The phone screeched in my ear. I jerked up in bed. It screeched again. I squinted at the clock. Three a.m. Nothing good comes from a call at three a.m. I picked up the receiver in mid-screech. "Hello?" I said, sleep clogging my voice.
I could see his face as soon as he said the word. Twenty-four, scrawny, long hair falling into his eyes. Where was he calling from? A bus station? Some homeless shelter? I tried to pick up background noises.
"Mama?" he asked again. All of a sudden, he was three again, coming to me with a boo-boo needing a kiss.
"I'm here, Joshua," I said with a croak. I cleared my throat. I wasn't going to let him get to me this time. "What's up?"
"I need to come home. I haven't got a place to stay. They kicked me out of the shelter. Please, it'll be just for a little while."
Since the age of 16, we had tried contracts, counselors, military schools, you name it. Nothing seemed to reach him, help him find a path other than the one towards destruction. "Please, Joshua, don't ask. You remember the last time? I told you then, I couldn't let you come back again."
I waited for his reaction. He always exploded when he didn't get his way. I've been called a bitch, a whore, a fucking cunt. It's surprising how much those words sting even after you've heard them a hundred times from someone you love, or wanted to love.
This time, however, no burst of anger. "Please, Mama, just for a little while?"
The second approach, wheedling, plying for my affection. Like when he wanted that Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle collection when he was eight. I hardened my heart. He was no longer eight, I reminded myself. He couldn't even be bothered to come to his father's funeral.
I repeated something the many therapists had stressed over our years of counseling. "No, Joshua. You've made your choices. You'll have to accept the consequences."
He took a deep breath, and I could almost hear the tears in his voice. "You're right."
This caught me off-guard. Never had he accepted responsibility. Someone or something else had always created his problems. Teachers, the system, his parents. He continued. "I just was hoping . . . if I could just get on my feet . . . I promise it'll be different."
I could hear Sam's voice in my head. He's an adult. He's got to learn to stand on his own two feet.
I swallowed. "That's what you always promise, then you break it."
"Not this time. I'm straight now. I haven't used in months."
Don't let him get to you.
I squeezed the receiver tightly. "How do I know that's the truth?" I had a second sense about this. An in-born lie detector. I could never explain this to Sam, how I just knew if one of the kids was jerking our chains. Countless times I had been accused of mistrust, only to prove in the end I was right.
"I'll do anything you ask, even drug tests. If that's what you want. I've hit bottom, I promise. I want out."
You're not going to believe him, are you?
I told Sam to shut up. I heard sincerity in Joshua's voice. Whether for real or from a mother's optimism, I wasn't certain; but I took a deep breath and said, "Okay, baby, you can come home."