It Starts at Home

Chapter 4


I slept in this morning, missing my usual routine of munching on Reese Puffs and catching Pokémon on the Saturday morning cartoons line up. My phone rang a few times, waking me up every half hour from 10 until noon. I never had a reason to turn off my phone before I slept until now and sandwiching my head between my pillow didn’t solve anything.

“Hello?” I answered.

“Oh my God, please tell me you’re washing your face.” The sarcastic and slightly angry voice was Britney on the line. “There is no other reason why you should miss my calls.”

“S-sorry,” I yawned and grabbed my glasses from the dresser.

I should have freshened up first and called her back. I probably sounded so stupid because I was dead tired. I knew I shouldn’t have played Mario Kart DS online way past midnight. Ryan and his stupid new friends weren’t challenging enough for me.

“Get up, sleepy head.” Britney said. “Wanna hang out at my house?”

I had to press mute on my phone so she couldn’t hear me stomping my feet and squealing.

“Sure,” I said. “Let me ask my parents first.”

With my phone still to my ear, I rushed downstairs to ask my parents if I can go to Britney’s house. They were eating lunch at opposite ends of the kitchen table, both playing separate games on their new “smart” phones. What did they distract themselves from each other with before all this advanced technology was developed? Crossword puzzles?

“Yeah sure, why not?” Dad said, eyes glued to his touchscreen. “I’ll drive you there whenever you’re ready.”

“Wait a minute!” Mom said, which really meant wait a half hour while I ask you a million questions. “Will her parents be home?”

With Britney eavesdropping on the other line, I parroted her responses.

“Yes, they’ll be home,” I said.

“Does she have any older brothers?”

I sighed. “One in university, but he lives downtown.”

“What time will you be home?”

“She can call when she needs a ride.” Dad said, frantically thumbing over his touchscreen.

“Be quiet!” Mom said, finally peeling her eyes off her screen to glare at Dad across the table. “I’m trying to talk to Johanna.”

It was too embarassing for Britney to hear this. I tried to interject and said, “listen, you guys—”

“And so am I, so don’t interrupt me,” Dad continued and put his phone down next to his plate.

“You interrupted me first.”

“You’re asking her too many questions again.”

“So? I just want to make sure she’ll be safe.”

“You guys—”

“She’s not going to a boy’s house, of course she’ll be safe.”

“Don’t you undermine me in front of our daughter.”

“Undermine? I’m just telling you the truth.”

“My dad says it’s okay!” I said loud enough to make them stop and turn to me for a second.

“See you soon.” Britney sang as she hung up.

“She’ll text me her address,” I said, averting their dual gaze.

My parents then frowned at each other and if they were anime characters, you would see an electric line sparking between them, and exaggerated veins pulsating at their temples.

Without breaking eye contact, Dad told me to go and get ready.

I rushed upstairs to scour through my closet for something decent to wear. Obviously Hello Kitty and Sailor Moon t-shirts weren’t going to fly by Britney—she would think I was childish—so I had to settle for a plain white t-shirt and some faded blue jeans. My hairbrush often got stuck when I tried to comb through my thick and frizzy hair, but after a little TLC, I managed to get rid of a few cow licks and stray strands. The remaining ones were for fashion, I swear.

Dad was no longer in the kitchen by the time I went back downstairs. Mom had cleared the table and was now washing the dishes with the Filipino TV on in the background. It was some obnoxious game show where a bunch of half naked girls are always dancing in the background, and the camera zooms in and out of focus on the hosts and contestants. It made me dizzy watching it for even a second.

I would have said goodbye to her, but not while she was muttering angrily to herself as she aggressively scrubbed a plate.

Opening the front door, I could immediately hear the car engine being drowned out by the bass thumping from the old people music my dad blasted on the sound system. Meanwhile, from the inside of the house, the Filipino game show’s cheesy upbeat music washed out the flow of the faucet. Two sources of noise sandwiched my ears as I stood between the door frame.

I sure had more appreciation for my Sailor Moon ringtone now.

Shutting the door behind me, I was left with my dad’s music, which filled with more melody to accompany the bass as I hopped into the passenger seat.

Dad lowered the volume momentarily to ask me for Britney’s address. I read it to him, and he amped the volume right back up once we exited the driveway. He would normally be singing along with The Beatles by the time we got onto the main roads, but he kept quiet. The most he did was tap a beat on the steering wheel, otherwise, he didn’t say anything either.

“What is Mom’s problem?” I asked, unheard as he took a left turn. I repeated myself louder the second time. “Why is she so uptight?”

Dad looked at me for a second, then back at the road and sighed. “That’s just the way she is.”

“Oh, come on,” I said, looking out the window to hide my scowl from him.

“Johanna?” He actually put the volume down on the car stereo. “What’s wrong?”

I shifted in my seat and crossed my arms. “She never wants me to have any fun, or at least when she does, it’s either her idea of fun or I have to ask for permission.”

“She’s just looking out for you. If we just gave you everything you wanted, you’d be spoiled and have no respect for us.” Dad drove into a neighbourhood with big houses, some of which had front gates, and all of which had big enough driveways for four cars.

He asked me which house was Britney’s and I gave him her house number before continuing to press him. “Why are you defending her? She’s such a big meanie, I hate her so much.”

“Don’t say that about your mother, you’re supposed to love her.” Dad drove up on to Britney’s driveway and parked the car.

“How about you then?” I turned the stereo off completely. “Do you actually love her, or only try to because you’re supposed to love your wife?”

“Johanna!” Dad whipped a glance toward me.

“What?” I snapped. “She’s not even nice to you. Why do you put up with her like that?”

“Why are you being so difficult right now?”

“Difficult? I’m just telling you the truth.” I held my gaze and then raised my eyebrows at him as if to say yeah, I’m using your own tactics against you.

He sighed and sank back into his seat, and looked up at the car ceiling. “I drove you to your friend’s house, what more do you want?”

A pang of guilt ran through me. He had a good point. But I was only looking out for him too. I hated seeing him get chewed up by Mom like that, but at least he argued back so I could go out at all today. Then I had to go and make him feel worse by picking a fight with him. I wanted to apologize, but he cut me off.

“Call me when you’re ready to get picked up.” He looked at me, and the stern confrontational gaze I had earlier had weakened into one of sympathy. I pursed my lips, preventing myself from saying anything further, and got out of the car. I looked back at him to wave goodbye, but he was too focussed on backing out and driving away to notice me.

When I got to Britney’s front door, she pinned my arms to my sides with a rib crushing hug. Why do girls hug each other so much? Was that another secret to staying thin? Not that I would need any secrets to remain a natural skeleton, but ouch. Why did affection have to hurt?

“I ordered a pizza for us,” Britney said taking me to her kitchen. She took out a bag of chips, a two litre bottle of orange soda from her pantry, and set them on the marble breakfast counter in front of me.

“Pizza and chips?” I said taking a seat on a stool. “Aren’t those acne activators?”

Britney flicked her wrist and let out a tiny giggle. “It’s gonna take more than a bag of chips and a box of pizza to ruin my complexion.”

Her kitchen was almost as big as my entire main floor and they had a microwave and fridge built into the wall. Fancy shmancy Schumers. Everything was so bright in her house that it was almost blinding compared to mine, from the sun peaking through her wide unshuttered windows, to the squeaky clean white floor.

“While we wait, we should totally paint your nails.” Britney hopped on the seat next to me. She looked at my hands resting on the counter and her eyes went wide. She returned my raised eyebrow with one of her own. “Jo, you’ve got my work cut out for me this afternoon.”

She smiled, grabbed my hand, and brought me to her living room. The Schumers already had a big house, but they sure knew how to save space, like getting a flat screen TV and pinning it to the wall. Oh, and their white suede couches were actually couches, and not plastic covered slides like at my house. To sit down on them without an embarrassing fart noise or the need to shift your butt about was comfy beyond words.

On the coffee table, Britney had already laid out her manicure stuff before I came. Tiny bottles of polish, a pair of clippers, and a filer all stared back at me. If Ryan ever found out I was about to do this, he’d have a field day. Johanna, easy on your button mashing, he would say, you don’t want to chip a nail.

Britney pulled a foot rest out from a reclining sofa and set it in front of me. She sat down on it and took my hands in hers. “Your cuticles are such a mess,” she said flipping out the pick blade from the clippers in her other hand. Her smooth palm rubbed against mine and it tickled a bit. “Oh my God, why are your fingers so calloused? Especially your thumbs!”

I shrugged and relaxed when Britney started lathering my hands with a moisturizer. It tickled some more, and I tried hard not to giggle about it. I didn’t even know what cuticles were and how bad mine were until she started picking away at them. When she cut my nails she made the clippers take tiny chomps, carefully following around the line, instead of rushing to cut them ridiculously short like I usually would in three straight lines.

While Britney filed the rough edges left on my fresh cut nails, she let out a sigh.

“Are my hands and fingers that bad?” I asked.

“It’s not you,” she said stopping for a second. “It’s Gregory. I don’t know if he really likes me for me or if he’s just using me.”

“Using you for what?” I said and she wiggled her eyebrows at me. “Oh!” I let a few moments pass before I spoke again. “Is there a litmus test to figure that kind of thing out?” I couldn’t believe I blurted out some lame school stuff outside of school. I thought Britney was going to make fun of me for it, but instead she laughed.

“Mr. Clause’s class?” She said and I nodded. “Yeah, I have him for third period, we did litmus tests this week, too. People say he looks like a thinner Santa Claus.”

“Maybe—” I pulled the collar of my shirt to let some hot air escape. “Maybe he really is Santa Claus, and he had to slim down so he can fit down chimneys.”

“Yeah right,” Britney said. “That grumpy geezer? I don’t think so. Did you know he snapped a meter stick in half to get the class to stop talking? Total psycho.”

“That must have been scary.”

“Not really. There’s more of us than him,” she said. “Plus I’ve had worse.”


“No. People screaming at me.”

I couldn’t imagine who would want to scream at Britney, they would be out of their minds. She sure had a way of destroying someone with just her words without even having to raise her voice. If she did though, it would be a deadly combo.

“My mom screams at me sometimes.” I said.

Britney looked up at me for a second, but didn’t say anything. Instead, she put the filer away and looked at the bottles of nail polish on the coffee table. She tapped her bottom lip a few times before flicking a pointing finger at the colour she wanted to use.

“You should do what I do,” she said when she sat back on the foot rest. “And tell her to shut the hell up.”

“No way,” I giggled. “I can’t do that.”

Britney stared at me with her hypnotic sky blue eyes, and I started sweating. I had to bite down on my lip to stop it from quivering. I must have looked like such a scaredy cat and I definitely didn’t want to give her that impression. Thankfully, the doorbell rang and she went to answer it. I wanted to bite my nails, but they were trimmed and smoothed to perfection that I’d end up chewing off my fingers instead.

“Pizza’s here,” Britney said. I joined her at the kitchen table where she set the pizza box, along with the bag of chips and orange soda from the breakfast counter.

Before she opened the box, I was expecting the pizza to have a bunch of vegetable toppings, or at least plain cheese. But instead, it was a meat lover’s pizza, with the bits of sausage, bacon, and pepperoni shining in all their greasy glory.

For every tiny bite I took, Britney took three large ones and while chewing, stuffed her mouth with chips. She pointed the opening of the bag toward me and I shook my head. Britney pigged out, finishing two slices while my first one was still half eaten.

“Don’t be shy,” Britney said motioning for me to pick up my slice I left lying on my plate. Clearly, she took her own advice as she took her crusts and dipped them deep into the garlic sauce before taking beastly bites out of them. “You’re lucky. I bet you can eat this whole box and not gain an ounce.”

I couldn’t believe she was saying I was the lucky one, when she was the one with any actual meat on her bones. She was so curvy, almost like an hour glass, and I was just a stick.

“But the grease—” I said.

“Make it your last pizza ever then.”

I took a big bite, wobbling my head in exagerrated satisfaction. “But I really hope that pimple stuff you gave me starts working soon. I don’t feel pretty enough for Ryan yet, and I think he likes someone else, and I just don’t want him to forget about me while my skin’s clearing up—”

“Jo.” Britney put her hand on my wrist to stop me. “Don’t worry about it. I can help you with that. By the time I’m done with you, he won’t be able to keep his hands off you.”

I gave her a wry smile and she let go of my hand.

When our meal went silent, we were able to hear the front door unlock. “Mom?” Britney said when the door opened.

From the main hallway, I heard Mrs. Schumer sigh and say, “yup.”

Her shoes click clacked closer towards us as Britney got up to greet her. She rushed to the entrance of the kitchen and her mom appeared in front of her. “You’re home early. Where’s dad?”

Mrs. Schumer had tanned skin and too much unnecessary blush on, along with a heavy amount of blue eye shadow. The gold bracelets on her wrists jingled as she raised her hands to rub her temples. “That bozo can flirt with all the waitresses he wants, but he’s not going to pull that crap in front of me.”

I managed to finish my one and only slice of pizza while Britney’s mom continued to rant. I savoured the saltiness of the meat, the tanginess of the tomato sauce, and the gooey creamy cheese if this were to be last my pizza ever. Eventually, Mrs. Schumer looked over Britney’s shoulder to look at me.

“Oh you have company, this one’s new,” Mrs. Schumer said. “Who is she?”

Britney giggled then said, “I want you to meet Jo—”

“Oh my God, Britney!” Mrs. Schumer said when she noticed me reaching into the pizza box for another slice. She shoved past Britney and stomped over to the table and almost closed the box over my hand before I moved it out of the way. “What the hell is this?”

“It’s just pizza, Mom…”

“You know you shouldn’t be eating all these fatty foods.”

“It’s my cheat day today—”

“Two cheat days in a row?” Mrs. Schumer took the box to the counter and opened it. “I don’t think you understand how a cheat day works, Little Miss Piggy.” One by one, she took the remaining slices and tossed them in the garbage.

“Hey! You can’t do that, I paid for that with my own hard earned money.” Britney said grabbing her mom’s wrist as she was about to throw away one last slice. It was useless. Mrs. Schumer just opened her hand and let the slice drop into the garbage bin. “Mom!”

Mrs. Schumer rolled up the chip bag and threw it in the trash as well. “You mean your dinky little paper route? Oh please, I know you made the Larson boy do it for you all summer long.”

“He offered to help, but that’s not important,” Britney said, trying to reach for chip bag that, but her mom held the lid down. “Ugh, I hate you so much!” Britney stormed out of the kitchen while giving her mom the middle finger behind her.

“You know where you can shove that finger,” she called out before turning to me. “I’m really sorry you had to see that. But she knows better than to go against her dietician’s orders—”

I ran past Mrs. Schumer to chase after Britney. She headed to the washroom, and slammed the door in front of me. I knocked and called her name, but all I could hear was a ton of hacking and coughing. For the next 10 minutes, I sat against the door and waited for her to finish whatever she was doing in there. Whatever it was, it sounded gross.

What happened to Britney telling her mom to shut the hell up? She made me believe that she could stand up for herself. If that’s what it looked like to stand up against her mom, I had to forget about trying her method out any time soon. Britney was lucky her mom only used words to hurt her…



18 thoughts on “It Starts at Home

  1. I liked it! Dramatic, yet so plausable (tragically) reality for a child.
    Though, something I missed was the verbal fight between the parents in the beginning. Felt curious about how it it would actually play out in dialogue. Then again, maybe it wasn’t very relevant to this one scene. Maybe you could write out the beginning off it? Like one line from each parent?

    Hope you will post more of your story, I really enjoyed this snippet!

    • thanks for taking the time to read it and the valuable criticism you gave me before. Hm I didn’t want to give their argument the actual dialogue because it’s something Johanna has heard before, so she knows the form it takes. On a rewrite I guess I could include the initial dialogue and then sum it up because I find my novel being jam packed with dialogue sometimes lol. BUT for future chapters, I will be sure not to truncate the arguments between the parents, especially if it’s something new and confounding to Johanna.

    • tiny update, I ended up taking your advice and adding actual dialogue for Johanna’s parents’ argument. What ended up happening was it added a whole lot more depth than I intended and helped me intigrate a form of communication between the three that I’ve added in a later chapter–but introducing it earlier in THIS chapter as a way to build familiarity with the reader.

      Thanks as always, Yeravos!

  2. Awesome writing. You captured the experience and feelings of a teenager very well. That was the most powerful part for me. The verbal abuse and its effect was powerful.

    I had a similar experience in high school when I was talked into running for secretary of the guidance counsel. I did not win but was surprised by taking second place when I had absolutely no friends whatsoever. I don’t know how I even got that close. I don’t know why they voted for me. I look forward to your insight on the politics.

    Just that little bit of this story left me hungry for more. Well done!

    • Thank you for taking the time to read my snippet, and the kind words, Melanie!

      Interesting, was it a teacher who talked you into running for secretary to get you out of your shell and make friends? I’m just making a guess, feel free to correct me.

      Your hunger for more has made me hungry for more, I am in the process of getting to the campaign and election chapter 🙂

  3. I enjoyed reading that! I especially liked it how when she went to her friends house, everything seemed to be a lot better haha, because I can relate to that. The family descriptions seem very realistic, unfortunately, since… well especially Britney’s mother kinda made me nauseous though I want to read more to find out what happens.

  4. Very interesting story Marlon. Realistic & engaging. Do gamers really get button callouses? I felt so disgusted when they were eating the chips & pizza, the tone of over indulgence followed by “purging” in the bathroom is a window into Britney’s inner trauma & pain over food and body issues. With a Mom like hers no wonder!

    • Yep! There’s a professional gamer out there named Celeste Anderson who trained for a video game tournament almost all day everyday, and she developed callouses on her thumbs from excessive gaming.

      And yes, glad you picked up on the fact that Britney was purging in the bathroom as to add a different meaning to when her mother said she knows where she can stick that middle finger.

  5. I have read the revised version now, and I really like it! The added dialogue instead of just alluding to it adds atmosphere to the whole scene, realism. There was one sentence that stood out to me out to me however:
    “She’s just looking out for you. If we just gave you everything you wanted, you’d be spoiled and have no respect for us.”
    Would the dad be so explicit about the spoiled-no-respect part? Maybe he could make that comment in a more subtle manner?

    So excited to see the finished book, keep on plowing through brother!

  6. OMG, so dense with storyline. There are so many innuendos here that intrigue me on the dysfunction of each character, their view on how to deal with parents, how they care for and value themselves and compare themselves to one another. I like how all the characters seem very self interested, in their own world while Johanna gets to be an observer and simply noticing her surroundings and that as the reader I get to find all the clues about where some of the conflict is going to grow. Good stuff brother!

  7. Marlon,

    You did an amazing job at depicting the characters and giving the reader a clear image of who these girls are in just one chapter! I was engaged and able to visualize the whole chapter playing out as I read along:)

    I got that these two girls were envious of each other and in constant comparison. Whether it be their appearance, their status/way of living to their family dynamic. Both girls feel as those the other is the “Lucky” one and is living a better life.

    Joanna felt insecure for being thin like a stick and Britney feeling like she was too curvy and overweight. Both wanting what the other has. Joanna was comparing her old shitty couches to Britneys white suede ones. Then later Joanna going as far to compare the types of abusive they both we receiving. Making one better than the other.

    I could feel the awkward tension and negative energy during the debate between Joanna and her parents before leaving the house. You get the sense her parents are in an unhealthy marriage and are emotionally unavailable to each other including to Joanna. On the drive to Britney’s I feel the emotional struggle from anger towards her parents, the feeling of picking sides to ending in the feelings of guilt. How that is a draining cycle. I can relate to that.

    I felt the hug from Britney was a way of showing how Joanna has been affected by the lack of affection from her parents at home. She says “Why did affection have to hurt? After receiving the hug from Britney. Now she almost rejects or feels a negative attachment to receiving love.

    I felt that Mrs. Scheumer is insecure because she doesn’t feel loved in her own marriage. As she described her husband as a “bozo” and having been flirting with other women. As a result she seems to be installing negative attitudes towards having a perfect image into her daughter Britney. Leading to why Britney would have a dietician, is not able to eat pizza, and by the end of the chapter we find out has an eating disorder. As her mom tells her “You know where to shove that finger”

    Here Joanna realizes some of her assumptions were wrong. Previously Joanna felt Britney could use her words well to intimidate people/ stick up for herself, yet here she saw a “weaker” version. We now see that could be Britney’s hardened mask she wears to protect herself from harm.
    Joanna saw that that Britney does not have a perfect life. However we also see yet again more comparing. She feels the verbal abusive Britney is receiving from her mother is better than her implied physical abuse from her parents.

    I resonated with this chapter because growing up I felt as though my family was always struggling both financially and emotionally. It seemed like I was constantly being exposed to drama, stress and forms of abusive. I remember feeling as though some my close friends had it easy living with no worries in their big houses and with parents who love each other. When really everyone has there own story that we may not be aware of completely. Comparing is even worse as a teenager. I remember that!

    I feel like the message your are trying to portray is that what our parents expose us to growing up can have dramatic impact on our choices and they way we feel about ourselves. Also that we when we are young & impressionable we look to our parents to teach us by example. If we watch them behave inappropriately or keep themselves in negative situations. We may have our own issues or struggles with similar situations in the future.

    Thanks for sharing Marlon!

    I don’t know if I really helped or just summarized what I got from the story


    • holy hell, thanks for the great and lengthy comment, Janet. I’m glad you picked up on all the themes I’ve put into it, and aside from my writing professor, you were the first person to figure out what “you know where to shove that finger” REALLY meant!

      Yes this helps a lot in helping me feel motivated to write more and resonate with other readers as much as I have with you. I am speechless, thank you for taking the time to read it and to give a hefty review of it. I wonder what you would think of the book in its completion now!

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