A little girl sits Indian style on a Turkish carpet in her living room and rolls a quilted ball against a closet door. Each time it pops off the wall and shoots back to her, she laughs. Her parents have let her know she’ll soon have a sibling. Her mom has a feeling it’s going to be a boy. Her dad appears from the kitchen and tells her she’s making smudges and chipping the paint. The girl tells her dad she needs to practice so she’ll be ready for Benjamin. “That’s a nice idea,” her dad says, “but it will be awhile before the baby will be able to play with you.” Yesterday, the girl named her brother Aaron. The day before, Elliot. Her mom tells her that as the oldest she’ll get to pave the way.

*
The girl is almost a teenager when she finds out her brother will spend most of his time in the hospital. She dreads the trips to Worcester, an hour each way of her parents arguing over which color to paint their new kitchen, or whether to plant more Bayberry out front or try Boxwoods. The girl is not too young to determine that her parents are not actually discussing interior design and landscaping. She learns to avoid the hospital by committing to dance recitals, musicals, basketball games, debate, and tagging along with her boyfriend’s family for bowling and Taco Bell. Her boyfriend’s parents say snarky things about how certain people in town spend money but finish these rants with a friendly laughter and lines like, Driving a Benz doesn’t make you a bad person.

When her brother returns for good, she is caught off guard. It occurs to her that her parents had been preparing the house for weeks, cleaning and straightening, filling the fridge and cabinets with his favorite foods, but she doesn’t remember either one verbalizing the good news. For dinner they eat lamb and rice and green beans. Candles are lit. Paul Simon seeps out of the speakers, she’s got diamonds on the souls of her shoes. After a few bites, the girl excuses herself from the table because she has dance practice. Her dad says she had better stay. She says she can’t. Her dad shakes his head, her mom stands up and raises her voice over Paul but only says, “Come straight home.” On the way out, the girl hugs her brother around his shoulders; he accepts it with rigid arms pinned to his sides. His face is flushed, his eyes glazy, black stubble rises off his pink scalp, his mouth clenched, on the verge of a smile. She lets go of him, and he gives her a little wave and says, “Have fun tonight.”

*
Now in her early thirties and a woman, the girl and her brother live in different time zones. He works for a contractor in North Carolina and she’s a grant writer for a nonprofit in Chicago that creates afterschool programs, integrating art, athletics and current events. She and her brother and parents meet in the Phoenix airport. They have not been on vacation together since the girl was in college, the infamous trip to a little Mexican island. One night her brother went out with some local guys he met on the beach. The next morning, the sun flicked open the girl’s eyes and she rolled over to find her brother’s bed neatly made. She pounded on her parents’ room. Her dad came to the door in tight black underwear and a towel hanging over his bare shoulders. “He’s not back,” the girl said. Her dad yawned and half turned to see if his wife was still sleeping. “He always comes back. He’s a smart kid.” The girl went for a run. She had a poor sense of time and distance and ended up on a street with stray dogs and uneven sidewalks. She thought of her parents and how selfish they could be, and she started to sprint, only to receive catcalls from a series of bleary-eyed men. When she returned to the hotel, it had been two hours, and her brother was sprawled across the comforter. She wanted to shake him awake, but instead she was calmed by the muscles of his well-built hamstrings contracting with each breath.

In Phoenix they cram into a rental car. On their way to the Grossmans’ house they stop at several gas stations to ask for directions. Her brother protests these stops, insisting they’re going the right way. “It shouldn’t be this far,” her dad says, unfolding a map on his knee. For dinner they eat spaghetti with sugary canned tomato sauce. “This is delicious,” the girl’s mom says, but they’re too far into the meal for it to be a compliment. Throughout the evening Mrs. Grossman comments on the beauty of both the girl and her brother; she says this to the girl’s parents in an almost accusatory tone. Mr. Grossman blinks repeatedly and runs his stubby hands through his long black and silver hair. When he enters the conversation, he’s loud and slightly off topic.

The girl sleeps on the couch and her brother on the floor beneath her. The bedroom with blue daisy wallpaper and all of Lauren’s things is off limits. The girl can’t fall asleep. It’s not that she’s all that excited for the Grand Canyon, or anxious about taking off time from work. In the bathroom she notices little black whiskers around the sink; they are familiar and comforting. On the way back she nudges the door open to Lauren’s room. She flips on the light and sees an unmade bed, stacks of magazines, a bulletin board with pictures of friends and homework assignments, T-shirts and skirts hung from bedposts and tossed into corners. The way she left it. The girl is relieved not to see a blue L.L. Bean backpack. She thinks back to Lauren’s final visit. They were both newly teenagers. The girl was told she needed to be around that weekend, or include Lauren in any plans. They mostly stayed in because it was winter and the girl didn’t want to include Lauren in any plans. One night they played a couple of games of Egyptian Ratscrew, an old favorite from when the Grossmans lived in Massachusetts. Lauren won all the games with a quiet smugness. The girl excused herself to use the bathroom. She went upstairs to the guestroom and ran her hands over Lauren’s backpack. She unzipped it then quickly zipped it back up. She did this several times. She pinched and squeezed and flicked the bag. She propped it up, then kicked it over. The girl felt better. Then she felt worse. She returned to the living room and led Lauren into the basement where she kept a bottle of her parents’ bourbon. Lauren sipped her shot slowly but when she finished, she asked for another. The girl poured the shot and Lauren slammed it down, unfazed by the liquor’s harshness. The girl smiled. She thought she was being nice, doing a good thing.

The girl returns to the couch, bumping into the coffee table on the way; she doesn’t want to turn on a light. She stays sitting because her neck aches. She might as well stay up all night. The girl’s eyes start adjusting to the dark, and her brother comes into better focus – a wedge of black hair, the backs of his fleshy ears, and the outline of a broad-shouldered, narrow-waisted body wrapped in a sleeping bag. She’s impressed by how long he has become. “Allen,” she whispers. His mouth and nose are buried in the pillow. “How are you sleeping?” She’s surprised to hear her own voice at a normal volume. He must be sleeping quite well. The girl digs her thumbs into her cramped-up neck, then drops down to the carpet and lies next to her brother, her fingertips touching his upper back just enough to feel him breathing.

Photo by Alaskan Dude

Michael Don

MICHAEL DON teaches creative writing and literature courses at St. Paul's University in Limuru, Kenya and serves as the Assistant Creative Writing Mentor of the Storymoja Festival Fellows Program in Nairobi. His recent work has appeared or is forthcoming in Fiction International, Washington Square, Quarter After Eight, Wigleaf, and elsewhere. He's on the interwebs at www.michaeldon.net.

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