I’ve only just sunk into bed, tired, back aching from a day arranging my house to look like we, no I, deserve to live here. My mother-in-law is coming to visit soon and while she calls me daughter, it is with the slightest question mark at the end. I am trying to forget what else I have to do before she arrives when the shrill scream forces out even that thought. The piercing shriek isn’t the kind that fills the air when one of the twins has beaten the other in a video game or when they’ve snuck and watched a banned video before finding out from experience that I was trying to protect, not just prevent their fun. At twelve years old, David and Donna have just cycled out of another awkward phase of despising each other. Now, they are in the intermittent one where they gang up to defy me, consistent in providing each other with the alibi that enables them to keep doing wrong. But the shrieks aren’t coming from the bedroom that they insist on sharing, no matter how I nudge. The heart stopping alarm is coming from downstairs.
James lives downstairs. The kids never go down there.
When I was twelve years old myself, James was my own nuisance kid brother. Seven-years-old then, he’d follow me around constantly, sticking closer than the panty hose stocking I knotted so it fit snug on my head, the nylong legs twisted so they trailed down my back like the long, thick braid I wished I had. He read my books, tried to ride my bicycle, even jumped on the back when I was already in motion, which is how he got the scar that’s still on the side of his neck. To everyone, including James, I sulked when he came around, complained when our mother made me play with him, even flicked his ear lobes or pinched the skin on the inside of his arms sometimes so he didn’t get to expect a welcome. But the truth is that James was my first opportunity to be responsible. He sat in the bushes and was the perfectly attentive student or underachieving, class clown when I played teacher at school, even enduring the scolding I meted out when his role was the antagonist to mine. James even wore Mom’s high heels and a towel over his head to play the part of whatever Disney princess we had just watched on TV, a memory he probably tried to override by becoming macho later on. So when childhood was over and I got my first nursing job, I put a line in my budget to save for him to go to college. For everything he had endured as the sidekick to my childish fantasy life, I wanted to give him the best possible entry to adulthood. When the time came and he didn’t take me up on my offer, it meant that I had more money to spare but it didn’t make up for how my heart and spirits sank when Mom called and said James had dropped out of school.
“He went to the army,” she said, and I stared at the receiver, willing her to go back in time and change what she said, or change the truth she was merely reporting. I hated the sound of pride that tinged her statement. Men died in the army, like our father did before James was even born. That, or they came back broken, something I had heard about when learning about PTSD. I wasn’t prepared to lose my brother in either of those ways. He was just about to start to live. It was his eighteenth birthday.
For two years, Mom and I wrote letters in care of the Fort Hood base and between looking for the meaning in ink blots shaped like words, we waited for him to visit. When he was twenty, James surprised us and showed up for Christmas dinner. Knitted sweaters with appliqued Yuletide patterns had been our grandmother’s hobby when she was alive and her idea of a family heirloom was the box of winter wear that we opened like a potluck right before dinner every year. Our Christmas photos are dotted with various family members wearing the hand-me-down items, cardigans and pullovers passing from male to female and back again. James stuck out in when he sat down at the table dinner wearing the uniform that showed he no longer belonged to the family as much as he did the United States Army. Still, Mom fussed over him, insisting to no one in particular, except that she wanted to be heard.
“Get him a sweater so he doesn’t get gravy on his uniform,” she said, pushing plates and cutlery and food out of the way to make what would still be enough space for him at the table if James had brought his entire unit to eat. He wouldn’t have, a fact that he reminded us of when he started smoothing on his beret before we had even gotten to the black fruitcake and rum and raisin ice-cream dessert.
“I’m on duty, you know, so I can’t have anything with alcohol.” James didn’t accuse anyone but when he left shortly after, Mom’s tears pooled in her plate. By the next Christmas, Dave and I would be married parents of twins, but then, it was his first time at our holiday table and he sensed his responsibility to lighten the mood and started to ramble about things that nobody would remember, not even him, or me, the keeper of the archives. I, of course, stayed silent, ruing the fact that now the cake would remain uncut and I was having a craving for the rehydrated fruits that had endured a yearlong soaking process, or the Jamaican Red Label wine that they were marinated in. I couldn’t explain the strange hankering so when it turned out that I was already pregnant, no one would have been able to fault me if I had eaten the dessert, although of course, Dave’s mother had had a lot to say about responsibility and the sacrifices of motherhood. Only when the twins were born, healthy with Donna already looking a little like her grandmother, had Dawn piped down. It didn’t hurt that we told her Donna was named after her.
The next time I saw James, he was on my doorstep, a green duffle bag slung over his shoulder that looked like it weighed more than he did. Five years had passed.
Where have you been? Why didn’t you answer my letters? Why didn’t you come to Mom’s funeral? What happened to you? What have you been doing since they kicked you out of the army?Those were all questions I wanted to ask but the sight of his sunken eyes and hollowed out cheeks helped restrain me.
“How did you get here?” was what I asked instead. Distressed jeans hung low on his hips, gathered at the sides like his pants had pleats, but were instead, held up with a thick brown canvas belt that was frayed at one end. The ribbing around the neck of his t-shirt had come loose and there was a hole on the shoulder, exaggerated because his duffle strap pulled on it. Through the exposure, I saw the scar and my heart softened a bit. He was my kid brother. I couldn’t refuse him. I stepped to the side and pulled him into the living room
“Careful. Don’t step on anything,” I cautioned, although the path through the toy-strewn floor was only possible if James followed in my footsteps exactly. He seemed to have stopped doing that the day he dropped out of high school so I didn’t have much hope he had resumed. I picked my way through the battlefield of action figures with ripped off limbs, puzzles in various phases of completion and empty DVD cases. “It’s a war zone in here,” I wanted to say but held my tongue when the words came to me just before they would have fallen off my tongue. What would that phrase sound like to his ears?
From inside, came the sound of children playing, splashing in the bathtub, and undoubtedly making a mess in yet another room. Dave was giving them a bath, something they all looked forward to on his rare evening at home. He was a doctor and I was a nurse. The only person I knew with less time off than me, was my husband; we made the schedules work even when it was laborious.
“How long you staying?” I asked, pausing in the passage-way, where there was a bright bulb overhead and light streaming from just about every room in the house adding to the illumination. If he was just passing through, I could set him up in the one of the kids’ room. To our right, the basement door was dead bolted high above the kids’ reach.
“Not long,” he said, his voice barely above a whisper. I leaned closer and saw the emptiness in his eyes and recognized what I should have smelled when I first answered the front door. He stunk of alcohol, not the odor you get from having it on your breath, but the recycled scent that emanates from someone whose body is struggling to break down all the chemical bonds that alcohol is composed of. Molecules of alcohol inserting themselves into the crevices of a body’s muscular system. Syrupy and sweet and odious and nauseating and scary all in one. Like you are being dosed with something that should cure everything you’ve ever suffered from but will also erase the memory that accompanies the need.
“Here,” I said, reaching up to unlock the high bolt. “There’s a room down in the basement. You should get cleaned up before the kids see you.”
“You have kids?” His face softened, became animated even, the slack of his jaw vibrating like the belt over a motorized saw that has just been unplugged.
“Yeah. Hear them playing?” I gestured to the bathroom where their voices were muted now, as if they were all trying to overhear what was going on in the passage.
“I’m an uncle.” James exclaimed and beat his chest like he’d had any part in their being here.
I held his wrist and led him down the stairs. “Come up after you take a shower.”
In the basement, I made a show of stacking a couple of extra towels and a washcloth on the sink, standing so he wouldn’t see when I removed the white guest ones from the rack and folded and packed them in the drawer, not that he would have cared even if he saw what I was doing. When I came back out of the bathroom, James was sitting on the edge of the bed, the bag still on his back like he was propping himself up with the army issued duffle and whatever relics he had saved from the last few years. I remembered that when he left home, Mom said he didn’t take anything and I wondered what he had collected in seven years of being on his own.
“Here,” I said, and eased the bag off his back, trying to save the fluffy white comforter from the blackened barrel-bag bottom that I was sure had rested on the ground, maybe in several countries. Released from the burden, James immediately collapsed on the bed, staring up at me.
“Are you hungry?” I asked, but he shook his head so slightly that I wasn’t sure whether he was saying yes or no. His eyes flickered like a TV screen in the microsecond after a channel change. “Come upstairs when you’re ready.”
The kids were running to their room, towels falling to reveal skinny, bare bottoms, their father trailing after them with a rag rolled up to deliver a playful smack to whichever kid he was able to catch. It was a game that they never lost since he didn’t move fast but it was his way to get them into their room and dressed in their pajamas. When I was in charge of bath time, there were often tears and even then, there was no guarantee that they did what I wanted. The truth is that I just wasn’t that playful or easy on my charges. Look where that had gotten me with James.
“Was that your brother?” Dave asked me when he found me in the living room some time later.
I nodded, not sure I could trust my voice.
“What’s he doing here?” Dave asked, and probably thought better of it, asking instead, “How long is he going to stay?”
I shrugged. “He had a bag that looked like it could fit his entire past and future in it.”
Dave stared at me, probably deciding between what he wanted to say and what he thought he should. A lot had happened to both of us since we met and I’m sure it wasn’t any easier for him to be supportive. Look how hard I found it to hold him up even when he hadn’t had half as much to deal with.
Back then, both of his parents were still alive and well and my husband was an only child who had followed the track from high school athlete and valedictorian to college honors and medical school prodigy in his father Donald’s footsteps, boots that were kept spit-polished gleaming by his stay-at-home-except-when-she-was-needed-for-support mother, Dawn. When we met, I was amazed that Dave was interested in me, that he was able to provide things I had never even dreamed of having, and I might have worshipped him if I wasn’t so busy wondering why I had it and whether I would lose it. I’d lost everything else that existed before him, hadn’t I? Except that now, James had come back, forcing me to revise my woe-is-me thoughts.
“He’s been drinking,” I said. My heart was racing. I didn’t know how relevant it would be but I figured it was better to get it out there. No more secrets, I had promised the first time Dave had caught me in a lie. I hadn’t told him what I did with the money I stole from our account and tried to cover up by writing a fake charity name in the memo section of the check. I could have just withdrawn the cash but I didn’t realize that his grueling schedule left him with time to also peruse the front and reverse of all the checks that appeared on our bank statements. I had deserved punishment and yet he had forgiven me. He didn’t even ask me why I was sending money to my brother who was supposed to be collecting an army paycheck. I’d decided then and there that I wouldn’t keep anything like that from him again. Husband before brother, I had said, remembering my vows to cleave to Dave and leave James and Mom behind. Death and the army had accomplished what, in my heart, I had never been able to do. Now, here was James returning to claim a place he hadn’t ever really abandoned.
James didn’t come upstairs that night and when I descended the steps to check on him, I saw that he had fallen asleep on the comforter. I sighed, I’m sure, and folded the edge of the covers over him so his nestled form looked like a burrito in a white-flour wrap, the dirty bottoms of his white socks looking like some kind of condiment falling out of a sloppily-assembled wrap. Laying on his back, he was snoring, and the settled breathing filtered a steady stream of alcohol residue like the gentle puffs from a humidifier that fills a convalescent’s room. It smelled like it too. I opened the small window that was close to the low ceiling, and that opened up eye level with the walkway outside our house. How did people live underground and not go crazy, I wondered. Going back upstairs, I thought about locking the bolt behind me but decided I didn’t need to.
When I got up in the morning, Dave was gone and the kids were running around the living room, adding to the mess that I had decided to leave there the night before. I busied myself putting cereal boxes on the table, pausing to take a few whiffs of the wine-soaked fruits that had sat on the top shelf of the pantry since before Mom died and that I had been thinking about since James arrived. I had never used them and indeed had no plans to go through the steps to make the fruitcake they were ideal for and yet had never felt able to throw them out. Discarding the fruits would have been like separating from Mom all over again. I deserved some link to my past, didn’t I?
From the living room to their bedroom and back again, the playful screams got louder as the kids filled the entire space with their fun so it wasn’t until the knock became a pounding that I realized it was James trying to get in. And that the dead bolt was locked.
Thanks for reading. Please come back tomorrow for the completion of this story.
Copyright (C) 2018 by Karen Wright
The above is an excerpt from an ongoing creative writing project which will probably be heavily edited in the future. Please do not copy or otherwise share this content.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or locales is entirely coincidental.
Thank you Dave for fueling this latest writing experience. Dave, you rock! And the drink was delicious.
Or send me a message with your Venmo payment… so many options. Thanks for the support.