. Hockey. It seems a million years away, but I nod. We both know it’ll be hours before I work up to trusting my brain not to do it all over again.

Kevin sits down at my desk to read. I know he’ll sit there until I fall asleep, however long that takes. I watch him and remind myself that I’m safe.

You’d never know we’re only half-brothers from how close we are or from looking at us. If it weren’t for the fact that he’s two years older, with the inches to prove it, and that my eyes are green and his are brown, you might think we’re twins.

But it isn’t our eye colors or heights that are the really important differences between us. See, Kevin and I had the same mother, but it was the fact that we had different fathers that mattered. Having different fathers meant that mom planned for Kevin to live. And planned for me to die when she drove herself and the kids into the river.



I flip through the mail when I get home from school. I’m not looking for anything in particular. Half of it is for Kevin anyhow. College catalogs.

As a sophomore, I have another year before I have to worry about things like college. Another year before I have to figure what to do with my life. I’m really in no hurry.

I have an urge to dump the catalogs, with their shiny covers and fake smiling people, straight into the trash. I know that won’t keep Kevin from leaving. I know he needs to get out and do his own thing. But it doesn’t mean I have to like it. It doesn’t mean that even thinking of him leaving doesn’t scare me enough to make my hand start spasming like it is now.

I bury the catalogs under a cooking magazine filled with recipes for things I’d never eat, and take them upstairs to the bedroom we share. I dump the pile on Kevin’s bed and a stiff, formal envelope falls out of the stack. It’s for Kevin’s dad, Jim, and I wouldn’t normally give it a second glance except for the return address: “Child and Family Services.”

Usually they don’t write. Once or twice a year, someone just shows up and asks me questions off a sheet while they look at the door like they can’t wait to leave.

I hold the letter up to the light, but they’ve used one of those stupid security envelopes so I can’t see anything. I put it down on Kevin’s bed and try to walk away, but that twisting feeling in my stomach starts. I know it’ll move to my head eventually and I’m not in the mood for that, so I give in and take it downstairs.

I fill Jim’s old teapot with water and hold my breath as I watch the surface, waiting, waiting, waiting, for it to boil. Then, once it’s really going, I hold the envelope in the steam and open it.

I’m wired; excited even though I know whatever’s in the letter is going to suck. The page shakes in my hands as I scan the words that say my father, the one who didn’t want me five years ago, the one who made my mom do it, is petitioning to see me.

My mind races. It feels like an electric eel is in there, trying to get out. My right hand shakes, totally out of control and it feels like the walls of the kitchen are closing in on me.

I do the only thing I can think of. I go back upstairs and crawl into the closet. I put my head on my arms and give in. Time slows down. The universe spins around me. I let it. Hours pass. Years.

I replay the day, That Day, over and over in my head. I don’t know why. I used to think I did it to see if there was anything I could have done differently. Some way I could have saved Mom or the kids.

But really, I know that isn’t the reason.

So here’s the thing. Replaying That Day is like watching a familiar movie. I know how it starts. I know how it ends. And I know every single second in between. And fucked up as it is, there’s something comforting about that.


I’m ten on That Day, Kayla is three and the twins, Sophie and Jason, aren’t even a year old. Kevin is twelve. But he’s not at the house. He’s at his dad’s. At Jim’s.

When Mom opens the door to wake me, she doesn’t ask why I’ve slept on the floor.

I knew it was going to be a bad day. The Day Before had been very…. well, I don’t let myself think about that.

Mom had good days where she’d wake us up dresses like a princess. Or a fairy. Or a cat with whiskers. She’d make us sandwiches shaped like hearts or stars. But when it wasn’t a good day, she was sad. Crying and stuck in a place that meant Kevin would need to feed us, and one of us would need to skip school to watch the kids. But Kevin isn’t here and this is a bad day.

I get dressed in my best blue shirt because it’s photo day at school. I’m just buttoning it when the smell of food meets me half-way down the stairs and surprises me. I didn’t think Mom was okay enough to make breakfast, even though it’s only oatmeal.

“Feed the kids,” she says.

Feeding the kids means I have to change into a t-shirt. Sophie would rather throw food than eat it.

Mom stares. Like always, I do what I’m told.

The kids eat and then settle down quickly, strangely quiet.

Mom is everywhere all at once. She makes sure they’ve all eaten everything and urges me to eat even though she knows food in the morning makes me feel sick. But now she’s upset, standing over me with a bottle of orange juice, saying, “I’m going to watch until you finish this.”

I don’t want the juice, but I know better than to argue. I guzzle some down, the acid forming a lump in my stomach. When she turns around, I spill the rest down the drain.

She tells me to get the kids into the car which takes almost twenty minutes. Kevin is way better at wrangling toddlers than I am and I’m pissed at him for not being here and pissed at Mom for a million different things.

“Are you taking me to school?” I ask as I grab my backpack. I like school. I hate missing it to stay home and do my Mom’s job.

She looks at me funny, her green eyes red and watery. “No, honey, I don’t think so.”

“Mom, I have pictures today,” I remind her, but she doesn’t answer. In fact, she doesn’t say anything until…

She takes back roads, but I don’t know which ones. I’m too tired and angry to notice.

She stops the car.

She looks at the kids in the backseat and then at me.

She puts her hand on my head and starts her prayers. Then she drives us straight into the river.

The window is open enough to let in water. Enough for me to pull on the top and break it. I know there’s no way I can get Mom out of the car. The kids are sleeping. Heavy like lumpy laundry bags in the back.

I don’t remember much about my fight to the surface. Just wet. Cold. Then land. And running. Trying to find someone. Anyone. I stand in the road. A woman stops her car. The car is blue, the same color as her jacket. I drag her to the water. I must say words. I must ask for her help before I give in to the load of drugs that Mom put in the OJ and collapse.


A part of me knows I’m sitting in the closet like a dumb, little kid. If I move my left hand a bit, I can feel my winter boots and the bottom of a hockey stick. I can feel goose-bumps forming on my arms. I can feel my right hand wrapped around a cheap, plastic pen. My thumb clicks and unclicks it over, and over, and over. I try to push all the stress out of me and into that damned pen.


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