Scribbling this down to tell you later…
Renée is sitting and eating a lukewarm bowl of banana oatmeal. She’s hunched over, clenching her spoon in her whitened fist and refusing to make eye contact. She glides the spoon around her bowl, eating strategically, and only periodically does she actually lift the scratched spoon to her pale lips. The light flickers a little in the tarnished chandelier hanging over our heads. I am here, it says.
I look down at the paper torn from my diary and notice my own knuckles whitening, and my yellow pencil bends a little in my grip.
Just above us, our mother sleeps off another hangover. The Shiraz still pulses through her veins, and I know that soon enough dehydration will dull her head. It’s unlikely that she will come downstairs at all today, and yet I feel a strain in my neck, a throbbing in my knees and a tension in my arms as I await even the slightest creak from the floorboards overhead.
Last night I fell asleep staring out of my window, and back into the cabin through her cracked bathroom window, her hunched shadow against the yellow wallpaper as she purged out the night’s festivities.
We spent the first half of our evening indignant, knowing our mother’s moods and expecting her patterns. But then Renée wondered out loud whether or not she might have gotten into a car crash, and a bitter fear dulled the anger, replaced with apprehension.
Father slept upstairs while Renée rehashed. She followed every statement with “you know?” And I wanted to comfort her, and I knew all it took was listening, but I couldn’t do it anymore. I was there when all that pain happened, each and every time, and in the small moments, when I could sit outside of it and look at the world without that filter, I can’t handle hearing it again. This is partly why I must write to you, and I hope you understand. I know Renée wants to say something, but I shuffle my papers, refusing to lift the pencil from the paper. I am busy, I’m telling her. Not now.
When Mother returned, I was the only one awake and sitting by the unlit fireplace, holding a closed book I once knew well. She fumbled with the lock and every familial instinct in me wanted to rocket from my chair and just throw the damn door open, but I didn’t. I waited. And as she stumbled in, reeking of shame, head bent, eyes puffy from crying. I could only stare. I wanted her to see me, and to know that I saw her. She asked me for a goodnight hug. She said she missed me. I didn’t miss her, I missed my mother. But I didn’t say it as she stood there, biting her lip, her booze-y tears smearing her makeup. And as I walked away, I hated the sniffling behind my back. And when the fridge door opened, I hated her more.
I shift my attention from the ceiling paint peeling down from the floorboards of her room. Today she’ll stay in her marigold crypt.
The morning fog has set and my father is haunting the backyard garden, again. He wears a bleached white towel around his neck, the only complement to his withered, black swimsuit. With each step, he slices open the soles of his frozen feet on the wooden bones from the Carolina hemlock overhead. His lips move like he’s having a seizure. I imagine the words: “Where is the water? Where is the water?”
But there is no water here. Years ago, he’d have refused to rent a cabin nowhere near a lake or a pond. But it’s all changed now. He’ll never again wake me up at 3am with the smell of a “champion’s” breakfast, and he’ll never buckle another doll-sized vest over my chest, and he’ll never tie another bobber to my line. Even after he sold the little aluminum boat, I think we both still believed that we would at least be able to share the sentiment that it was a lovely day to fish. It was a mistake to mention it this morning.
The dilapidated wood of the kitchen table groans and creaks with each word I pencil, broken lead on crinkled paper. The creaks and groans are bothering Renée, but I need to write you.
I took a stroll through the woods yesterday, half-praying I would get lost. When my feet finally touched off-property dirt, a breeze lifted the tree-branches and the sun broke through and shined down into the puddles and I was back at Lake Linn. You were passing me the caramel-apple sodas you found at Ace and I was handing you the ham and guacamole sandwich I made just for you, teasing you all the while over the “exotic” ingredients. Remember how the sun made it impossible to picnic that day? How when we sat up it roasted our necks and when you laid down it scorched your eyes? Remember how we eventually just closed our eyes and kissed?
The rising sun’s dry light now illuminates the cabin’s interior and exposes the cracks and splits along the wooden walls. The corners swaddled with webs and clumps of mold. The floor lined in food crumbs, gritty under my toes.
I cannot see the sky-scraping mountains or hear Calypso in the distant waves. The billowing clouds tell of a storm. The ivory bed sheets and second-hand couches and your sleeping smile suffocate me. Please, rescue me from here. Take me back to you. Yesterday I heard the wheels of your rusting Chrysler wobbling down the gravel road. I smelled the stale apple-cinnamon air freshener. The dead hornet still lay on the dashboard because you were too scared to move it. Your cold hand reached over and your fingers, crooked from a playground accident, snaked through my own. And at once they were warm.
The coffee is cold. A black widow moves in the rafters, each leg delicately dancing along its web. Before I can look away to tell Renée, she sees it and drops her spoon. It crashes into the now-empty porcelain bowl. She screams. Then a loud thud upstairs bending the already warped floorboards and little paint chips snow down upon us and float in my cold, stale coffee and Renée’s empty oatmeal bowl. It covers the table and the floor. Renée throws herself up from her chair, runs out of the cabin and leaves the glass doors open. I don’t even bother to ruffle my hair. She is yelling at our hysterical, imploring father.
“Daddy please,” She’s yelling. “Daddy, help us. Please.”
All he can ask is where the water is, and she anchors her heels into the earth, yanking at his arms, pulling him to the cabin. She too slices her feet on the hemlock twigs of last November.
I am alone now and I can see the dying hearth through the bars lining the back of Renée’s chair. I rise from my own chair and begin opening the kitchen cabinets and drawers, looking for a stamp. Our kitchen had that drawer filled with pens, stamps, envelopes and tape, and I assume this one will too. But each drawer reveals a set of kitchenware, neatly polished and placed, unlike ours. And in the cabinets, there are tea cups just like the set you always wanted. They are delicate and thin and rimmed with constellations of blue. They are perfect except for one saucer with a single chip like those etched across the ceramic shards littering our kitchen floor that night. I can still hear myself scream when you dropped the plate. The cutting words as I poured out a year of frustration. You shrieking the things I never knew hurt you. My shoulders burned as I threw my arms in the air and slammed white knuckles against the kitchen walls. Plaster and wallpaper sprayed out and you drowned that day, your eyes drowning into mine for the last time.
The hearth glitters, but the fire will die soon. It needs kindling and I should fuel it. I should fuel Father and Mother, too, but it’s too late for that. You will never read this letter, I know this now. I’ll place it in the embers.
I am here.
Robert W. Henway is currently studying at the University of Iowa. His work has been published in Cleaver Magazine and 1966. @roberthenway
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The Doctor T. J. Eckleburg Review is a print and digital literary journal. We offer original fiction — short stories, short short stories, hybrid—poetry and nonfiction. We also curate The Eckleburg Gallery — visual artwork and intermedia — as well The Groove including first released, original music by The Size Queens. Our archives include emerging and established writers, poets, artists, musicians and performers such as Rick Moody, Cris Mazza, Eurydice, Steve Almond, Stephen Dixon, Moira Egan, David Wagoner, Zach Galifianakis and many more. We run annual print issues, The Eckleburg Reading Series (DC, Baltimore, Chicago, New York….), as well as, the annual Gertrude Stein Award in Fiction with a first prize of $1000 and print publication.