six o'clock. is it you that woke me up? that's okay. i'll take you downstairs. we'll make breakfast together. i'll cook the eggs, you watch the toast. set four glasses of orange juice, five chairs.
bending over it I peer inside, inspect the brown powder as it dissolves with every swish of the spoon. bring my face even closer. this brown gas is seeping through me. brown gas is usually dangerous, but coffee gas - if it is in fact brown - can't possibly be. at least one wouldn't think it would be...I mean how could it be? millions of americans drink it every day. and millions of americans go off to war every day. and they say that they're doing it for the american public or the country or whatever, but
we all know they just want an excuse to use big guns. so I add some milk. maybe it will make the gas less poisonous. smile at the eyes gazing up at me as I stir.
wake up. hit the alarm beside the bed and feel my arm protest, wondering why it should be the only part of the body forced to emerge into the cold brightness of the early morning. move fingers across the bedside table.
navigate past the kleenex box (left), sleeping pills (right), glass of water (left). careful not to spill. pick up the remote control. aim it vaguely in the direction of the television. bring my arm back under the covers.
the voice of the newscaster is cold, affected, rehearsed; far too comfortable with itself. feel his words puncture through my skin: 'countless are dead or severely injured, tens of thousands of families left homeless, millions of orphans...' get out of bed.
in the kitchen Danielle's bent over the sink, straggly blonde curls falling over an old plaid shirt that reaches halfway down her rolled up jeans. Mom's sitting at the kitchen table, her face in her coffee mug, pouring milk in from the left hand side - elbow up in the air. stand there
for a second, blink in the face of the new morning light, bright and white inside the hollows of my eyes. until Danielle turns around, having heard my footsteps. smiles and offers me a cup of coffee.
sit down beside Mom and hear her make a small, generic protest. mutter a response. not too concerned since I know she won't be able to make much sense of it anyway.
tilt my head up towards Danielle, watch her from behind. her tiny figure is tensed, shoulder bones trembling as she reaches in and out of the sink for the dishes. looking at her you would guess that she was just barely sixteen, a senior in high school. and in a way she still is, although she hasn't been back for three years now.
eyes fall to the floor. her shoes. red stilettos. she bought them when she was actually sixteen as a gag gift for Mom who had just started a new job in the emergency room. had bought the shoes because they would
cover up any blood Mom managed to spill on them. but Mom doesn't need them anymore and now Danielle works the emergency room shifts.
I wrap my hands around the mug and try to lift it. still too hot. sigh in frustration and lean with an elbow on a knee, feeling my foot tapping beneath me. the room is yellow at this time of day. not that eerie kind of iridescent yellow that you get in trans clubs or on flashy neon signs, but a natural, sunlit yellow. it's funny how yellow has become such an artificial colour when really, it's so elemental. like the lemons on the fabric of my dress, or the daffodils on the table or the sun through the kitchen window. and I can see the sun inside my coffee cup; watch it as it moves with the ripples of the brown liquid, shifting with the wind. out and in and then back out again. and I try to catch it but I'm still running so far behind. and Frank offers to catch it for me. big mistake. and before I know it, my hands are wet; brown liquid drowning the earth below me. he never did have a steady hand.
hear Mom's mutterings beside me as a name escapes her lips: 'Frank..'. there is no response from the empty chair beside her. turn to face her just as I hear the shattering of glass across the floor.
turn to Danielle who's poised like a cat - tail straight up, fur electrified. she grabs the rag from the counter and runs to Mom; stoops with one hand on the frail woman's shoulder, the other moving across the white tile floor in quick, smooth arcs.
when she's finished, she stands. her fingers tangled in her hair now, moving through it like a spider's web. and she smiles, a crooked smile with two loopy dimples on either side.
'i'm going to go get kennedy and take her to school. maybe mom will come with me. it'll be good for her to get some exercise.'
nod, watch her disappear upstairs in a flurry of colour and liquid motion and reappear seconds later, dragging our sleepy-eyed six year old sister by the hand. as the three of them leave I sip my coffee, rub my feet across the stains on the floor. check the calendar. Saturday.
careful not to step on the cracks, Mommy. hop over this one. we'll have to walk around that one, it's too big. don't look up, you'll trip. don't worry, we don't have to hurry. it's okay if I'm late for school. I love you, Mommy. did you make me a peanut butter sandwich for lunch today? that's okay. I like jam too. are you going to come to my school play? I'm being an angel. and I get to wear wings. well maybe you could come after you're finished at the hospital. it's okay if you're a little late. I could wave to you. except Mrs. Evans told us not to. but I'll do it anyways. you just watch for me. okay? I'm the one with the big halo. and the pretty wings. okay, Mommy?
two halves of a worm are crawling in opposite directions. one in front of me, one behind. the first one nibbles at the heels of Frank's bare feet; he's always in front of me, walks far too fast for his own good. then he squats down, knees next to ears, and inspects a tulip. and the street is lovely at this time of year, just hovering above the line that separates bulbs from flowers. and I blink at the sun, smile and take him by the hand. try to slow him down.
do you see the snowflakes, Mommy? try to catch one on your tongue. I try but they always melt too quickly. maybe you'll be faster because you have a bigger tongue. stick it out, Mommy. let me see. maybe you can slow them down so that we can watch them melt. it's okay if you can't do it, though. I can't do it either. let's hold hands. then we can skip. maybe we can stop at Connor's house. he has a big jump rope. come on. skip faster!
Frank, slow down! there's no need to rush. we have all day. I can't keep up when you run so fast, darling. just slow down a little bit. help me walk, I'm feeling tired. maybe we could just sit down on this bench for a little while, shall we? just for a little while. that's right. yes, dear, Im sure the flowers smell pretty, Ill smell them later. I'll just take a little nap for now. take a little nap. just a little nap. just a little.
Mommy? are you dying? don't die, Mommy. I didn't like it when Hammy died. everybody cried. and then we had to put him away in the backyard and now Danielle won't let me see him anymore. I don't want them to put you away in the backyard too, Mommy. then who would walk me to school? and make me peanut butter sandwiches? and braid my hair in the morning? we're almost at Connor's house, Mommy. just hold on for a few more minutes. Connor's Dad will fix you all up. I promise. please hold on, Mommy. pretty please?
held the funeral the next day. it was pretty much a string of mechanical motions for everyone. all we had to do was move through them, shed a tear or two during the eulogy, smile and thank all the guests for coming. which isn't to say that we weren't deeply affected by Mom's death but merely that for a couple of teenagers and their kid sister, funerals aren't exactly the most appropriate way to grieve. people say that a funeral is supposed to be sort of like a final goodbye to the person that you loved.
but in our case, we'd been saying goodbye to Mom for the past two and a half years. as far as we were concerned, she was already long gone. like I said, the funeral was merely a formality.
I guess it must have been even weirder than that for Kennedy, though. it's hard to explain the whole concept of a funeral to a six year old. when her hamster died last year, Danielle had managed to convince her that he was
only going off on a vacation for a little while and that maybe someday he'd be back. and at the time I thought the idea was brilliant but now that I have to explain why her mother's abandoned her to go on much the same sort of vacation, I find myself thinking that it would have been much easier if we'd simply explained the whole thing right from the beginning.
Mommy? can you hear me, Mommy? I'm sorry that I killed you. I SAID I'M SORRY THAT I KILLED YOU MOMMY. I know that you can't hear me sometimes. Danielle says I talk too softly. I really didn't mean to do it. and I didn't mean to kill Hammy either. but you know that. you were there. he just slipped in my hands. then Danielle said I killed him. I'm sorry, Mommy. about Hammy and about you. Danielle says I killed you too. I'm sorry. I'm so sorry, Mommy. I promise I'll be better. really.
in the funeral parlour after the service, once almost everyone had gone home, sitting on the edge of one of the floral couches, the stuffy kind that smell like Pine Sol and kleenex residue. Kennedy lying at my feet, flat against the ground, digging her crayons into a stack of construction paper as Danielle stood against the wall in the corner, nails between teeth, staring guardedly at the coffin as though she half-expected one of the guests to run up and try to steal it.
'G is for...'
Kennedy's nose is pressed right up against the paper, crayon next to mouth; the letters of the alphabet scratched across the top of her page.
I reply. let my hands hang loosely between my legs. Kennedy looks up, indignant.
'gum isn't an animal.'
back down on the paper. Danielle's pushing herself slowly down the wall now, the tips of her red stilettos pointing upwards. no place like home, Dorothy. she raises her eyes to look at me. doesn't blink, just stares as though trying to recognize me. inches towards the coffin, back pressed
against the wall. begin to wonder how long she's been in that corner for. try to remember if she's spoken to the guests at all.
'G is for...'
impatient this time. her lips are tight, angry red stretched across white. rubs her nose with the back of her wrist.
shakes her head, twisted lips this time. blue eyes spitting ice.
'Jonathan, Godzilla isn't real.'
pause. tap my feet alternately on the ground.
'G is for...'
a sudden burst. blonde curls electrified. red shoes pointed forward. not in Kansas anymore.
'GO AWAY! G-IS-FOR-GO-AWAY!'
Danielle's body is wrapped around the coffin as though trying to protect it. the mascara that once covered her eyelashes is dripping down her cheeks in a fury of black tears. freeze on the couch as Kennedy presses herself against her colouring sheets.
one lamp shattered on the floor. two rolling across the table. kleenex suspended in the air like smoke. grab Kennedy by the wrist. escape outside.
I didn't do it this time. it wasn't my fault. honest. you know that, right? why does Danielle keep yelling? can't she just stay quiet like you and me? we know how to stay quiet. don't we, Mommy?
sitting outside the funeral home that afternoon with Kennedy, I braided her hair as she let the upper part of her thin body rest across my legs. asked if Danielle was going away like Mommy did. told her I didn't know.
in front of us we watched as the last of the visitors disappeared in their cars, waved briskly as clouds of smoke engulfed them. from behind us we could still hear Danielle's screams, Aunt Charlotte and Uncle Ian
trying desperately to calm her. and when the ambulance arrived I asked them to go around to the back. didn't answer Kennedy when she wanted to know what they were doing here. asked her to think of something for H.
hippopotamus. hair spray. hospital.
did you hear the bells? they were singing in the church. singing in the church for you, mommy. can i hold your hand? don't worry; i washed off all the jam in the ladies bathroom so i'm not all sticky anymore. and i know i have to stay quiet. i'll be quiet as a mouse. just like you. i'll stay quiet just for you, i promise. you stay quiet too, mommy. maybe then the men won't hear us. maybe then they won't come and take you away. and we can stay here forever, you and me. just be real quiet, mommy. real quiet.