Dad is pounding on my bedroom door, calling for wakefulness, hard work, Maintaining Normalcy. It’s warm and hidden here with the quilt ends tucked under my feet, all the edges safe.
My big brother Paul is in the bathroom. I can hear his slow sad music playing from the box he keeps by the sink.
The knocking gets louder. Will the dragon come out of Dad again?
I stick out my arm, then my head. My hair is frizzled. It’s a cold dark morning and it feels like nighttime still. The floor is like a skating rink, covered in icy dust.
It’s only her clothes on the floor. None of mine. Her blue jumpsuit, the foot pajamas she never took off when she was little, her purple boots. The floor is so cold. I hate wearing her clothes, they always pinch me funny because I’m a little bigger than her and I like my purple jumpsuit more than her blue one. But it’s cold and the dragon is coming, so I grab a boot, stick my foot in. The red comes up around my ankle, spilling over onto the floor. It’s rusty and still warm, like someone had held her over the boots and squeezed her till they were full.
Our birthday is coming up so the nightmares are coming back. The day will be here in just one week. It’s the hardest time for me. It was Dad’s idea to keep having a party each year, because of Maintaining Normalcy. And we said okay because the dragon kept breathing out of Dad’s breath, but I hate it.
I’m scared of the dragon. It’s what Paul calls it when Dad gets mad. There’s heat in his eyes and breath when it happens. His face gets so red and puffy that he doesn’t look like himself anymore.
This will be the third year of parties since she’s been gone.
The first year uncle Carl who’s not really an uncle but Dad’s friend came for the birthday and he called me by her name because he hadn’t been around in a while and he’d Had Too Many, Dad said. Even though we were fraternal twins he couldn’t remember which of us was which. When he said it Mom’s face went blank like it does when she talks to the dead people and Dad tried to be polite even though I saw his eyes. I ran away into the kitchen. Carl came to apologize, put his big clumsy hairy arm around me, and sat there with me and I hated him. After he left I went to hide under the sink, me and the poisons. I played house, with the blue spray bottle the mom and the fat bleach bottle the dad and the small empty bottles the kids. No one seemed to notice where I went except Paul, but he didn’t say anything.
Then last year there was a big party at our house where everyone knew what had happened and everyone celebrated either too loud or too carefully. I had to sit there in the middle of it and smile a big fake smile when they told me happy birthday, like a clown with a sad secret, but it’s a secret that everyone knows. I sat until my lungs got too loud and I couldn’t hear anyone or the music Dad put on.
But I’ll be in fifth grade this year and I can’t be a clown anymore.
I hate the parties. I hate them and the dreams and I miss her and if I can’t have her back then I just want a big day of nothing.
Before dinner my brother Paul is smoking on the porch in the purple chair. He knows I hate smoking but he does it anyway. I watch him from just outside the screen door. I hate his smoking and the creepy music he plays. It’s like the music the older boys at my school listen to, the ones who paint their fingernails black and hang out in clumps near the walking tunnel under the busy street nearby. The smell of the smoke on Paul’s fingers makes my stomach curl up into itself. Doesn’t he realize?
I go inside to set the table. Get the placemats, fill the glasses. Beer for Dad, juice for me, water for Paul and Mom. We all sit down at the table and Mom closes her eyes and says something we can’t hear to people we can’t see while Dad starts passing around potatoes and green beans. He “hmmphs” his throat and says that we can have the party at a bowling alley this year if I want, that he can make all the phone calls and set it all up.
No party no party no party no party. It’s in my head like the techno music Paul listened to before the creepy songs. No party no party please please no party.
Dad’s mouth is still moving but my brain isn’t letting his words in. Please please no party please no party no party please. I can see past his glasses to his red eyes, how his hand shakes when he lifts his fork and I want to Make an Effort like he asks us all to do. Make an Effort he says and it will start to be better but I try every time in the dream when I put on the blood boots, every time I make an effort and it never helps the dreams get better or make me miss her any less and I can’t Make an Effort right now.
Sometimes when she knows I’m sad, Mom comes to hold me and stroke my hair while she sings to the dead people. I can’t feel them the way she can. I don’t like it, her singing to the dead people, like the people are stuck waiting for the bus or at the dentist’s office. I know they aren’t stuck. They’re gone. There’s nothing special about it. We were together our whole lives. In matching pajamas across the table from each other, making stories in the mashed potatoes Mom put on our plates. Playing Zookeepers with Paul. She was always the wolf pack and I kept trying different animals because none of them felt perfect. Or singing the Long Song together in the car when we’d drive ten hours to Grandma’s, and how first Dad would be singing, and then angry, and then laughing. I want to tell Mom that I felt it when she stopped.
There wasn’t anything else. She just crumpled and stopped.
Why does my brother like the smell of smoke on his fingers? One day I asked him when I was mad at him. He told me that he was finding beauty and pleasure in loss. He says things like that now, things I don’t understand, but it feels to me like he’s just making up reasons and doesn’t really know anything. I threw away his cigarettes once and he yelled at me. Dad yelled at him about the smoking too, but now that Paul breathes smoke, Dad’s dragon doesn’t scare him like it used to.
What I wish is that Paul would play with me like he used to when we would play together all three of us. He didn’t like all our games but he would try. And sometimes he’d walk with us to the ice cream stand down the street. I’d always get blue moon and she’d get vanilla even though she wanted blue moon too, but she didn’t want to copy and so I’d let her have some of mine. She let me order first because she was born first. Only by two minutes, but she liked to be the older one. She’d bite the ice cream fast, down near the base of the cone so her whole face was right in my ice cream. She always hurt her teeth and got blue ice cream on her nose. It made me want to kiss her nose to get the ice cream off, but I knew she’d call me mushy and so I let Paul wipe it off with a napkin.
Sometimes I don’t have the boots dream. But those are the nights when I remember what happened for real. It plays like a movie I can’t stop. I’m sitting on the porch with the red photo book, reading the pictures to Sammy. In real life, I told the pictures to Sammy every weekend in the morning after Dad made us turn off the TV. Sammy smiles and wags his tail. We are at the page in the red book with the lovey pictures of Mom and Dad. Each time Sammy and I look at the pictures, I make up a new story to tell him, about what Mom and Dad did before those pictures happened and us kids were born. While Sammy and I read on the porch, she’s across the street playing with boys. The boys kick the ball across the street and she runs after it. She spins her head back to yell something, laughing with her frizzy hair flapping. My hair is straight and long and stays in its clip but hers is always flying around. Then the neighbor’s big car backs up too fast and knocks her down and she crumples.
I see the red lights in the back of the car flash fast, but it’s too late and I see her legs squished by the big tires. I see the red come up out of her boots and start to glide down the neighbor’s driveway. The screams start, then there’s running and banging doors. People gather all around, waving their arms, covering their eyes, crying and crying. Sammy gets loose and rushes around, barking over and over. He goes up to her and sniffs and then licks the blood. Just a little lick but after that I couldn’t play with Sammy anymore and Dad eventually sent him away to our cousin’s house in Montana.
At the dinner table, Dad has stopped talking. He’s waiting for me to say something. The techno in my head hasn’t stopped no party no party and then suddenly I’m saying it: “No party please no party please please please. Please please please I hate it no party please I don’t want to remember and pretend please no party no party no party.” It’s tumbling out, dripping from my my mouth and landing on the plates and spoons. Everyone stares at me. I lay my head on the table. My empty plate is cool on my face. Dad is looking at the floor. Mom’s mouth is moving. Paul is watching me. He’s so still. His face is so white.
I sit up and sniff. I’m pulling all the sadness up into my sinuses so I can swallow it. Paul reaches for my hand. I don’t mind his smoke stink because it feels so nice to hold hands. It’s been so long since we did that. Plus I’m stuffed up and can’t smell much right now. Everyone is quiet. My snuffles fill me and fill the silence up too.
“Please. I don’t want a party this year,” I say. “Everyone knows and I don’t want to pretend. Please don’t make me pretend.” I think about telling about the blood boots but I don’t. Dad looks angry, then sad, then both looks pile up on his face. Mom’s lips are moving but then she stops and it’s quiet and I’m waiting for someone, maybe the dragon, but nothing happens but sniffles.
Paul gets up and reaches for my hand. He leads me out to the porch. It’s cool outside, and windy, the sort of wind that feels like it could blow everything away. The sun is going down but the sky is still light. Mom and Dad stay inside, with a big quiet sitting over them like a balloon. Paul takes my other hand and we sit together on the porch steps, holding hands and looking at the street. It feels like Paul and I are a circle that’s too small but at least it’s a full circle with no cracks in it.
He says: “You and I can go get milkshakes for your birthday instead. Just us, okay? No party.”
We’re still holding hands and I’m looking up at him.
“Okay. Can you leave the cigarettes at home?”
“Please? As a present?”
The big pine tree we used to play under waggles in the wind. The branches dangle over the porch and Paul’s face goes shadowy, then light, then shadowy again.
“Will Mom and Dad come, too?”
“I don’t know. Let’s wait and see.”
He picks me up and sets me in the chair and then sits on the arm. I can see the neighbor’s driveway, one part where the pavement is too dark. A car goes by. Then another. The sky is pink and purple like a bruise.
Ty Phelps is a writer, teacher, and musician from Madison, WI. He won The Gravity of the Thing’s 2016 Six Word Story Contest, and his work has appeared in Writespace’s In Medias Res, the IPRC’s 1001 Journal, and in the Arq Press anthology, Route. He likes to drink coffee and play drums.