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.