Becoming a Moonchild

I remember the moon from before I knew who I was becoming
Waning slivers of hope
Hiding the worst of me in shadows
And waxing halos of forgiveness
Shining gentle light on my sins
Giving me time to repent before the full moon
And I waited on my knees
Until the maddening blue light crept into every chamber and illuminated
The gore
God how many times I let it drive me insane
Unable or unwilling to hide
Or run
Or heal
Because I knew the darkness always returned
A new moon for an old soul
A cycle of crippling fear
A woman living for a couple days of darkness

And now the same truth seeking sphere of light
Welcomes home her naked daughter
All her sins and secrets dissolve into darkness
And her soul is illuminated
A woman living for light in the darkness

Walls

There was a gas stove humming in the corner and a forest green chair just beside it with my book left open on its arm. I spent my evenings there, reading and staying warm by the fire, petting the dog with my feet and feeling completely content. The wooden walls reminded me of a cabin and maybe more so, a simpler time. They had once welcomed me inside as their guest, family even, but now the rooms are cold and indifferent. Only a month had passed, and already the welcome was worn. It kills me to think of how quickly I came to love this house. It was our new beginning. These walls were supposed to be written about with affection and fondness, not the heaviness and regret with which I write about them now.

I could hear him a room away, beating the indifferent walls and screaming things I couldn’t understand. Minutes before, I informed him of my decision to leave, to move out, to end our commitments entirely. That was the pivotal moment. I was no longer home. I was no longer in love. I was the stranger inside.

I sat while he screamed, and I stared at the walls, so wholly unfamiliar to me now. Eyes emerged from the knots in the wood and stared back. They were dispassionate and removed. ‘You’ve probably seen this before’, I said aloud but not loud enough to be heard over his cries. I stopped listening when he started cycling around the same threats and pleas. I sat next to the fireplace and waited. Soon enough, he came stomping around the corner, hunchbacked and deformed in every imaginable way. He demanded to know why I hated him so much. He met me face-to-face in the chair and breathed all over me. Then, he shrank away from me, cowered more like, and said amidst stuttering sobs, ‘Why are you smiling?’ Smiling? I thought, instinctively bringing my hands to my face. I was smiling. Worse, I was laughing, giggling like a nervous girl at her first R-rated movie. I hated myself. I tried to stop, but the muscles in my face weren’t mine to command. ‘I’m sorry’ I said, hiding my face behind my hands. It was a cruel trick. Nothing inside my heart was smiling. I went to him, suddenly compelled by my own coldness to care for him, to take it back. I threw my arms around him, but he pushed me away and shook his hands as if I were diseased or covered in slime. I tried again, this time cooing at him and begging him to calm down. I held him tight and tried to stop his shaking, but it was like trying to contain a monster. I could feel how he was torn between holding me and hitting me. Over his shoulder, I looked at the walls and fed on their indifference. Then I felt his arms around me, squeezing me, breaking me. I released my embrace and kicked until he released me. I fell to the floor and felt his weight on top of me. He held my hands behind me and kept his foot on the small of my back, spitting and screaming into my ear, swearing and cursing and threatening again. No pain was registering, not even anger. All I could think of was how dusty the carpet smelled. I imagined falling through the floor into the cellar. Spiders and mice, dust and shadows – all of this would have been a glorious escape. Finally, he subsided. I expect my complacency did not satisfy his want to frighten me. I was still too naïve to think that he wanted to hurt me. I am not entirely foolish, though, because up until that day his temper was more moderate than my own. He rarely lifted a finger in anger towards me and scarcer still did he raise his voice. So, it’s not that I’ve tolerated such behavior this last year, just that I tolerate it now.

He left the room as thunderingly as he came and growled at me not to get up. I had no trouble obeying, as my body seemed magnetic to the floor, pulled and pushed at the same time. My breath made the carpet smell worse, but I did not move. I heard his keys and winter coat and then the screen door slamming behind him. I lay still, though, until I heard his car pull away over the snow pack and ice.

I still did not feel alone in the room with all the eyes. ‘You don’t frighten me,’ I spoke again to the walls, this time observing my own sanity with skepticism and laughing at hearing my voice aloud. I went to the kitchen and poured myself a glass of water. A mouse fled from one end of the kitchen to the other, disappearing behind the stove. The cellar is coming to me, I thought, amused and confused by the matter of my own thoughts.

The kitchen was filthy. I blamed my own negligence; although, most of the marks and stains were there when we had moved in. The cracked floor and the burned counter tops were probably decades old. The dirty dishes were mine, and the sauce stain on the stove top. I frowned and went to sit in my chair. I didn’t read though; that would have been strange and inappropriate, even without a witness. The walls were witness enough, and I could not deny the effect they had on my behavior.

I let my mind wander to a month before. It was Christmas time, and I jumped for joy at seeing the fireplace in the corner, the perfect selling charm for two people looking to buy a home in December. In a day I had arranged everything: clocks, pictures, furniture, books and candles. We had a lot of candles. Now, they were deformed, burned up like him and me. Some of them were only puddles of colored wax stuck on shelves.

Together, our things formed an eclectic collage. I tried my best to arrange everything according to style and color, but no two things seemed to go together. On one wall there was a Picasso next to a bird house made from a Colorado license plate. On another wall there was The Kiss by Klimt and a tall bookshelf made entirely of cork with a thousand cds alphabetically organized from top to bottom – a chaotic array of colors and text that complimented nothing, not even itself, but it did not matter then because we were in love. It was a delightful mess that I adored.

We had already had dinner parties and Sunday breakfasts, everything that makes a house a home, so my attachment was considerable despite our short stay. As I looked around, images lingered in every space – ghosts only days old flickered in and out as if they resisted the very passage of time. On the floor in front of the couch I saw us sitting with a board game between us. We were smiling, sipping tea and talking about nothing in particular. In the far corner our figures were entangled; he had just come home from work and I was dressed up. I remembered that day. It was two days ago. We made love that night, and I stared at the walls then too and imagined terrible things in the shadows. Somehow, I knew what was coming, but I avoided it. I wanted things to remain as they were, not because I was happy but because I was comfortable, emotionally and economically stable. But it is not comfort my heart thrives on; it’s happiness, and I wasn’t happy, not really. I scowled in defense at the ghosts and cursed my vulnerability. I shouted something I can’t remember, and the ghosts disappeared from the room, from my mind.

I noticed, again, the puddles of wax on the shelves, and I had an irrepressible urge to scrape them off, so I began picking at them with my fingernails and thinking of nothing else. I was being very meticulous and obsessive, but I was content to avoid another haunting, so I continued for nearly an hour. Now there were only tiny flakes and ribbons of wax on the carpet, and my fingernails were red and brown, cinnamon and sandalwood.

The refrigerator made a sound like a nest of birds right outside the window; it chirped and hummed and wailed all at once. The gravity heater crackled and popped like old stairs, and I looked to see who was there, no one of course. Just me.

My mind wandered again and imagined the future of the house. Would he stay? Would he brave the ghosts and memories alone? Would he sit in this room with a hundred eyes, outnumbered and alone? Or would this house be silent? Could this house ever be silent with so many ghosts? Our story was in the walls now, eternally fixed like the eyes – in the eyes. If I become a ghost, will I exist here within these walls even after I am gone? Will part of me stay with him, with the house? I wondered these things as I wonder now, two weeks removed from the walls. I have yet to feel completely gone.

After I had waited nearly two hours in the haunted house, I considered leaving for the first time. I had stayed hoping for some resolution, pleasant or unpleasant; I felt some sort of conclusion was due. I never considered that our love, our time together would be completely forsaken. How can God abandon two people who truly loved?

Just as I was losing faith, I heard the unmistakable sound of tires over snow and an engine I had come so accustomed to hearing. But I did not run to the door and prepare to greet him this time. Blood rushed to my head, and I became frantic and disoriented. I looked for my keys, my phone, my stuffed dog Henry – anything and everything I believed could protect me or aide me in my escape. Through the window I saw him walking. His countenance was changed since last I saw him. He seemed sad, detached, or tame at least.

‘Where are you going?’ he greeted me. I asked him if he wanted something to eat. ‘You need to eat,’ I said, ‘you look pale.’ He agreed, looking very sympathetic of his own condition. He grimaced and sulked into the living room and took a seat. I asked him what he wanted. ‘A sandwich?’ I offered, eager to leave. I had never known him to refuse a meal. He nodded pathetically – almost made me smile again, but I avoided the same trick by turning and leaving directly. I hadn’t decided if I was coming back. I just knew I was leaving.

The winter air had a nasty bite that morning. I filled my lungs with the dry, icy air until they ached to release. It was everything I needed, a brutal awakening of my senses, a sharp reminder that I wasn’t, in fact, dreaming.

I started my car and noticed that I had a full tank. It was an invitation to leave. A tank could get me to my parents’ house; their walls shone with happy memories. I was a girl there and always, always safe. I was still undecided as I pulled into a school yard and parked. I felt so free. I couldn’t go back. I had done what I needed to do. I had no lingering obligation to him or that house. I could just get my things later. Everything I really needed was in my car, except clean underwear, but that was cheap enough to buy. I was already pulling out and turning onto the highway when my conscience made a semi-successful attempt to break through the emotional block I had been building all day. I couldn’t just leave him sitting there waiting for a sandwich, so I called him. He answered and sniffed into the phone to let me know he’d picked up. I told him that I was uncomfortable coming back, that I’d said everything I needed to say and that we would take care of practical matters when he was feeling better. His protests were incoherent and, from what I could tell, mostly to do with the sandwich. I apologized over and over until he became angry enough at his futility in the argument to hang up.

That was the end of it for nearly two days. I was ridiculously happy; it was an offensive kind of joy that I didn’t attempt to defend or explain, but I relished in my unexpected wellbeing. I found an apartment on the opposite side of town. The walls were bright and empty, like a blank canvas.

At the end of two days time, I found myself driving back to the house. I had called a moving company and was meeting two men at noon. That left me roughly three hours to get everything boxed and ready to go. His car was not in the driveway when I pulled up, so I hurried to take advantage of his absence. I grabbed everything that was mine, in no particular order, and threw it into a box. As I filled one, I set it by the front door and went to fill another. What had taken a whole weekend to put up took just over two hours to take down. My furniture, linens, knick-knacks and dishes were in one pile nearly six feet tall in the living room. In appearance it looked very orderly and organized, but I knew better. I think I actually packed dirty dishes. Every room had been stripped of my things, but I continued to systematically open closets and cupboards in search of something else, and an occasional trifle made it worth my while.

Just minutes before I was expecting the movers, I heard the door slam. He was back. I suppose seeing him one last time was inevitable, but I was grossly unprepared. He let out a loud exclamation of grief that made me jump, and then my nerves were back on guard. He shouted and whined at the same time, a quality I had only witnessed in him and never desire to witness again. He was sincerely confused – delusional enough to, in fact, forget or disempower the changes and events of the last two days. I told him I was expecting the movers in just minutes; he seemed surprised still, so I left him to remember. He followed me at my heels and reissued his pleas. Every word opened a new wound and reinstated new doubt. The power he had to persuade me was more frightening than the potential of his temper. I tried to distance myself internally from his voice. Outwardly, I was making incoherent pleas of my own, but he just talked over me.

Then, in a moment of weakness – or maybe it was strength – I spun around and said in a steady, hard voice, ‘It’s done! I can’t help you.’ My stare was unflinching, but I was already regretting my words. The next minutes were a blur. He was taking things from my boxes and throwing them against the wall: My snow globe, a set of Tupperware and a picture of my sister and I. I was just picking up pieces and trying to remain calm. At one point, I looked at him, and he was holding a pottery vase over his head. It wasn’t the vase that scared me, though. It was the look of reckless abandon in his eyes that made me take cover behind the couch. He missed, but it came close. I started for the door, but before I managed my way out, he shoved me from behind, and I hit the door and then the concrete porch. It was the back of my head that hit the ground, but my eyes pounded and pulsated like there was a band of drums inside my head. His voice was completely hoarse now as he shouted at me from inside to get up. I got up, but he knocked me down again as he pushed past me to get to his car. The movers had arrived; I don’t know what they saw, but they saw him spin his tires in the snow until he screeched out of the driveway and swerved on down the narrow, icy road.

The two men had moved us in the month before, and I greeted them accordingly. Although they never spoke to me directly of the situation, a look in their eyes and a tone in their voices indicated they had seen enough to feel sorry for me. I sat on the floor and watched them take my things into a truck big enough for ten times the load.

The walls watched, too, but it was different that day. The tables had turned because I was leaving. They could no longer prey on my vulnerability or haunt me with shadows of sentiment. As my things disappeared, so did my attachment to the strange house. The comforts of my life were in boxes and inside of me and never belonged to the house.

As the two men waited for me outside, I said goodbye. It was half empty now, but I was leaving it completely whole. The stupid smile was back on my face again as I wrestled the key off of my key chain. I dropped it on the floor on the way out and didn’t even look back. As I walked down the porch steps covered in a strange green rug, I smiled at the movers who waited patiently in their truck. Behind me I left a house, a love, a year and a broken heart, but I smiled anyways – because I was going home.

A December I Remember

I remember the howling wind whistling through the old casement windows on those frosty December nights. It always reminded me of tea at grandmother’s house. She would let the kettle scream on the stove until the cats began to gather on the coffee table all at once and voice their displeasure. Then the tea was so hot that by the time I could bear to sip it carefully and soundlessly as I was taught, it was time to leave. Grandma, it seemed, could drink the tea if it was boiling. She would bring the flowery saucer to her painted, pursing lips and with a grey tongue, lap it up like the cats that abundantly decorated her home. Although I never remember actually tasting the tea, the howling wind would never scare me as it did other children – and I was grateful for that.

Grandmother moved in after my mother died. She was convinced that my father didn’t know how to cook, clean or care for his children (whom she never so much called “his” children as she called us “her” grandchildren). Father’s face was stretched tight those first few weeks with grandmother always poking around the house, but I suppose she reminded him of mother – something in her face and womanly presence. We didn’t sit down for tea anymore, and I missed visiting grandmother; she seemed different in her own surroundings. Now she was more like a nanny, and the fondness I felt for her before faded with increased familiarity.

Sometimes I would lie very still and try to hear through the wind. I heard footsteps and crickets and whispers. Some nights I thought I heard someone crying – or maybe laughing. But it was never clear whether I imagined the noises or if I had reached such a supreme level of meditation that I could focus my hearing acutely and deliberately beyond the moaning and hissing wind. After many hour-long minutes of strained listening, I would step as lightly as I could around the house to make sure all was well. Walking by my brother’s room I heard the tinkling and planking of video game music and the frantic clicking of the controls. Sam played video games into the wee hours of the morning nearly every night.

Then there were nights I heard a piano. Soft notes falling into my ears like rose petals. The notes crept under my door and slid over the walls like shadows. The grand piano on the other side of the wall could not play that softly, but still I looked through a crack in my door, half expecting to see someone sitting there tip-toeing melodies up and down the keyboard. But I never did.

The Minnesota sun was like a little fire behind eggshell skies; it was never bright enough to wake me up in the morning. I only stirred when I heard the coffee pot begin to crackle, and I imagined a ghostlike stream of smell slinking from the kitchen into my bedroom and luring me out of bed. I drank coffee for the same reason I read books, because my dad did. He wasn’t very affectionate by nature, but he always called me his angel. Dad never called my younger brother by any pet name; he was just Sam. I beamed from the inside out for feeling particularly special, but I never supposed that my father loved my brother less. Sam was an unmotivated, sort of indifferent person. He didn’t desire affection or attention the way I did, and dad and I let him keep his distance.

I was seven when mother died eight years ago. Sam was three. It was hard not to be angry at my brother’s complacency. He had no memories of her life or death or the horrible months in between. This made the four years between us a great and bitter gap. Every night I was chased by memories of my mother turning yellow in a hospital bed that smelled stale, trying daily to smile confidently to me and my brother – cooing at us and batting away tears. She was so helpless and still appeared so hopeful. Sam would never ache the way I did. I was angry at him, at God, at birth order, at being born at all.

We moved into a new house in a new town. We moved only days after my mother was buried and left everything behind. Everything but my father’s books. The furniture, pictures and knickknacks all belonged to a different time and in a way, to a different family. They smelled like my mother and reflected her remarkable taste. I thought her things (our things) would have been a comfort to keep amongst us, but my father, I suppose, couldn’t bear the constant reminder of her absence. I overheard him say to our neighbor who was always prying, “It doesn’t remind me of my wife; it reminds me that she’s dead.” For a moment I hated him for saying it like that, but then I observed that phrasing it one way or the other didn’t change what had happened to my mother. Still, I preferred to think of it in softer terms. I preferred to think of heaven.

My dad and I weren’t close before mom died, and it’s most probable that I only pretend we’re close now. We don’t talk, after all, and if I didn’t follow him from room to room we would rarely even see each other. But as long as he called me his angel I could fabricate in my mind that we were best friends. Then I didn’t have to miss mom so much. I talked endlessly to him about nothing, and if anything could be said about my dad indefinitely, it would be that he had patience. The only time I wasn’t talking was when I was reading, and sometimes I would read aloud to show off how much I had learned. Sam couldn’t read very well, or he chose not to, and he spent most of his time locked in his room playing loud and violent video games.

Dad spent a lot of money on Sam. It seemed to be his attempt at compensating for the time they didn’t spend together. It didn’t bother me. I had dad’s time, and he called me angel. No money could replace that. One day in the hallway between our two bedrooms, I witnessed dad kneeling on the floor to be at Sam’s height. His eyes twinkled, but I saw a little fear in his eyes, as if he were kneeling before a great and powerful king. He flamboyantly revealed a package wrapped in old birthday paper. Sam took it and tore away the paper, looking bored and inconvenienced. It was some special edition video game. Without ever looking at dad, he idly crumpled the wrapping paper and dropped it at dad’s feet, sulking into his bedroom. Sam never said thank you. He just took the gifts as if dad owed it to him. I craned my head out a little farther from my hiding place to get a peek at dad. He was still kneeling, staring blankly at the closed door. His eyes still twinkled as if he couldn’t quite grasp or accept the rejection. Then I heard a rattling – like the quiet beginning of an earthquake. I darted my eyes around the room searching for the source of the sound. Finally I looked down to my hand on the doorknob. My knuckles were white, and my whole arm shook so violently that the movement blurred like a bad photograph. I had almost completely detached the brass knob from the door to my room, which had always been unstable in its socket. I was hypnotized, pondering lazily upon the colorful illusion of a suspended blur when quietly the rattling sound began to emerge from silence once again. I quickly recovered from the spell and removed my hand from the door. Tucking my hands safely into my corduroy pockets, I peered out at my dad. He didn’t appear to have heard. His head hung like a sad cartoon, and he floated down the stairs. I was still feeling a little hazed, and I could feel cold sweat forming beads on my forehead. I was floating too, floating into my brother’s room like an angry banshee. I threw the doorknob at him that had apparently left the door with me. My arms felt dead, like the stiff, futile sensation from nightmares – but the doorknob flew, as intended, right into Sam’s left eye. To further expose the hole in his heart and the numbness of his soul, he didn’t even yelp. He fell backwards and caught himself on a chair.

“What’s wrong with you?” I yelled in a whisper. My speech was so violent I bit my lip the process. “You can’t hurt people like that! You’re so goddamn selfish!” Sam stared at me blankly, his hand cupped over his eye. Staring back at him, I realized he wasn’t looking at me; he was looking right above my eyes and probably not even listening.

“Hey!” I yelled, starting to shake again. “Who the hell do you think you are?!” My mouth was drying fast, and my tongue clicked against the top of my mouth. My brother began to blur like my arm. “I hate you.” I muttered almost incoherently. And I meant it.

That night at dinner, Dad saw Sam’s eye. There was a deep cut, already appearing swollen and infected, and a black circle no smaller or larger than the doorknob. Dad reached over and pulled Sam’s chin out of his chest to get a good look.

“What happened?” Dad’s voice crackled a little bit, like a person who has not spoken in a long time. I froze. Sam’s one eye gleamed with the idea of revenge. It was the most alive I had ever seen him. I felt dizzy again, the inevitability of consequence settling in.

“Carrie hit me.” Sam looked at me, actually looked at me. He looked like a monster. His face seemed to elongate, and his eye revealed such an angry corruptness that I had to look away. Dad looked tired, sad, defeated.

“Carrie?” He raised his eyes slowly to look at me. I could tell that he was hoping I’d deny it. I was hoping the same. I pushed the food on my plate with a fork and pinched my leg underneath the table. I couldn’t speak.

“Is that true?” He knew the answer, but he patiently awaited my response.

“Not exactly. I threw the doorknob…” I trailed off, wondering why I decided to clarify an already desolate situation. Grandma was the only one eating. She hovered over her plate and went about taking small bites and sipping her tea soundlessly as if nothing had happened.

“I think you should go to your room. I’ll be up later.” Dad looked like a broken toy, crooked and sad. I hurt my dad, and I couldn’t forgive myself for that. I don’t remember leaving, but I ended up in my room. I sat on my bed and stared numbly through the hole where my doorknob had been, waiting to see my dad on the other side but he never came.

Life went on. Two days later, I resumed my usual behavior, following dad around the house and telling make-believe stories to make him smile. Sam’s eye healed, but Sam was different. He was even more resentful and angry than before. He looked crazed – his eyes were cracked and protruded more than seemed natural. His skin looked like porcelain, a dead, chalky paste completely without the natural resilience that should belong to an eleven-year-old boy.

I pretended, just as everyone else did, that nothing ever happened, and just when I began to fool myself, I would catch Sam’s eye and my stomach would turn over. Because of that day, I could never really be the angel I wanted to be. I had destroyed my potential, and Sam was there to remind me.

Sam, who almost never left his room, began appearing around the house regularly. He sat in the corner and smirked coldly while dad and I read. I stared at the pages, pretending to read, and fought the temptation to look at Sam. I knew he was looking at me, pulling at me with his eyes, and I sweat to keep from giving in. I didn’t turn a page for weeks.

Grandma was like a ghost now – coming and going but somehow always there. She passed through the hallway, always with a laundry basket attached to her hip, sighing and gazing somewhere far away. A few times I heard her low humming voice come from behind Sam’s door, and I swallowed a lump of jealousy before walking by. Grandma never spoke to me. Sometimes she stroked my cheek with her wrinkled thumb until I was sure she had rubbed my skin raw, but she never said a word.

After school I would sit with Sam on opposite sides of the school steps waiting to see Grandma’s old beige Buick in the parking lot. If we didn’t see it, we heard it rattling and wheezing. Grandma always showed up thirty minutes after all the other children had been picked up. Frankly, we could have walked home faster, but Grandma insisted, and we didn’t argue.

One day, dad came home from work with a boyish excitement coloring his face, or maybe it was the cold. With an unusual urgency in his voice he called for Sam. Sam was already there, which still didn’t seem natural. Dad pat him on the back, and I worried that Sam might fall over.

“Hey sport!” My dad called Sam “sport.” A nickname. A nickname was, as far as I knew, the greatest compliment my dad could give. I shuttered like I did when I ate peas.

“I got you – and me – tickets to the Twins game. What do you think? This Saturday with your old man?” He was panting fiercely. I didn’t know which was more absurd, my dad calling himself an “old man,” calling Sam “sport” or asking him to a baseball game.

Sam looked amused. His posture improved as if someone had paid him a great compliment or ordained him king. My seventy-pound brother looked bigger in that moment. His holocaust appearance was downplayed by the glow of importance illuminating his feeble figure. He smiled an acceptance towards father and then skipped unnaturally away.

It was like a terrible dream. I stood stupidly, expecting to wake up in my bed. Sometimes I thought I would wake up a seven-year-old girl, and the eight years of my life without my mother would vanish in the morning sun and leave only a few surreal images in my mind until I dreamed again. My father moved past me into the kitchen. I stood there until I could smell dinner – then I left.

The tingling numbness that seemed almost familiar now, pricked my fingertips and crept painfully up my arm. I pulled my sleeve over my hand to open the door because my hands were slimy with perspiration. My feet stomped against the ground, and I suddenly felt very heavy. I lay beneath the unused swing-set my dad put up when we moved in and stared into the darkening sky. Skeleton trees hovered over me and reached out from the foreboding blackness, and I let myself spin until I slept.

Grandma woke me the next morning. It was barely dawn, and she rushed me inside before the neighbors could see. I didn’t explain my situation, and she didn’t ask. She took me under her arm and guided me to my bedroom. As we walked by Sam’s bedroom, I heard crying, a whispered whimpering that broke my heart. I turned away from grandma, wanting to hear better, but she pulled me forward and into my bedroom. After I was in my bed, I was paralyzed by sleepiness. I watched grandma turn the light out and disappear.

Saturday’s game came and went, and I stayed. I felt quiet inside – not the usual rumblings of resentment and anger. I could not keep myself from wondering why Sam was crying. He had seemed so calloused and heartless to me before, but the sincere sounds I heard that night haunted my ears. I heard him for many more nights, and I wondered if he had been crying all along.

At night I would feel sorry for him; sometimes I was almost inclined to go to him and ask what was the matter, but I fell asleep instead. During the day he was impertinent, scowling at everyone and everything, and I quickly forgot about the boy I heard crying.

It was the eighth Christmas without mom. We were sitting around the Christmas tree opening gifts. Grandma was forcing cheerfulness, which, in my opinion, only made her unhappiness all the more obvious. I was old enough to know when grownups were pretending, and I wished she could just be real. ‘Cry’ I thought, ‘just cry and admit you miss mom.’ No one ever did, not even the Christmas three months after she died. Dad insisted on keeping Christmas as merry as it had always been.

I opened book after book, exclaiming my gratitude and exaggerating every inflection in my voice to ensure I sounded pleased. They were all used, but they were books I had said I wanted. I felt a little bit like grandma, and I began to understand why she forced so many smiles. Sam opened new video games and CDs and baseball cards until the pile of wrapping paper behind him looked like a colorful wrinkled mountain. He never said thank you or smiled at any of the gifts. He actually had the audacity to complain of one of the gifts, a framed picture of Sam and dad at the Twins game.

“Dad,” he said in a whiny, irritated voice, “pictures are gay.” Pictures are gay? I gaped at him while I was too stunned to respond. What a selfish, ignorant thing to say! I could bite my tongue while he ungratefully dismissed hundreds of dollars worth of presents, but that $9.99 frame with a picture in it wasn’t from my dad’s wallet; it was from his heart. The only picture frames in the house still had the Kodak models in them.

My face was burning as I wondered desperately how to undo what my brother had said. I made myself look at dad. His shoulders were shaking and he covered his face with his hands. He was crying.

I turned to look at my brother.

“God damn you!” My voice sounded without my commanding it. I was standing, and my heart beat at my chest as if it wanted out. I wasn’t breathing. Sam shrunk away from me, or perhaps from dad, and moved quickly upstairs. I chased him, my arms stiff at my side. At the last step, I caught up with him, grabbed his arm and spun him around to face me.

“Look at me you coward.” My teeth were grinding as I spoke. “You took him from me, and then you made him cry.” I had Sam pinned against the wall, heaving morning breath into his face. Then he looked at me. His eyes were glazed, stupid, and scared. My grip relaxed a little bit as I began to wonder how my brother had become so calloused. What were his reasons or excuses for being so selfish and indifferent? How can an eleven-year-old boy have so much disgust with his family, with Christmas, with life? I pitied him for a fraction of a second and then recovered my grip. He resisted me this time, twisting to escape my hold, but he had the muscles of a skeleton. Suddenly, there was a fire in my stomach, and I hated him even more. On an impulse of rage I threw him down as hard as I could. His image blurred as my arm had before when I detached the door knob. He somersaulted down the shag-carpeted stairs, and at the bottom he landed. But he wasn’t crying. He was completely still. My knees locked and I sucked my stomach in.

“Please start crying,” I pleaded under my breath. “Oh God, oh God, oh God.” I stared at him, waiting for any movement, any sound. “Please don’t be dead, Sam.”

Then, it happened. He turned his head to look up at me and began to cry. He cried in loud, stuttering sobs – the same sobs I had heard from his bedroom. I ran down to him and knelt by his side, scooping him up in my arms.

“I’m so sorry, Sam. I’m so sorry.” I cried too. I ran my fingers through his hair and rocked him back and forth in my arms. Then, for the first time, I whispered through hiccuping cries “I love you, Sam.” I held my breath waiting for response. Nothing. “Please forgive me. I’m so sorry…” I wanted him to say something, but I knew he wouldn’t, and that was okay. Sam trembled and gasped in my arms. He was so small and helpless, not a monster at all. He just wore a mask like everyone else. My heart skipped a beat and I felt pain all over as I realized that Sam ached too. Of course he did.

“Oh Sam. I couldn’t see before, but now I do. I do. And I’m so sorry. You needed me, and I was selfish. Oh God, I’m so sorry.” We cried hard for hours. Dad watched, but I couldn’t care what he was thinking. I only cared about Sam.

Somewhere I heard that a person can never run out of tears, but they were wrong. After so many hours, I was crying and producing no proof of it. My face was scrunched and puckered so much I strangely resembled grandma. I was sobbing and heaving but my eyes were dry and my mind was quiet. That was when I noticed that dad was gone. A cold draft nipped at my bare legs and called attention to the open door. Sam followed me outside. Dad’s back was turned to us, but I knew the expression on his face. His lower lip pushed up thoughtfully, and his face flickered in and out of darkness as the electric Santa on the roof began to short out. Sam sniffled and dad turned to face us. He looked at us blankly, and his eyes shifted back and forth between us as if he didn’t know where to begin. For a moment, he didn’t look like my dad. He looked imperfect, jaded, human.

“You’re not a bad father.” I said quietly, hoping I had read his mind. His shoulders fell, and I knew I had said the right thing. The three of us stood in the cold a while longer until grandma ushered us inside and mumbled something about the neighbors.

Late that Christmas night, I tucked Sam into bed and kissed him lightly the way mother had kissed me. But before I went to my room, I tiptoed downstairs. Next to the Christmas tree was the picture of dad and Sam. I took it to the fireplace and placed the 6 by 4 photograph next to a bundle of plastic holly. Then I unplugged the Christmas tree and went to bed. My covers were crisp and cold, and I rubbed my legs together until they warmed to my body. Then I lay very still and listened. My ears focused in the direction of Sam’s bedroom. Nothing. So I slept.