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The wood is splintered around the lock, where he wedges a knife to force it open. The door to my room is scarred, the doorknob dented.
Brothers and sisters fight, Aunt Phoebe says. It’s normal. It’s a law of nature. Did you know shark fetuses fight to the death in the womb?
Aunt Phoebe watches “Shark Week” every year.
I throw myself into my room, slam the door and lock it, yelling ugly words from behind its shelter. My dresser stands just inside the room. It doesn’t take me long to push it against the door, but it’s not heavy enough. I have to lean against it, brace my feet against the floor and push against the door, bulging open with every punch, the hail of curses shooting through the wood. Adrenaline surges through my system. The desperation of keeping steady pressure, the mad rush of fear when a sliver of light shows the door has opened enough to let in photons. After photons comes his foot, and I hurl my body at the dresser, making him bellow in pain. Sometimes that works. But this time his foot doesn’t budge, and I know what happens next. The door will blast open. A kick. A punch. Until I fall to the floor. My books, penholders, everything pushed off their shelves with a few violent movements of his arms, raining down on me; nothing breakable, though, because everything’s already been broken. A hand snaking through my hair, grabbing a hold. The sudden pain of the yank, my throat sore from screaming as he drags me by my hair out of the room and down the stairs. It’s a dance and I know every step.
The door bursts open. The choreography has begun.
I back away, but my brother slides his foot behind my ankle and yanks. I fall. I hit my head on the edge of the desk, and the world goes out of focus for a second. Then I see the raised arm above me, the clenched fist in the foreground, the narrow wrist and the arm.
Familiar, but something is different now.
His shirtsleeve is missing a button. It has fallen open. I gulp in air and hold it as I see the red lines in perfect focus now straight in front of my eyes, one after another up the underside of his arm, precisely parallel, like they were planned with a ruler.
I grab his wrist, wrap my fingers around it and hold tight, and he pauses, because I’ve broken the pattern, I’ve interrupted our dance. My arms are supposed to be crossed in front of my face, covering my head, while his fists punch into my shoulders and arms and his feet slam into my legs. He never kicks me in the stomach or punches me in the face. It’s weird. He seems out of control. But he’s not. He knows what he’s doing. He always does.
“What?” he growls as my hand tightens on his wrist, turning his hand slightly.
“You too,” I say. “You do it too.”
He looks confused. “What?”
I touch his scars. They’re raised, red, recent. And underneath, the whiteness of older wounds. He pulls back. Yanks the sleeves of his shirt down and stands, his hands clenched, staring down at me.
The floor is hard against my back; my head still aches from where he pulled my hair out. I open my hands, hold out my palms. Show him what I’ve never shown anyone before. Lines, like his. The old white lines crisscrossing my palms, the new swollen red lines on top of them, the rough skin surrounding wounds that don’t get to heal. Brian looks. Then he walks away, and I’m still on the floor with my books strewn around me, my pens dotting the floor, a head that aches, but I’m smiling, because for a moment I love my brother again.
His bike roars, the walls shiver. The roar softens into a purr before it vanishes into the distance, and I stare up at my empty bookshelves and think about the Doppler Effect.
“You shouldn’t provoke him.” Aunt Phoebe stands in the doorway. Her gaze flutters from the books on the floor to the empty shelves, and then she rubs her temples. Aunt Phoebe works shifts. I never know when she’s at home and when she’s not, but it doesn’t much matter anyway. “What a mess,” she says.
I stand up, start putting the books back in the shelves. I don’t bother being neat, simply pile them up. They’ll be down on the floor again soon enough. But the heavier ones go on the bottom shelves. That’s what they recommend for earthquakes.
“You like to believe it’s all his fault,” Aunt Phoebe continues. “But you’re to blame too. You push him until he goes over the edge. You know he will. You know what will happen, every time. Why don’t you leave him alone? Why don’t you just stay out of his way? Why do you yell back? Why can’t you just ignore him until he gives up?”
I bite my lip. Align the books so their spines match up while I wait for her to finish her little speech.
“This isn’t easy for me, either, you know that. It’s not like I don’t have better things to do.” Her hands are busy twirling a button on her shirt. “I’m doing this for you kids. I’m doing it all for you and you couldn’t care less. The social worker is coming over today, you know. Brian’s school record this year—atrocious. And this reflects on me. Like I don’t try my best. Like I haven’t always tried doing my best for you two.”
“Go, then,” I mutter. I’m staying until you’re eighteen, is what she’ll say next.
“When you’re eighteen,” Aunt Phoebe says, and her face relaxes, an almost invisible smile tugging at her lips as she looks over my shoulder, like she can see out the draped window, toward the home she had to abandon to look after us, into a future where she’s free. “We’ll have to make this work until then. Don’t we? Sweetie—if we all try our best … all of us …”
I hate when she calls me sweetie. It’s fake. She knows that’s what Mom used to call me, me and Brian both, and that’s why she uses it, like using the word will make me into the sweet little kid I used to be.
She reaches out, as if to tuck my hair behind me ear, like Mom used to do too. I rear my head back and scowl at her. I’d like to kick the door shut in her face. But ignoring her makes her go away sooner.
And her hand falls down, she sighs, walks off, back to the kitchen for a smoke and coffee from a mug with an astrology sign. It’s not her mug, not even her sign. Nothing in this house is hers, and she knows it. She walks around like a stranger, or maybe more like a servant, but she’s not the only one who doesn’t want to be here.
The morning sun pulls me outside. I stand on the porch and turn my face up, feel the warmth seep into my skin, picture the sun’s radiation searing my DNA, warping it until my cells spiral out of control. My skin feels red and swollen when I go back into the house. I take a washcloth and hold it cold and wet against my skin, look in the mirror because it’s safe now; my image is distorted by an afterimage of the sun burning itself into my retinas. It’s safe now, because all I see is a shape, a shadow, not a person.
But nobody’s trying to fix me.
The social worker will be here at four. I make myself scarce so by the time she arrives, Aunt Phoebe will think I’m not around. I lie down outside the kitchen window, in a warm bed of grass, bugs crawling over my arms and legs, and inhale summer while I wait. Mrs. Foster is always punctual, always exactly on time, and her little drama with Aunt Phoebe has been perfected over time. Their ritual, the coffee, the tea, the chocolate chip cookies and ginger cake, their small talk about town politics before they settle down to business—to us.
That discussion, too, is familiar. First there is Aunt Phoebe’s litany of complaints about us. Then Mrs. Foster soothes her.
“I’m not sure I can do this anymore,” Aunt Phoebe groans.
“I understand,” Mrs. Foster said. “That’s what we’re here for. To support you. It isn’t an easy task you’ve taken on.”
“It’s getting worse. They never seemed to have recovered after their parents’ deaths. I’ve done my best, but … And as they get older … and stranger … I feel like I don’t know them at all. I can’t connect with them at all. And I know they hate me.”
“They don’t hate you. They’re teenagers. When they’re a bit older, they’ll appreciate all you’re doing for them.”
“I don’t know. Sometimes I hear myself talk to them, the things I say, and how I say them, and I don’t blame them. I don’t blame them at all. They’re so difficult, and I can’t deal with it …”
“Have you given any thought to moving? It might be better for them … for all of you … to move to another house. This is where they lived when their parents died. Perhaps in another environment they will settle down … get closure …”
This I hadn’t heard before.
I picture myself in another house and the picture fits, as if I’m taking a doll and moving it from one doll’s house to another one. I chew on a blade of grass and feel Aunt Phoebe shaking her head. “I can’t take them home. I can’t take them into my home. I rented out the house, and anyway, I couldn’t take them in. My things … Brian doesn’t respect anything. He would break and steal everything I own …”
“You have power of attorney. You could sell this house, buy another one. I understand their parents’ life insurance paid off the mortgage. It should be easy.”
“That won’t help. It will just be trouble. It’s impossible to predict how they’d react.”
A kitchen chair creaks. “Where are they now?”
“Around,” Aunt Phoebe says vaguely. “She has a summer job. As for Brian, who knows what he’s up to? They’re teenagers. I can’t watch them like babies.”
“Of course not. We don’t expect you to. As long as they attend school and stay out of trouble … and well, that is a problem, you know that—school attendance was exceptionally bad for Brian this year.”
“I know. But what can I do? If you people think you can do a better job, feel free …” Aunt Phoebe gasps. “I’m sorry. I didn’t say that. I didn’t mean it.”
Insects buzz around me, on me, rustle in the grass, hurtle through the air. I close my eyes and imagine I’m one of them. I fly up and peer through the screen with my multifaceted eyes, and see Aunt Phoebe and the social worker, a hundred tiny images of them, each with their cup of coffee. Hundreds of clipboards. I ignore everything and zoom greedily in on the lumps of sugar.
“I know you’re doing your best. But he has to go to school. It’s the law.”
“I know. And as their guardian, I’m the one who gets in trouble if they decide they don’t want to go. It’s not fair. It’s been years. I’ve sacrificed everything for those two for years. Nothing I do for them is good enough. Nothing I do is ever good enough …”
I find a rip in the screen. Coordinate my six legs, maneuver through. I know what I want. Sugar. Aunt Phoebe has dipped a lump in her coffee, then left half in the saucer, the sugar molecules warm and fragrant.
“We know,” the social worker says soothingly. “They’re lucky to have you.”
“They hate me. I can’t reach them. I can’t reach them at all. I’m so close to giving up …”
“There, there,” Mrs. Foster says.
It’s the final steps in the ritual. Aunt Phoebe’s tears, Mrs. Foster’s murmurs of encouragement. Then tissues, a deep breath, and a brave promise to soldier on, because we’re family and of course she loves us—it’s not that she doesn’t love us….
My eyes are still closed. I land on the edge of the saucer, balance on my six feet, dip my proboscis into the soggy surface of the sugar lump, and feed.
© 2011 Rune Michaels