Tommy, my brother, cries those wide-mouthed, silent cries. Voice barred, he locks down on his vocal cords; all the while, his insides feeling as though they might explode. He locks down like a disturbed child who follows the rules and stays in his house as he watches the trap door clack shut on a wild squirrel. There is no way Tommy would be the one to blame for breaking the silence. There’s no way a kid’ll risk a whipping for setting a squirrel free. And who knows, a squirrel might be rabid. A squirrel could bite him when he gets out—bite him and give him a disease. My point is, Tommy wouldn’t cry. Boys don’t cry.
“Grace! What are you doin’ up there, girl?” Tommy catches me slipping my tiny body half-way through the bars of the banister, again. He gets up from the tile floor, eyes locked on me stuck in the posts, a grin appearing on his face. At least he’s not frowning anymore. Oh gosh, he’s going to get me!
“I see you, little-Miss!” His steps speed up from the windows of the great room, toward the stairs, up the stairs! His eyes give away the chuckle that I can’t hear coming from his new deep voice. He’s grinning at me; he’s smiling at me. He’s coming right at me! He thinks he’s real funny, huh. Sucker! No way, Tommy’s not going to get me! Not this time! He’s only at the foot of the stairs. I’m wriggling out of the bars as fast as I can, I swear.
“You can’t get me!” I mutter as the square posts of the banister catch my new baby blue t-shirt then scrape the inside of my shin as I slither free. “You leave me alone!” I holler at him with half my might. Aunt Rebecca never cuts me a break when it comes to using my inside voice; now I’m well trained. Geez! Tommy always has to tickle me when he gets me. I hate it. The laughter makes my stomach hurt, and I’ve been aching all over since P.E. yesterday.
I book it for Aunt Rebecca’s room. The brass handle on the door jams into my arm and throws me off balance; my feet slip beneath me on the worn purple carpet and I stick out a hand to stop my head from hitting the corner of a wall. But when I let out a sigh of relief for having caught my balance and lift my knee to re-start my flight, it slams into Aunt Rebecca’s shiny oak desk. I gasp, sucking in air through clenched teeth. It hurts real bad. I roll on the floor, knee hugged to my chest. He didn’t hear that, did he? Come on, get it together, girl! He’ll be here any second.
“Gra-ace?” he probably heard the fall. “Gra-ace?” Good gosh, here he comes. He thinks he’s creeping up on me to surprise me. Yeah, right. Come on girl, pull it together. Stupid desk! I can’t hear his footsteps anymore. “Grace?” he asks himself, surprised. He sees me. No, Tommy, go away.
“Grace–” no more smiling, “Dammit, Grace, you’re ridiculous.” My leg out in front of me, I bring my knee to my cheek–I bury my knee in my cheek and look away from the door. It still hurts. He comes closer, sits down beside me, and begins to assess the damage. His fingers gently tug now at the skin around the wound. A long deep gash, I imagine. I can’t look. I bet I’m bleeding all over the rug, but I’m not sure. I bet the gash isn’t even visible anymore, probably covered in blood! There’s a warm, pulsing feeling where I hit the desk. I wouldn’t be surprised if that were the case. I don’t want to look at it; I don’t want to look at Tommy either. Geez, Tommy! He should have just left me alone!
The pain is slowly fading. Thank you, Lord. But a then new ache comes back every time Tommy pokes his fingers at me. Why not just leave me? Leave me! I did it to myself.
“Yeah, well, okay, you just keep looking ugly. Go on and be ugly, then. Exhaust yourself,” he says, letting my knee, that he’d been balancing gently in his hands, fall towards the ground. He gets up from the floor. He’s heading to the garage to grab the first aid kit. We keep the first aid kit in the garage on one of the higher shelves. Makes no sense, I know. I mean, if it were in the cabinet of a bathroom then I could get to it all by myself and he wouldn’t have to bother with me. No one would have to bother with me, but especially him. Always bothering with me. Always bothering with other people other than himself.
Tommy, my brother, cries those wide-mouthed silent cries at least once a month nowadays. He clenches his fists real tight and sometimes presses his head to the tile floor, kneeling on the ground, swaying. Twice he put a clenched fist in a wall, both times in the wall of his bedroom closet. First, near the entrance behind his long winter coat—I heard that one. Second, sometime later. Aunt Rebecca found it. She was real mad, so mad she called him five of the seven worst names in the book and then told him he was stupid. Tommy is not stupid or any of those other names she uses. She’s always so hard on him. It wasn’t long after that when I thought I heard a weak wail through the wall that we share. But when he opened the door to his room to head out to get the groceries for Aunt Rebecca to make dinner, his face was calm. The whites of his eyes were still white, his cheeks dry, nothing changed. He looked past me, shrugged his jacket over his shoulders, and lightly touched the keys clinking in his pocket to make sure that they were there. He went out. Nope, he didn’t cry. I’ve never seen him cry. Boys don’t cry.
“Okay, sis,” he signals that he’s back, raising his voice just loud enough so that the words reach my ears. I can hear him nearly all the way up the stairs. And I haven’t cried either. Of course not.
“Okay, sis, we’re goin’ to get you fixed up,” he says as he comes towards the doorway. His forehead is relaxed. He’s already unsnapping the clasps on the plastic first aid box when he enters the room. His eyes meet mine as he gets nearer. I stare at him straight, blank in the face.
“And didn’t even cry, I see” he chuckles, judging me, shaking his head. He frowns for a moment, and then I guess the thought passes. He drops back down to the floor to tend to my knee, his much longer legs outstretched alongside mine. I look back at my wound. It still hurts, and I’m not breathing normal. I can’t. Yes, you have permission to fix my knee.
“You having trouble breathing?” he asks.
“–No,” I say, turning my gaze from my knee and looking Tommy in the face.
“You sure?” He looks at me with a suspicious eye.
Hey—I just said no. “Yeah,” I dare.
“Okay, okay” he looks back at his supplies and lets me win, and he dabs on the last of the Neosporin with a Q-tip. He takes three Band-Aids from the box of assorted Band-Aids, one of each size. Which one? I lean against him get a better look and choose the medium. I hook my arm through the his and balance my forehead on his cottony sweater covered shoulder. Band-Aid on, I am all set. He closes the paper box, returns the emergency supplies to the plastic case, leans onto his left arm, and attempts to mess-up my already tangled hair with his right. It doesn’t take long for me to slap at him.
He laughs. He’s laughing. Get a hold of yourself. He keeps laughing, and I don’t see what’s so funny. Now, he’s holding his stomach, and I can’t even hear his laugh anymore. There’s only air escaping his mouth. Hey! I want to push him over. I want him to stop. Maybe call him a name, and that’ll do it huh? No, no, no I shouldn’t think that. He must never know I thought that. Aunt Rebecca is enough. I’m sorry, Tommy. We’re not stuck with her forever. Please, don’t ever believe her.
“Oh, tough girl,” he says, letting me go so he can return the first aid kit to the garage. He had slung his big arm over my shoulders as I was slapping him. “My goodness, you’re ridiculous,” he mutters, exhaling. Yeah, so, I am a little ridiculous. Was that a groan as he stood up? Tommy, what’s wrong? He makes his way back to the garage. Maybe I won’t throw so much of a fit next time.
I remain on the floor of Aunt Rebecca’s room. By the way, I’ve verified: No blood got on the floor. That is a blissful thing. A lucky save from any disappointment, from any chance of Aunt Rebecca getting mad, yet again!
On the floor of Aunt Rebecca’s room, I watch the branches of the enormous pines that cross in front of her window and make firecracker shadows stretch out on the dirty purple carpet.
Our mom is not dependable, and our dad is deceased.
I hear the garage door start to open; it makes the whole house shake, I swear, but I like it.
“She’s sick, Grace,” Tommy told me once while rinsing the remaining seeds out of the green pepper that he’d just picked up from the grocers. He didn’t look at me then either. “Hand me the next one,” he ordered. I handed him the red pepper.
She’s not dependable because she’s sick. She-is-not-de-pen-da-ble be-cause-she-is-sick. Sick with what?
“I already told you, Grace, she just is,” he said. He says that a lot. “She just is, okay?”
I know that he has gone to see her, wherever she is. No one will tell me where she is. I know she can’t possibly be dying or anything. Of course not. If she were dying, they couldn’t keep that from me, not even Aunt Rebecca could keep that from me. Yeah, Aunt Rebecca could shut me up with something like that for sure. Tommy says that not seeing Mom is for my own good. Well, it never seems like it’s any good for him, so I stop bothering him with questions. Each and every time, eventually, I stop asking questions.
The light from the window looks nice. I like lying in sunrays through windows. You can do it almost any time of the year and feel warm. It’s because of the radiation. We learned about it in school last year. About the sun and the Earth and the other planets. And the Milky Way. And the Universe. I lie myself face down, stomach down, in the sunset sunlight streaming through Aunt Rebecca’s window and tuck my forearms beneath my chin. It takes five days for letters to reach Wilmington from Indianapolis. I’m a smart girl, I keep track. Ever since Tommy and I moved in with Auntie R, Grandma’s been writing us letters to find out how we’re doing. She wrote a lot more in the beginning. Yeah, it should only take five days.
The screen door hasn’t opened and closed a second time, and I can’t hear the old floor boards downstairs. We must have gotten a lot of mail. Tommy better not be reading Grandma’s letter without me. The dancing shadows are getting a little boring.
I’m out of the room and at the top of the stairs. Hopping, I let my weight take me down one step at a time, faster and faster. My knee? Eh. Tommy would scold me for this. “Grace! Could you please stay still?” he’d say. “Go do your homework or something,” he’d say. Then he’d give up and let me be. What in the world is he up to? He couldn’t just read Grandma’s letter without me.
The kitchen is bright, much brighter than when I got home from school. It’s because of the sunset. The door to the garage is open a tiny crack, and I lean my body against it until there’s enough space for me to get to the screen. Tommy must be outside. My jacket is in my room, but it’s not too cool outdoors yet.
I balance my weight on the doorknob and look out toward the mailboxes down the street. Not there. Where’s Tommy? If she were here, Aunt Rebecca would not be pleased with me leaving the house, but she’s not. The screen door clacks shut behind me, and once outside, a dull sound catches my ear, a sound that’s being blocked by something. I’m trying to listen. It’s not too far away. Then it stops.
I hadn’t noticed him at first, but Tommy is sitting in the driveway inside the car; I can see him through the pane. I begin to cross the cement, and my socks collect dust and paint flakes and pebbles. My socks collect more dirt as I cross the cool asphalt, faster now. The sound begins again, and it’s louder. Tommy hasn’t seen me yet, but I can see him, sort of. The glare from the sunlight on the car windows blinds me.
“Tommy?” are you going to the store? The sound stops.
There’s an awful glare on the windows.
Again, that sound. It’s louder. Tommy?
There he is.
My brother’s fists are clenched. My brother’s eyes are closed, and his mouth is wide. I’m at the car. I can see into the front seat, and the metal is cold on my hands as I lean towards the glass to see my brother, to see his keys catch a ray of the sun in his fist. I can’t move the muscles in my face. Tommy cries out loud.
A pressure is growing, in my head, behind my eyes. There’s pain in my chest and I don’t feel well. I really don’t feel well.
There is a liquid on my lashes.
The glass, and the car, and the sunset, and the keys, and his face begin to blur.
Origins: First Draft – Spring 2011
Copyright © 2018 Audrey McElrath