Over the next few years, Dave and I cycled back and forth through married hell. His perfection was annoying. He was never there to go through the cycles of our fights, and I was sure that some nights, he stayed at the hospital even when he didn’t have to.
One year, his father died and even that went according to plan, I suppose. Donald’s oncologist friend gave him six months after his prostate cancer diagnosis and even that wasn’t enough time to get used to catheter changes or long hospital stays. Six months to the date of Dave’s doctor father becoming a patient, we were seated at the front of a church, dark glasses absorbing the tears that stung the inside of our eyelids but hadn’t had enough time to mature into drops that our thick dark suits would soak up like cotton pads if they ever fell. I’d worn mascara to the funeral, expecting to have black caterpillar marks beneath my eyes to authenticate my role as the grieving daughter-in-law; we were still relatively newlywed and I didn’t know who from Dave’s past would be observing me. Between organizing seats in the limo that would take us to the funeral and cemetery plot and back again, I had also planned to “lose” my glasses when the tears began to flow. But sitting at the front of his childhood church, steaming from being swathed in too-thick suits, listening to regrets and reconciling Dave’s childhood stories with the people I saw now, the entire experience passed like a fast, tearless blur. Maybe Dawn never forgave me for not breaking down elegantly like she did. Or maybe I didn’t. Either way, afterwards, his mother went back to live much as she had before although it meant that she visited us more and stayed longer when she did, cleaning every surface even after I had and undermining what I had tried to do. I never conceded though.
James was still in our basement but he kept so quiet it was easy to forget that he was around except when I came home and found the door bolted and a chair pushed up under the bottom lock. Not that James didn’t have egress from the cellar because at the top of the stairs were two doors – one that left to our kitchen and one that exited outside. But the idea that Dave and Donna constantly locked the door seemed to speak to something else that neither of them was willing to put into words.
“She’s up there!” James was saying when I found him lying prostrate on the basement floor, hands reaching up and eyes peeled to the low ceiling, looking up as though for redemption that wasn’t far away but still just out of reach. “She’s up there!”
“Who’s up there?” I asked, bending over him and rubbing his hair, the curled mass that had started to lock in places so it looked like he hadn’t committed to having dreads but was trying it out. His chest was bare and the thin, wiry hair that lay next to his skin trailed a path that disappeared into the waist of his sweatpants. (They were gray but not the shade they should have been. James was the closest one could be to the washing machine and yet, he had to be coaxed to change his clothes long enough to clean them) I hadn’t seen his chest for years, not since we were children, and I looked now for scars that he might have gotten on the battlefield, the gunshot and shrapnel wounds that I had often imagined when I prepared myself for the worst. Yet, the only scar was the keloid mound that sat on his neck like a ripe fruit that had been preserved since our childhood, the wound he had gotten because of me. There hadn’t been any telltale marks on his scalp, although he had fallen hard on the pavement that it snapped back. That there was no blood on his head then had made it easy to cover up the extent of his injury and I suppose he bore that wound inside to protect me. Crouched over him again brought me back to the day he fell, him splayed out on the ground just like now, the moments when I called to him, slapped his hands and legs while he lay limp and didn’t speak, the slurred words when he eventually came to, and that when I lifted him up and let him hang on my arm as we made our way back home, that I had never told anyone that part. I don’t even know if James knew that he had been missing from the world for a few minutes while panic and fear enveloped me.
I was crying when we eventually got home, bawling so hard that the neighbor, Nurse Cherry, saw us before we got through the gate and ran behind us with a plastic bag full of bandages and gauze and alcohol pads and a big, brown bottle of something that stung and the red medicine that she put on cuts that were small slits from contact with the barbed wire fence or the kitchen knife, as well as the blue medicine that she poured on boils and sores and big cuts that looked like they would never go away. Nurse Cherry worked at the local clinic but she had patched up more cuts from her home than she probably did at her job. I remember wondering whether she got paid for that. She was already pouring peroxide on James’ neck already when Mom appeared at the back door, summoned by James’, “Owww”s and my, more silent, fearful question, “Is he going to be alright, Nurse?”
“What happened?” Mom asked, before going back in the house for a dishtowel with ice as well as a cube in her hand for him to suck. She held his hand while Nurse Cherry finished, then she gathered him into her lap and rocked him back and forth for what must have been hours while she asked me over and over what happened. At no point did anyone ask me directly if he had lost consciousness and it wasn’t information that I would have volunteered on my own. I was twelve and so, couldn’t be expected to confess willingly.
“She’s up there. I tell her not to come. I tell her to leave me alone,” James is saying, “but she won’t leave me alone.”
Knowing what I know now about childhood injuries and early concussions, I am sure I am responsible for James and know that I am to be my brother’s keeper, even if I still cannot explain it to anyone else. So here in the basement, I stroke James’ tangled hair and ask, although I don’t know if I want to know, “Who is up there?”
“The woman,” he says. “She comes when nobody is looking and I tell her to leave me alone but she won’t leave me alone.”
I lower myself onto the floor and pull James into my lap and rock him for I don’t know how long, until he calms down, or until he stops staring at the ceiling, at least.
When I am able to get him back into bed, I climb the steps, the pain in my back noticeable again, now that crisis has been averted. This time, I lock the door behind me.
The next day, I am at work when Dawn arrives, Dave having switched his schedule so he can spend time with his mother and the kids before he goes back to work. I am not invited to be a part of the reunion and besides, I would rather not use my free time that way. Dave returns to work while I am still there but we are stationed at opposite ends of the hospital so we’re not avoiding each other so much as our paths don’t cross unless we are intentional about it. These days, that doesn’t happen often.
I return home that night work worn like I have been unwittingly drugged by the medications I spend most of the day administering and I pad through the house with just my socked feet to check on the twins, their cohabitation finally sanctioned since when Dawn visits, she is usually installed in my bedroom and I sleep in my daughter’s room at the back of the house. Dave hasn’t shared this bed for the last few of his mother’s visits.
I dream wild things. A woman in water whose face disappears when you go close. A coloring book where the pages go blank when the picture is filled in, like an Etch-a-Sketch. A monkey riding a bicycle in a circus, the audience clapping wildly when he jumps off, except he falls. I wake up in a sweat, a salty residue on my tongue that feels like I tried to lick my tears or perspiration.
Dawn and the kids are gone so I peek my head into the basement before I leave but James is gone too. I wonder where he goes when he leaves the house but he’s not a child, even though I suppose that I take care of him like he is. I head back to the hospital and the people I get paid to look after.
The phone call is simple. “Mummy, he’s mad!” It’s Donna on the phone, although I can hear David in the background too, crying. He’s the sensitive one. Further in the background, I can hear yells, screams, and overlaid on top of it all, Dawn’s voice, calmly giving instructions. I recognize our house number being repeated slowly.
“Who is mad?” I ask but Donna doesn’t answer, just says it again. She starts to cry too and I am reminded of the similarity of the children, almost as if they are one.
“What happened?” I ask again, checking my watch, noting the time for every stage of a trauma, a reflex I gained because of my profession. It is 4:36 p.m. and I can’t help recognizing that the numbers add up to thirteen. Is it triskaidekaphobia or simply, pattern recognition? I don’t know.
Behind me, there are the beeps and overhead announcements and conversations that buzz in the undercurrent of everything else, sounds that are characteristic of the nurse’s station where I spend most of my time, more when Dawn or Dave are available to watch the kids. Yet, the near-silence on the other end of the phone line paralyze me.
The house is twenty minutes from the hospital. I am in an Uber and in front of the house at 4:54, another number that adds up to thirteen, I note when I hit the app on my phone to tip the driver for getting me here so soon. Not soon enough however, since there is a police car and an ambulance in the driveway. I know it is too late. Too late for me to do anything. Too late for me to protect my family from what is about to happen. After years of working the system, I know that when you call in a third party, you no longer have control of the situation. I knew that as a child, and know it even more now, especially when that third party is the police.
Tears pool at the sight of James being escorted from the basement in handcuffs, the metal glinting like the jewelry that neither of us ever wore. I don’t even remember him showing us the dog tags that he would have been issued when he enlisted and wonder if it is among the things that he stashed in that oversized duffle he never seemed to empty.
He is calmer than before, the shouts that rippled through the background of the phone call, less than twenty minutes ago are quiet, but his face gets wild when he sees Dawn and he says the same words he said to me. “I told her not to come but she won’t leave me alone.” With as much maneuvering as his shackled hands will allow, he points toward my mother-in-law.
“What are you going to do with my brother?” I ask the woman police officer, her hand resting on her gun so she is as unlike me as if we weren’t both women.
As professional as she tries to be, her voice has a Caribbean lilt but I am too far removed from my parents’ heritage that I don’t recognize it exactly. “Mr. Berry will be escorted to the closest medical facility for psychological evaluation and the doctors will determine the appropriate course of treatment.”
“I am a nurse,” I begin. “Mercy is the closest hospital to us. I work there and my husband is a doctor.”
“Hmmm,” she says then ignores the card I stretch out to her. Instead, she turns to her partner who is prodding James out the door and into the streams of evening sunlight.
Outside, the kids stand on either side of me and I pull them as tight as they will allow. Together, we watch James being led into the ambulance, and track the activated sirens booming down our streets as James enters that other part of our lives. The present past.
I know without calling in to the admin desk that James won’t be brought to Mercy, and that even if he was, I wouldn’t be able to do anything to help him.
“Why didn’t you call me first?” is all I ask Dawn. Her busying herself around my kitchen, cooking an elaborate dinner and calling the children like she is the woman of the house, grates on what I assume would be my last nerve if I didn’t feel the hardness pulse through my whole body. The spot behind my ears feels hotter than it should.
“I had to do it since you wouldn’t,” Dawn says. Her tone is neither apologetic nor conciliatory. “Your brother’s mental state has declined since the last time I was here. Did you expect the children to have to deal with that?”
“He is their uncle. He wouldn’t do anything to harm them.”
“Their own mother put them in harm’s way,” Dawn says and turns away before I can respond, although I don’t know what I would say.
I take some time off work to find James and answer questions when the social worker appears to interview Dave and myself about ‘the structure of our household’ as she puts it. Dawn is still installed in my bedroom so I venture to the basement when I come home from work, too tired for the argument or cold shoulder I expect if I climb into bed with my almost-estranged husband who seems to be spending more time at home now that my brother is gone. Cool air rushes up from the darkness and I flick every light switch as I go down the basement steps and into the cavern that my brother occupied for so long.
Unsettled, I pace around but can’t feel comfortable enough to climb into the bed he vacated so recently. I decide to go back upstairs, knowing I can sleep on the couch even if it means I will have to get up before everyone else, especially Dawn who seems to wake up before the sun. A big lump of darkness catches my eye and I blink before realizing it is James’ bag. Several years after first bringing it into the house, the duffle is still packed, like James is ready to go at any moment although I don’t think he got the departure he had readied himself for.
Several moments pass before I drop to the ground, the biege carpet re-pilling under me as I settle on the floor and turn the bag over. A mess of clothes and papers tumble onto the floor in front of me, the smell of old age rising from the mix as though my brother had a lifetime contained in the bag. I push items aside, not knowing what each thing is until I have handled it, and even then, not certainly. After many manipulations, a picture of our mother floats to the surface. Except when I look at the face of the woman I knew best, I see a resemblance to my mother-in-law that I never noticed before, and of course, to my daughter since, I realize now, Donna looks like both of them. When did it happen that all the women in my family start blending into one? The image memorializes Mom’s first and last flight, a plane ride across the country to visit James when she heard that he was to be released from the army. “I am going to bring him home,” she had said.
Time had erased the memory, if she had ever told me, of who took the photo, or who might have been on the flight with her, but I remember that I didn’t make the trip to even accompany her to the airport, for several reasons not least of which was that I was heavily pregnant at the time, the twins wrestling in my stomach and keeping me bed ridden for days at a time. Mom is smiling in the photograph, but it is a tiny smile, her nervous face when she is considering crying instead. It is a look I have seen before though when she returned from Texas without finding James, she had allowed herself the baptism of tears.
“Where do you think he is?” she had asked me, as though it was me, not her, who had made the unsuccessful trip, searching for a child who clearly didn’t want to be found.
One or other of the twins had fussed and the conversation string had been redirected to new mom and grand mom topics. We never talked about the trip again and in the years since James had come back, I never broached it with him. Mom must have let him know in a letter although it was a mystery how she was still able to make contact by mail up to the end. And since she and Dawn had started to resemble, Dawn’s visits must have triggered some reaction in my brother. What must that have been like for him, anticipating Dawn’s arrival as the whole house was readied for her impending visit?
I am still rifling through my brother’s belongings – envelopes with their seals still intact, flyers advertising furniture or electronics that James would never buy. I lifted up a T-shirt that used to be gray, except the US ARMY printed on the front seems to have been superimposed on a camouflage background created by dirt and oil and stains that look like blood when a picture falls out of where it had been encased by the grease and grime. It is a family Christmas picture with me on one side, Dave on the other bordering his parents who stand on either side of the twins. It is one of Dave’s favorite pictures because it is one of the few we have with his parents and the kids. Funny, I never missed it from where it used to stand in a frame upstairs so don’t know how James came to have it among his possessions. The picture of all of us in various Christmas sweaters hearkens back to traditions from our own family, something else I notice for the first time now that I am drawing clues about what pushed my brother over the edge. More family traditions from which James were excluded, even if he omitted himself. In the picture Donna and David are posed with the bicycles they had gotten for Christmas that year, each child holding the handlebar with one hand, the other linked with their sibling’s own.
The sound at the door surprises me. Dawn is at the top of the steps. She calls down in a voice that is muted, probably so she doesn’t disturb the others.
“So are you going to live down there now?” She doesn’t hide the rancor from her voice, neither does she wait for my response, even though I am not sure what I would say if I did answer her. But I am not prepared for the woman who is my mother-in-law regardless of how she feels about me, to say what she does. “Well, I guess it’s for the best if you are going to treat my family the way you treat yours.”
I am still staring into the celling when the dead bolt slams into place.
Thanks for reading. Please comment below your feedback on the 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.
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