((With the first week of school and new responsibilities swallowing up my time, I’m not particularly proud of the execution of this piece. Maybe I’ll revisit it and revise it someday.))
This is the story of a boy and a girl. The two of them were siblings, and they had very different ideas about what it meant to be siblings. The boy was four years older than the girl, and so it went without saying that the girl was four years younger than the boy. They both loved and hated each other, in the way only siblings can, and if one asked either, they would claim that they were nothing like the other. They would declare that they had nothing in common with the other. This was untrue.
They both were good people, both felt that four years was just too many between them, and they both went through life with the strange sense that they were suddenly more distant than before. But that was ridiculous, as nothing had changed.
That was just the way it had always been, and so they did not complain.
One morning, the brother woke up at dawn, which was an odd circumstance indeed, a high school boy up at five on the weekend. He drifted down the hallway in a daze, and blinked into the empty living room. Before the day had begun, it was too serene in its quiet. His footsteps creaked too loud on the wood.
He wondered, for a moment, if the living room counted as a liminal space – in the household, no one ever lounged or rested there. The living room is for living, someone had once said, and the sitting room is for sitting. His family had, apparently, taken that to mean that clutter went in the living space, as there was all manner of unused objects gathered around the coffee table. His sister’s deflated soccer ball was wedged beneath the armchair, and his middle school speech trophies collected dust along the shelf.
The easel that someone had bought on a whim and never used remained awkwardly angled by the east-facing window, gold trickles of sunlight dripping like watercolors through the drapes. It had been there for as long as he could remember.
So he opened the curtains and marveled at the sunset, feeling rather strange indeed, and decided that yes, the living room was a liminal space. The living room was for living in, not for standing around alone. He determined that this must be why he felt so unsettled, and began to live.
He folded up the easel and put it away.
Your face will freeze that way you know.
I’m just saying, it’s not a good look for you.
Sometimes, the sister smiled when she didn’t want to. Like when her volleyball team lost the middle school regionals, she had wanted to do nothing more than cry, but her teammates were already devastated and so she couldn’t. Her parents had been so pitying that she just wanted them to stop, and her brother would ruffle her hair and say, too bad, and think that was enough. It never really was.
Today was one of those days, where she smiled at the line of withered flowers on the windowsill. “I guess I forgot to water them,” she said, grinning despite the tears stinging her eyes without her knowing why or why the plants had withered when she had forgotten to water them a dozen times in the past, and they had continued to thrive.
They were just plants, but they had been hers, and now that they were gone, it hurt. Her parents bought her a new set, but they just weren’t the same, and in two weeks’ time they were dead too.
Where’s he going?
He has forensics on Thursdays.
What, like CSI?
No, like speeches and debate.
His mother didn’t have the time to help him prepare his speeches. His sister had inherited their father’s sense for rhetoric, which ascribed to the idea of repeating one’s self until the other got tired and gave in. It was fine, though, not having a second opinion – it’s not like he ever really asked any of them before.
So the brother woke up early on a Saturday again, and he sat by the chair by the sunrise window, and he recited the words to himself again and again.
Where’s she going?
Group project. She’s been complaining all week.
You never listen.
That’s what we have you for.
The sister scurried down the stairs and latched onto her brother’s arm, eyes bright with bold delight. “Did you know we had a guest room in the attic?” she said, bouncing on her feet. “That can be my new room!”
Jostled from his concentration, the brother glared at his younger sister. “What is it? I’m busy,” he said, straightening the startled crease from his notes.
“Well did you or not?”
“Did I know what?”
“About the room in the attic!” she said again, and this time the brother heard and was baffled.
“Of course we have a room in the attic,” he said, but the words were sour on his tongue. He looked to his sister with a furrowed brow and asked, “Why do we have a guest room in the attic?”
With a quiet grumble that she’s always the last to know things – which was blatantly untrue, in the brother’s opinion, because that honor belonged to him – the sister shrugged. “Maybe Mom and Dad made it for guests?”
“We never have guests,” the brother pointed out, and for once was persuaded to leave his studies. He let his sister drag him up by the hand, and she kicked open the door with a flourish.
“It’s a nice room,” she pointed out, “and it’s bigger than mine. Since no one uses it, I should have it.”
And it was a nice room, awash in cool colors with a window that poured in afternoon light. The twin-sized bed was perfectly made, and dust gathered in every corner. It would have been a fine guest room, if it weren’t for the loose papers on the desk and the odd stack of books in every corner of the room.
“Maybe talk to Dad about it,” the brother said, ignoring whatever it was that he forgot.
You should talk to him
You should listen to her
Leave me alone
Fine, I will.
Their mother loved the painting in the hallway. She always marveled at the swirls of oil paint that swept across the canvas in vibrant hybrid of the ocean and the stars. She always pointed out that the little cabin in the corner resembled the site where they all had gone camping three years prior.
Although she couldn’t explain how, the sister knew that it did not just resemble their cabin but that it was. She was so fascinated by this knowledge that she wanted it for herself, so she tucked it away in her chest and didn’t tell her mother at all.
Perhaps we should buy another from the same artist, the mother said, but none of them could decipher the elegant scrawl of the signature, and no one they asked seemed to know at all.
Haha. It doesn’t even sound like a word anymore…
The day after the sister moved into the attic, she changed her mind. “It doesn’t feel right,” she said, when she watched her red pillows and movie posters invade the room. However, her father had already moved up her desk and her dressers and everything else that was too much of a hassle to do again, so he told her she would have to live with it.
After the first week, she stopped waking up expecting to be somewhere else. After the second, she stopped feeling like an intruder, and at some point along the way, she stopped hoping to figure out why she felt as though she had done some awful thing.
Just open the door, kid. We found the body.
That’s a bad punchline.
It’s not a joke.
Contrary to what people assumed, the older brother couldn’t stomach the darkness of humanity in crime shows, and the younger sister clung to every episode on air. She liked nothing better after school and practice than to throw herself across the couch and watch fake people solve fictional murders with fancy forensic technology. So the day when, while watching, she burst into tears, everyone was surprised.
“What’s wrong? What happened?” her brother asked, hands fluttering with indecision. He made to stroke her hair but also to reach for a tissue and ended up doing nothing at all. He was bad at this, they both realized, and neither could remember how they got through so many years without confronting this fact.
“Nothing! Nothing happened,” the sister sniffled, scrubbing furiously at her eyes. “I don’t know.”
“Did something happen at school?”
“No, I was just watching— and then— someone’s dead.”
“You’re watching CSI, of course someone’s dead.”
“I know! I don’t know, shut up! Go away!” she snapped, but then froze no a hiccupping sob. She seized his sleeve in a panic, fresh tears brimming. “I didn’t mean that.”
And the phantom of words that the brother didn’t remember saying ghosted across his tongue, and he was so disturbed that he realized what he had to do. He settled down next to his sister on the couch and wrapped her into the fold of his arms.
“Of course I know that,” he murmured, feeling all too exposed. He felt the knot of tears start in his own throat, and swallowing made it worse, and he didn’t understand what was happening in the slightest. But that was okay, because neither did she, and they were both utterly confused together.
The brother glanced to the screen, where the victim’s body was laid out across the autopsy table.
“They always catch the bad guy, you know,” he said, meaning the TV show, but it felt like a lie.
“I know,” she said, even though she didn’t.
It wasn’t like CSI at all.
The brother and sister both loved winter for different reasons, him looking forward to the pride and resolve of the new year and her relishing the festivity of the holiday season. Their family always took the time to decorate the home, blasting the usual radio channels the whole way.
However, if asked what their favorite part of the season was, they would both have replied, “Mom’s hot chocolate” without hesitation. And this year was no different, with the same magic and excitement for the hot drink as children do for Santa Claus, but their mother got their orders wrong.
“Mom, I only take cinnamon,” the sister pointed out. She burnt her finger trying to scoop out the marshmallow. “It’s the same every year.”
Meanwhile, the brother envied the sister because marshmallows could be removed. “And I don’t like cinnamon,” he said, irritated.
They eventually got their proper orders, but it wasn’t the same, and perhaps that moment colored the rest of their holiday season, because they even had the perfect snow, enough for play but not enough to ruin the roads, and they couldn’t bring themselves to step in it.
“Maybe we’re just too old for snow games,” the sister said, staring at the footprints some children had made in their lawn.
“Maybe,” the brother said, staring at the cold gray clouds gathered above them.
I’ll do anything
Let me go!
When spring came, they all expected something terrible to happen. Every phone call sharpened the edge of tension. The one time the brother was called to the principal’s office for some minor administrative issue, he rushed in with practiced panic, practically shouting, “Is someone hurt? Are they okay?” but when asked if something was wrong, he couldn’t explain and had to speak to the counselor.
He was fine by then and, in the way of school counselors, deemed fine and let go without further prompting.
After two weeks since the snow melted, the sister teared up again without knowing the reason why, and her parents wrote it off as hormonal despite her insistence that it wasn’t, that something just felt wrong. And for once, the brother understood, and they sat together in her attic room to wait for summer together.
Mother’s had enough of red
No, white’s no good either.
She got in trouble for going to a friend’s house without permission. Trouble with their parents, of course, but when she came home sullen and ashamed, her brother was also livid.
“We thought you’d been kidnapped!” he shouted. “We thought you’d been killed – you of all of us know that something’s been off all year, and you just go running off like that?”
And the sister’s eyes face had flushed and her eyes went bright, and she shouted, “I did tell you!”
“No you didn’t!”
“Yes, I did! I always tell you before I go out, and I said that I’m going out, that I’d be back by eight, but you never listen! You always respond, you know?”
“Then I didn’t hear!”
“No, you didn’t listen!”
“If I didn’t listen, you didn’t tell me!” he shouted, carding a hand through his hair. “It’s not my responsibility to make sure I heard it. You should have made sure I listened!”
“Well, how?!” the sister shouted, swiping away the tears that had started again. “I don’t know how! Do you know what you say whenever I make sure you listen? ‘Not now’ or ‘Leave me alone’ or ‘Go away’ and you know that something’s wrong,” and she was crying again, and she didn’t need to say more because he understood. “I thought we were getting closer this year, you know? Somehow. You understood how weird everything felt, but this hasn’t changed—”
“I’m sorry,” he said, shaken, and for a public speaker, he was rather ineloquent indeed, the words unpracticed. “I do understand. I get it, I… I didn’t think of it that way. I’m sorry.” And then he hugged her again, so that she couldn’t see his own eyes glisten with tears. “You’re right. I never listen.”
“But I never really talk to you, either,” she confessed.
“We never had problems like this before.”
“Something used to bridge the gap.”
And after a long moment, the brother managed to blink the bleariness away, and he looked his sister in the eyes with an unsteady smile. “I won’t say things like that again,” he said. “So just… tap me on the shoulder or something. I don’t know. We’ll figure it out.”
And she nodded, and perhaps four years wasn’t that much of a gap after all.
They could not remember what they had forgotten, but the one forgotten did not forget, and I contented myself with their passing days and contented myself with their loss, and I was at peace. Eventually they would remember, perhaps, and eventually they would mourn me, but they would find that time had healed the wounds that they never knew were there, and the ache was less, and the pain was less. They would be at peace. All would be well.
Wouldn’t that have been nice, if that was what happened? All three of us, not happy, but at the very least, satisfied. It would have been the best that we could hope for. The best that I could hope for.
But that’s not what happened.