What Else Is There?

by Al Norris



Copyright © 2021-2023 by Al Norris. All Rights Reserved.

I originally wrote this as a one-off Christmas story for Castle Roland's 2021 annual event. My mind simply wouldn't let go of the premise. I wanted to tell more about what Pete was going through. So what was a short story of about 3600 words, has become an expanded prologue of about 5800 words. From this expanded prologue I developed an urge to tell Peter's story beyond that one fateful day. I hope you enjoy it.

Many thanks to JonDom, one of Castle Roland's beta readers, and a terrific idea man. Thanks also to Roland who gave me ideas to further the characterization. And thanks to Scott, my editor. Without their unselfish help, this tale wouldn't be nearly as well spun. Any mistakes left in this story are completely mine.

It certainly wasn't the "Best of Times." The fact is, times haven't been good since the day my dad was buried. It's been so long since he was killed in the mining accident, that it is getting harder to remember him or those happy times when our family was whole.

My dad was a miner. He was partnered with his brother, Uncle George. Together they had two gold mines they worked on the southeastern slopes of the Sierra Nevadas. While we weren't rich, we didn't lack for many things. Uncle George had a single-wide trailer at the #1 Rosemont Mine and we had a double-wide on the other side of the canyon near the #2 Rosemont Mine. Hot & cold running water, indoor plumbing, pretty much what everyone had, down in Twin Pines, the town at the foot of the mountains where we were.

During this time I was the oldest of six with my mom pregnant with her seventh child, though we kids didn't know this, at the time. There were three sisters and two brothers that I had to keep track of, most of the time. I was supposed to be in school, but my mom home-schooled me that year. The local school was 20 miles down the mountain in Twin Pines. We only went there to take testing once every two months. Of course, second grade wasn't all that much. I had learned to read and even write by the time I was four. By five, I had learned some addition and subtraction. The district wanted me to start second grade, skipping first grade altogether, based on my test scores.

Even if I had to go to regular school, that wouldn't have been much of a problem. My birthday was in early December, and I had missed the September cutoff for first grade. Even so, I wasn't too much younger than the kids in the grade they wanted me to start with.

Because my birthday was close to Christmas, I never got much in the way of birthday presents. Maybe a game and some clothes. Most of the stuff came with Christmas itself. It wasn't too bad of a deal, since the oldest sister had a birthday in mid-December and the two youngest sisters had birthdays in early and mid-January. So we all had pretty much the same deal. So, we had small birthdays and decent Christmases. The two youngest brothers had birthdays in April and May, so they did have better birthdays than us four older kids, but I had never begrudged them for that. Even at six, I understood it was more difficult for the rents to hold better birthdays right before or right after Christmas.

While we weren't rich, dad and Uncle George only needed to work three or sometimes four days a week. They would be at the main mine one week and the next week they would be at the other mine. There were four other guys, all bachelors, that worked for dad and my Uncle. They all lived together in a double-wide house trailer together, over on Uncle George's side of the canyon. Uncle George was single too.

Dad was a great guy. When he wasn't working one of the mines with Uncle George, he was always paying attention to us kids. We'd play all kinds of games outside when the weather was good. During the winter, we'd mostly be inside, but even that was mostly fun. Life seemed awfully good back then!

Once a week, dad would take me into the mine with him, whichever mine he was working. I would get to see how the work was done. He and Uncle George would sometimes let me try the pneumatic drill. That was extremely loud! I had to use some earmuffs to help deaden the sound. It was very hard to make dynamite holes. Of course, being five, I could hardly put a lot of force behind the dang thing, even if it was on a tripod to hold it up!

Uncle George would take me in with him, once in a while. Only he helped me push the drill into the rock. That was a lot of fun, too.

I learned how to place the sticks of dynamite into the holes we drilled, then stick the blasting caps into the lead sticks and run the wires out to the junction. Uncle George would even let me roll out the leader wires to the detonator. I wasn't allowed to hook it up, dad or Uncle George did that.

They did let me trigger the blast, once I learned how to connect all the wires to the junction and rolled out the leader to the detonator, which was located just outside of the mine. Dad said it was unsafe to be in the mine when the dynamite was set off. Boy, that was fun!

After the blast and the dust had settled, we would take an ore car down the tunnel to where the tracks stopped. That was usually where the wall was that we had just blasted. Then we would fill the car with the rocks that had been part of the end wall of the tunnel we had just blasted and push the car back out of the tunnel. Just a ways from the entrance to the mines were the places where you dumped the ore car into a rock crusher, which would bust up the larger pieces into small fist-sized rocks. When that became full, dad or Uncle would back up a ten-ton dump and load it up. When both trucks were loaded, they would take the trucks down the hill to the rail yard.

After the loads were taken down, dad and the others would begin to shore up the tunnel. Uncle George would then examine the rockface and decide if we were going to go straight ahead or branch off. I guess that was part of following the vein of ore. Then they would lay new tracks for the ore cars. I never got to do any of that, it was really heavy work.

With dad and Uncle and the four other guys, they could blast a ten-foot section of tunnel, clear it, crush it and take it to the yards in about two days. The open-top hoppers that they dump into will hold 8 to 12 truckloads of ore. Uncle George said it depends on how fine the crushers worked and how much metal was in the ore. Once the trucks were loaded and started down the hill, it took about two hours to get there and back for another couple of loads.

While mining was mostly fun for me, I could see how hot, hard, dusty, and dirty a job it was. Mom didn't like it too much when dad or my Uncle took me into the mines. She always moaned about how dirty I got. I loved it anyway.

My sixth birthday had come and gone. The holidays were over and it was in the first week of January when it happened.

The crew was working the #2 Rosemont Mine, the newer mine, this one snowy day. It was just about lunchtime when Uncle George rushed into our home and asked mom for some blankets and to call the sheriff. Mom just stared at my Uncle for a minute, then asked how many blankets he needed. After my Uncle had what he wanted and left, mom just sat down at the kitchen table and began crying.

Things became kind of a blur after that day. I remember that the sheriff and several deputies came, and they all left by nightfall. It was pretty obvious they left with a body covered by a tarp. Mom and Uncle George left with them, but one of the workers came in and fixed supper. He stayed with us kids that night and made sure we were all cleaned up and in bed.

I asked him where my dad was and he got this sad look on his face. "Son, your dad went with your mom and George. They can tell you what is going on when they get back in the morning."

Since I knew I hadn't seen dad, since this morning, and I knew that it was mom and my Uncle that went with the sheriff… Well, even a six-year-old can add up the numbers.

After that, it seemed like all of a sudden, us kids were at the grandparents' house, down in Bishop.

I remember there was a massive argument between both sets of grandparents and my mom. Then it was time for the viewing. Of all the kids, my mom had me in this setting to say goodbye to dad. The only problem I had was seeing that thing in the coffin. My dad never looked like that. Even if I only had a vague idea of what it meant to be dead, I knew I would never see my dad again. That thing in the box, that my mom made me look at and say goodbye to, couldn't be him.

The next day, all of us kids were at the church for the funeral. That was when I learned what the grandparents had argued with mom about.

Mom had been adamant about having an open casket viewing. She also insisted that all of us kids walk up to the casket and say goodbye to dad. The grands argued it would be in very poor taste to have an open casket viewing, let alone cruel to have us kids see him like that. Mom partially won that argument. I was the oldest. I was six and now I was supposed to be the man of the family. It was my duty, as the man, to say goodbye. I don't remember too many people looking into that box. Mom grabbed me by the shoulder and dragged me over to it and made me look and say goodbye. I remember yelling at my mom, as I freed myself from her grasp, that that thing wasn't my dad, and then running to Uncle George and crying in his arms.

To this day, I think my mom went nuts with grief, among other things. I don't care how good morticians are, there's not much you can do to a body that had been crushed by a fifteen-ton rock. An open casket viewing should never have been held.

It was after that viewing that I noticed that mom's feelings toward me changed. No longer was she the warm caring person she used to be. She no longer talked with either set of grandparents or Uncle George. She also became overly critical of everything I did after that day.

After the funeral, mom had found work as a financial secretary at a large construction business in San Bernardino. I guess that was based on her keeping the finances at the mines. As I grew, I found out that she had an associate's degree in accounting. All I knew, at the time, is that within a month, we all moved there. San Bernardino was about four hours south of Bishop. I just knew that I wouldn't be seeing dad's parents anytime soon. Mom's parents lived in Salt Lake City, Utah, so we never got to see them much, anyway. Uncle George? While I talked to him over the years, I never saw him again until I was older.

Growing up, turned out to be almost as bad as the day of the viewing. It was just happening in slower motion.

One of the first things that happened was that mom could no longer home-school. She had a job now, and no longer had the time. So I entered into the public school system along with Joanna, who went to first grade.

I hadn't ever been around a bunch of other kids; my sisters and brothers didn't quite count as 'other kids.' Then, of course, I missed out on the month of January and the first part of February. I wasn't behind, exactly, but I was still scared shitless. Besides having 'New Guy' syndrome, I was kinda shy. My sister, Joanna, took to it like a duck takes to water!

Well, despite my shyness, I plowed on. The things the class was being taught were things I already knew. What made it hard was that for being only in second grade, everybody had already formed their little cliques and I was the outsider. Out on the playground, I didn't get to play with anyone. Being an outsider, I was mostly ignored.

When I tried to get into some of the games, I was pushed and shoved and made to feel very unwelcome. Seems that the teachers out on the grounds never saw what was happening, until the day I got fed up with one guy, and pushed him back. Yeah, they saw that! I was taken to the Principal's office and read the riot act. Didn't matter much to them or my mom what had actually happened. Only that I was caught doing the pushing and not the other guy.

I was told that since this was my first time in a public school, and that I was the new guy, I had better learn to get along with the other kids. If I was caught being 'violent' again, I would be suspended.

That set the tone for the rest of my time in elementary school. The other kids didn't like me and I didn't like them.

Back on the mountain, my dad and uncle used to jog around our small valley, twice a week. The other guys always joined them. They would run once around the valley and then do some pushups, some jumping jacks, and some pull-ups, then they would take another run around the valley.

Dad and Uncle George had told me that this was how they kept in shape, so they could always do their work better. Uncle George said that just doing the mining wasn't good enough to keep their bodies in shape. So I began doing what I could to emulate them.

Now, since the kids, at school, didn't want anything to do with me, I started doing something similar at school. On our breaks and after eating lunch, I began to run around the playground, doing pushups, pullups, and jumping jacks.

It didn't take long for a couple of the bigger kids to join me at lunchtime. Two of them even showed me how to do squat thrusts, which then took the place of jumping jacks. It began to be fun! My own age group ignored me but several of the older 5th graders joined me.

There were still some of the guys in my class that just couldn't keep to themselves. They would look around to see if a teacher was watching and try to shove or push me. The second that happened I would shove or push right back. They would try to do this in or out of school. Out of school, I let myself go and gave it back to them. It didn't take too long before most of them stopped trying to bully me. That's how I finished the second grade.

But I didn't just exercise, I also kept up on my studies and left that grade with A's and B's.

During that summer, I kept up my daily exercises. There were a couple of the kids from the higher grades that lived close to me. They were part of the guys that ran with me at school. So once they saw that I was still running and stuff, they joined in.

I continued getting good grades all through my elementary school years. I also continued with my running and other exercises. The older kids told me that if I kept it up, I would be fit enough to play team sports when I got to Middle School.

That became another goal.

My life at home was a whole lot different. While I didn't have many friends, except the older kids at school that I ran with, at home I was always being told how I was now the "man of the house" and had to take an ever larger role in watching my brothers and sisters.

By the time I was in fifth grade, I was making lunches for myself, and my three sisters. We had a part-time nanny that would watch the younger boys until Joanna and I got home from school; Five of us were all in school, and the two youngest were at daycare. Nanny would bring them home at around noon and take care of them until Joanna and I got home. Nanny usually left right after that.

By sixth grade, I was making dinner, two or three times a week. Joanna and I were making sure the house was kept clean. By this time, mom was really harping at me, because I took an hour (or so) running and exercising on the weekends. So that summer, she put her foot down and only allowed me to run twice a week. The rest of the time I was to keep watch over my brothers and sisters during the weekdays and keep them quiet on the weekends so she could sleep.

All during this time, mom never dated anyone. I was sure that in my mother's mind, my father had become some kind of a legend. No man ever measured up to him. He became some sort of a superman. That's who I was always judged against. It didn't matter what I did, athletically, he was always better. No matter how good my grades were, he was better. That goal post, the standard by which my mom measured me, was always moving, always just out of reach.

By the time I was ten years old (middle of the sixth grade), I had begun to realize that I was different from other boys. By the time I was twelve, I knew I was different. Most of the other boys were starting to really, really like girls. For me, girls were just friends. Oh, I knew what sex was, I just didn't feel that way about girls. But I was beginning to think about boys in that way. I knew what that meant and it scared me.

The other thing that happened when I was ten, I began growing. Um, everywhere. It wasn't as noticeable until I went to middle school. The schools where we were required that we boys all shower after PE. Even though the other kids in my grade were anywhere from one to two years older, many had not started puberty. Didn't learn about that until 7th grade health classes.

Our schools tried their best to keep bullying down. But teachers and administrative people simply couldn't be everywhere. So it happened. Not so much while I was in middle school, but in high school, homophobia was clearly rampant.

Ever since dad had died, there was only one person I could talk to about things. That was Uncle George. He usually called us, after school, before Mom got home from work. We weren't allowed to call him. Mom said it cost too much.

It was on my 10th birthday that Uncle George came down to see me. Mom didn't like it, especially when she saw that Uncle George gave me a mobile phone. It was a flip phone but had text messaging and a camera that could take pictures and even short videos! Uncle George explained that it was on his family plan service and had 400 minutes a month. So I had to watch how much time I used up. I think the only reason I was allowed to keep the phone was because Uncle George was paying for it. At first, I didn't think there was any way I could use up six and a half hours in a single month. I soon found out that I could!

It was here that I was able to talk to both sets of my grandparents. Talking to the grands in Utah was where I found out I could get over my talk minutes!

Don't get me wrong, dad's parents were great to talk to also. They could tell me how dad was when he was growing up. What he did. What he liked. Uncle George would also talk about growing up with my dad. That's how I found out that my mom was under some kind of delusion when she compared me to him.

But when I wanted to talk about personal stuff, it was always Uncle George I turned to. Mom kinda hated that. She had three brothers and I was supposed to be talking to them. However, they were either always too busy or were openly homophobic. How could I possibly talk to those uncles about how I was feeling?

Uncle George? Heck, I often remember him saying that he didn't care if a man slept with a sheep, as long as he got his job done. He also told me not to try and label myself. He said I was still too young to know what I really wanted and it could be just a phase I was going through. He never once told me I was wrong to feel this way, just to wait and see how things turned out.

The best advice he ever gave me was that I was too young yet to be set in my ways. He told me that there was as good a chance that I would grow to like girls as I would continue to like boys. He also told me that he would love me regardless of who I ended up loving, as long as I did an honest day's work at an honest job. Unlike some adults, my Uncle never changed his view on that.

At any rate, this was something I could never reveal to anyone at school or in my mom's family. Especially my mother. She would have a virtual field day with that revelation. Her having a 'fit' would be the mildest description. It would confirm, in her mind for all time, that I wasn't good enough to carry my dad's name. God only knew what she would have done with me, had she ever found out.

The only good thing about my mom's attitude was her steadfast belief that not only couldn't I date until I was 16, I couldn't even have a girlfriend until then. That belief of hers likely saved me an untold amount of grief, since it gave me an easy out when it came to girls and dating.

This is just some of the background stuff to give you an idea of who I was.

Then I went and did a really stupid thing one Christmas. That was when everything with my mom came to a head.

I had just turned thirteen and thought I was so cool! I was no longer a kid. I was finally a teenager. Of course, I knew better than my brothers and sisters!

So when I accidentally discovered where mom had hidden all the Christmas presents that year, I just had to tell someone. Right? I mean, it wasn't just that I had found the hiding place, the stuff wasn't even wrapped yet! So I could see what we were going to get.

Since all of us, except maybe the two youngest boys, knew who Santa was, I figured that it wouldn't do any harm to show everyone else what I had found. So I did. Couldn't do any harm, could it? Oh, how wrong could I be!

Three days before Christmas, I went and looked in the hiding place. Nothing was there. At that time, I just figured mom had finally wrapped everything and put it all somewhere else. Since I already knew what everyone was getting, I didn't bother to try and find the new hidey-hole. What would be the point?

Up until this point in time, the only gifts wrapped and under our tree, were those gifts we kids had all bought or made for each other.

Come Christmas morning, we older kids were awakened by our two younger brothers and we all filed out of our bedrooms (two of them - one for the 3 girls and one for us 4 boys) and headed into the kitchen to make breakfast. It was our tradition to make breakfast, then get mom up so she could eat with us. Then we would go into the living room and the two youngest would pass out presents, while mom sat on the couch and sipped her coffee.

Everything is good, right? Um, no. My sisters and brothers all got what we already knew they were getting, except… There was nothing there for me.

I looked over at mom and she had this smirk on her face.

I guess I must have had this questioning look on my face as she drank the last of her coffee and said, "Peter, you look surprised."

"Well, everyone else got gifts, but not me. Not even from my sisters and brothers. What gives?"

"It's a funny thing. I went to where I had hidden your Christmas, to wrap them, and nothing was stacked the way I had left things. So I started to ask your brothers, then your sisters about it." Mom was as calm as could be. "You can probably guess what I found out.

"Since it wasn't their fault, I wrapped all of their gifts and returned all of yours to the store. Last night as I was setting out all of the Christmas presents, I took the ones from your brothers and sisters and threw them into the trash." Her smirk had become an angry glare. "For what you did, you don't deserve even a lump of coal. Let this be a lesson for you." With that, she got up off the couch. As she went down the hall to get dressed for the day she said, "Everyone get ready for church."

On the one hand, I knew I kinda deserved what she did. I could understand why. But to throw away the gifts from my brothers and sisters? That was just plain mean and rotten. It got worse, though. When we went to church for the Christmas Day service, mom wore the silver chain and cross I had gotten her. When a couple of people remarked how good it looked on her, she said it was just an old necklace she had forgotten about.

My two older sisters heard this and were flabbergasted. Later that night, my sisters told me about that. Whether or not I was supposed to be the oldest, whether or not I was still a teenager. It tore me up. I cried myself to sleep that night. This ended up being the worst Christmas I had ever experienced.

I was later to find out that this may not have been the worst Christmas ever.

I had started the school year as a freshman and earned my letter and jacket in JV football. I ended the year by getting another letter for the JV baseball team. I also ended with six A's and one B+. This was the second quarter that I had made the Honor Roll, but that wasn't good enough for mom. I should have been on varsity (yeah right… at 12 and then at 13? Give me a break), not JV. I was 12, going on 13, but I was still smaller than most freshmen. Because of my workouts, yeah, I was toned. Likely as good or better than most of my classmates (judging from what I saw in the showers and locker room).

As far as mom was concerned, I should have had straight A's. According to her, that's what my dad did as a high school freshman. I knew better, but it still hurt to be told I wasn't as good as my dad, even if I knew differently.

Gran and Gramps were both very proud of me. They told me that dad hadn't even gone out for sports until his junior year. That was only football. Not two sports like I did. While dad had good grades, a couple of A's but mostly B's, they weren't as good as mine was turning out to be. Gramps even told me that mom hadn't even met my dad until their senior year. So how the heck did she know what he did or didn't do? Uncle George about threw a shit fit when he found out.

I had a growth spurt that spring and summer. Mom kept grousing about having to buy me a bunch of new clothes when school restarted. That was complete nonsense though. I had been buying all my clothing for months now. I worked for many of my neighbors doing any small or large jobs they needed to do but didn't want to do for themselves.

Between my freshman and sophomore years, I had grown from 5'4" to 5'8". At 130 lbs. I had become good enough (and big enough) to play varsity football. I was a second-string wide receiver. I was thrilled! This meant I had my Junior and Senior years to make the starting position. I was also now taking several AP classes as well. I even made a couple of good friends on the team. I thought things were looking up.

Early December came and went. I was 14 now, but mom wouldn't acknowledge that with any kind of birthday. I did have a silent birthday party, given by my sisters. At least they remembered. No cake or anything, but they remembered. They had somehow saved enough money to get me a couple of really nice polo shirts.

I sure as heck didn't go looking for Christmas gifts this year. I wasn't going to make that mistake again!

Come Christmas morning this year, all I got was a lump of coal with a bow on it. I looked at my mom and she had that smirk again.

"Mom," Janet asked her, "where's our gifts to Peter?"

"After what he pulled last year, and his lousy grades and sports failures? He doesn't rate any gifts." Mom said. "So I threw them away."

"Mom, how long are you going to punish me for that stupid mistake from last year?" I asked.

"Until you can show me some responsibility, Peter."

"Is it responsible that I have earned enough money to buy all my own clothes? You haven't had to spend a dime on my clothes for a year and a half. Is it responsible that I made the JV football team at 12? The JV baseball team at 13? Second-string varsity football at 13? I was the only sophomore on our school's varsity football team. Is it responsible that my grade point average is currently 3.93? That I'm taking four AP classes? Do you even know what an AP class is?

"Joanna and I make the school lunches for all of us. I cook dinner 5 nights a week, so you don't have to. We do the laundry. We keep the house clean. Joanna and I watch the little ones. How is all of that not being responsible?"

"Peter, this is exactly what I'm talking about! How responsible is it when you argue over every decision I make like you are doing now? When you can do what your father did and show the responsibility he showed, then we can talk about you. As it is, you have a long way to go, Peter." Mom was almost screeching. My sisters and brothers were staring wide-eyed at her.

I looked at her and just shook my head. Once again, this just confirmed to me that I could never do anything right in her mind. "Mom, you never heard a word out of me, when you decided that I didn't need any kind of birthday party, this year. What? Am I now too old for birthdays, or did you just think I didn't deserve one like you think I don't deserve a Christmas?"

"You can't talk to me like that, you ungrateful bastard! Get out of my sight and go to your room!"

I calmly got up off the floor and walked into the bedroom. It was hard to hold back the tears I was feeling, but I did. It was now apparent my mother had no feelings for me. However, I was already prepared for this. Skipping my birthday, as she did, had been a wake-up call. It took all of five minutes to retrieve my two suitcases and shoulder my backpack. Then I walked into the living room and headed for the front door.

"Peter! Where the hell do you think you are going?" She shouted. "Do you think running away shows any kind of responsibility?"

"Mother, over the years, I have had many conversations with my grandparents and Uncle George. I found out many things about our dad. My father never achieved the things that I have at the same age. You know this, even if you refuse to admit it.

"I am not running away from anything. It's obvious there is nothing here for me, except your contempt. Running away? No, I am moving towards a better life. Uncle George has already told me that if you pulled this stunt again, I am welcome to go live with him in Elko." And with that, I walked out the front door and left my home.

The last thing I heard, as I walked towards the sidewalk on the street, was my mom shouting, "Good riddance to bad trash!"

That hurt and I could feel my eyes beginning to leak. To know now, without a doubt, that your own mother has no love for you… The reality was almost more than I could bear.

My eyes quickly dried as I walked away from my old life, thinking of my past and what my possible future might bring, 'what else is there?'

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