Fiction, Vol. 3.4, Dec. 2009
Elijah woke to the sound of eggshells cracking. Blinking and wiping the corners of his mouth, he stumbled out of bed and made his way slowly in the direction of the kitchen. Pale morning light filtered into the yellow room and a Dylan song he couldn’t place warbled softly from a small tape deck on the counter. Anne poured the now-whisked eggs into a large skillet, swaying to the melody as she did so. The counter was covered in broken eggs shells and flour, a pile of steaming waffles on the table in the middle of the room, and bacon hissing on the stovetop. She wore nothing but an oversized T-shirt and panties, exposing her thin, unshaven legs. Her tangled hair danced around her waist as she hopped back and forth between tending to the eggs and brewing a pot of coffee in her French press. Elijah watched her for about a minute in silence before clearing his throat. She jumped at the sound, spilling bacon grease onto the tile floor.
“Godammit, Elijah!” she shouted, jumping backwards to dodge the spray.
“Hey, Sis,” he replied with a grin as he entered the room with his hands in his pockets; he had fallen asleep in the previous day’s clothing. She set the frying pan on the counter and gave him a cross look, but it evaporated in seconds. She was never able to stay angry at her brother for long, even when they were children and he would blow out the candles on her birthday cake out of sheer excitement or finger-paint on top of the sketches she had labored over carefully for hours until the girl’s dress was the perfect shade of blue.
“Bacon?” she asked, eyebrow raised.
“Yes, please,” he said, taking a seat at the small kitchen table. She placed two of the waffles from the stack in front of him on a white china plate, then added a sizeable amount of bacon, scrambled eggs, and spicy homemade salsa. She drizzled the plate in thick maple syrup, and not the kind Anne always thought tasted like latex that comes in a plastic bottle in the shape of a motherly woman, but real maple syrup in a glass bottle with the small ornamental handle on the top that comes from somewhere up north, preferably Vermont or New Hampshire or somewhere like that. Elijah shoved forkfuls of waffle and egg into his mouth so rapidly that he was halfway finished with his plate before his sister even sat down with her own.
Anne speared a bit of egg with her fork and dipped it in salsa. She stared at it for a moment as if she were trying to read an inscription in its yellow contours, then let her eyes drift to the wall behind her brother as he continued to devour his breakfast.
“How are you feeling?” she asked. She scraped her teeth along the top of the fork as she ate the now room-temperature egg. Bob Dylan filled the empty space in the room as Elijah began to eat his eggs more rapidly.
“Oh, come on, Elijah.” She put down the fork and looked at him now.
“Fine,” Elijah said thickly through a mouthful of food.
“Is that why I found you passed out on my couch when I came home last night?” Anne countered.
Elijah leaned back in his seat, plate empty except for a few crumbs and a glaze of maple syrup. His stomach felt uncomfortably swollen from eating so quickly, and it didn’t help that he had barely consumed anything since he moved in with his sister two weeks ago besides liquor and a few meals here and there that Anne had forced upon him so that he didn’t pass out from exhaustion. Ever since he found Julia in their bedroom, emptied of her blood and cool to the touch, he hadn’t had much of an appetite.
Anne reached across the table and took his hand in hers. His hands felt rough and warm against her cold fingers.
“Destroying yourself isn’t going to bring her back,” she said to him, regretting her words immediately.
“It might,” he said pointlessly, like a small child who argues with his parent for the sake of it.
She traced the shape of his fingernails with her thumb, her chapped lips pursed thoughtfully as she did so. She loved men’s hands, with their heavy weight and thick knuckles and broad, flat fingernails, the way the veins wrap around them like vines around the bough of a tree. She was never attracted to a man unless he had hands so well-made and dexterous that she was certain they could snap her forearm like a twig if necessary. Her brother had these kinds of hands.
“Coffee?” she enquired.
“Yeah, that would be nice, actually,” he said. Anne retrieved two small blue teacups from the cupboard above the stove and filled them with rich, pungent dark roast from her French press. She handed Elijah his cup of coffee, black as he always took it, and then added two sugar cubes and a liberal amount of cream to her own.
Elijah sipped his coffee slowly, letting the bitter taste coat his entire mouth.
“I haven’t been dreaming,” he said abruptly.
“Dreaming?” said Anne.
“Ever since that day, every night has just been empty,” he replied. “No thoughts, no images. Just darkness.” He released a sugar cube into his half-empty teacup and it landed with a plop, spattering a few drops of coffee onto the table.
“Never,” he said with a sigh. “I know it probably seems ridiculous, but I can’t stand it anymore. At least if I had nightmares about it I would be feeling something. I would see her face…” He pushed his cup away. “I think I’m going to go out for a while.” Wooden chair legs scraped against the tile floor.
“Are you going to be out all night again?” Anne asked. Fine lines were present on Anne’s forehead, and for a moment Elijah felt a stab of guilt for all that he was putting his sister through. Still, he barely had the energy to keep himself functioning at the most basic level, much less try to clean up the messes he was making for her. He responded with a dismissive wave of his hand and drifted out the back door.
It hardly seemed justified to question her brother’s actions when he was in such a state. The tape had reached its conclusion by this point so Anne cleared the table in silence except for the rhythmic ticking of the clock above the stove. The broken eggshells and spilled flour made their way into the trashcan, and the kitchen table was left damp and smelling of acrid lemon-scented cleaner.
Pack of cigarettes in hand, Anne followed her brother’s footsteps out the back door. It was an Indian summer, one of those rare days after the first frost when the temperature peaks above seventy. She could have convinced herself it was May were it not for the scent of decaying leaves that pervaded the air. Anne placed a cigarette between her lips and lit the tip with a quick flick of the lighter. Her father had chastised her when he saw her smoking for the first time, telling her that it was a low-class habit to have nowadays, which she found a little more than hypocritical considering he had smoked from age fourteen until the day he had found out his wife was pregnant with Elijah. Anne only smoked when she was anxious or upset, which was somewhat of an inconvenience because the residual scent of stale smoke in her hair always gave away her emotions, and she was a rather private person. Thus, between the judgments of her father and the desire to conceal her state of mind, she tended to only smoke alone.
Days like today always made Anne long for summer―rich, heavy summer filled with humid afternoons and freckled skin and fucking. Everything about her was softer then; now she was harsh and defined, receding into herself as a result of her own inescapable density. She always said that autumn reminded her too much of herself, that she got lost in it because she couldn’t tell where it ended and she began, that it made her feel too “saturated.” She hardly had time to worry about that, however, what with Julia’s accident and Elijah moving in.
Anne flicked the end of her cigarette absentmindedly. The look on Elijah’s face when he showed up on her doorstep two weeks ago was beyond harrowing. He seemed so small and wilted as he stood there on her doormat, his face chalk-pale as if he, too, had suffered from a loss of blood. There had been a small smudge of Julia’s blood crusted on the cuff of his shirt which she tried, but failed, not to stare at. She made Elijah a cup of hot tea which he barely touched and had the paramedics sent over to the house to remove the remains of her brother’s wife. Julia’s parents took care of identifying the body and the funeral arrangements. God knows she wouldn’t have wanted to be the one to pick out the underwear Julia was going to be buried in or what color silk lining goes best with pine wood.
She had been worried that something like this might happen. When Julia had begun refusing to take her medication, Anne had warned Elijah that maybe he couldn’t handle all of this by himself. But Elijah insisted that everything was fine, that keeping their lives stable was the best thing for Julia. And besides, he said, he knew ten times more about Julia and her condition so he really didn’t see why Anne needed to give her two cents about something she knew nothing about, anyway. He got enough of that from Julia’s parents, he said. So when Julia stopped taking her medication entirely, Anne stayed quiet. And when Elijah called her and confessed that it had been almost a week since Julia had eaten anything substantial, she told him it was probably just a phase. And when she found out that Elijah could barely get any sleep because Julia would stay up until all hours of the night chattering to herself, she told him to buy earplugs. And when she noticed the enflamed marks on the underside of Julia’s forearm, she just nodded and smiled and said that she, too, often got badly scratched when she took her cat to the vet.
Elijah was convinced that it wasn’t a suicide. “She would never do that,” he shouted when he heard the official autopsy report. Half of Anne’s wine glasses met their end when that report was filed. She acknowledged that it was possible that Julia’s hand could have slipped when she was carving up her arm. There was, in fact, no real evidence to prove that this wasn’t the case. It was certainly possible that in her manic state Julia had completely lost all awareness of the knife in her hand and hadn’t intended to thrust that last quarter of an inch. But in Anne’s eyes, at this point it didn’t make much of a difference. All it meant was that she would have to drive ten minutes to the cemetery by the golf course instead of being able to walk the two minutes it took to get to the Catholic church down the road.
Anne’s cigarette began to burn the tips of her fingers, and she dropped it in the dirt with a start. She noticed that the wind had picked up, and she wrapped her arms around her body as the cool air started to leak through her thin T-shirt. The clouds released their first drops of rain, which along with the rising temperature would trick more than a few plants into prematurely poking their heads through the layer of rotten leaves. Anne kicked some leaves over the smoldering end of her cigarette and after one last deep breath of warm, humid air, stepped back inside.
Elijah didn’t bow his head as large, intermittent raindrops splashed the bridge of his nose and left dark splotches down the front of his shirt. He hadn’t anticipated the unseasonably warm weather and his back felt damp under the heavy flannel. The wind blew hard in his direction, drying the sweat which had begun to gather on his brow and upper lip. As he walked his tongue dislodged a sharp piece of kernel from between his teeth; he didn’t remember eating popcorn anytime recently. There must have been some at the bar last night. He spit the kernel on the sidewalk. The air was heavy with the metallic scent of rain, and the birds that had been conversing brightly when he left his sister’s house had fallen silent in expectation of the storm.
Elijah was following a narrow gravel alleyway that snaked through the middle of two blocks of residential housing about half an hour’s walk from Anne’s house. Backyards bordered him on both sides, neat grassy squares filled with swing sets and overgrown flower gardens and golden retrievers plump from years of eating table scraps. As Elijah shuffled down the weed-choked path a piece of gravel found its way into the arch of his shoe. He swore loudly and kicked the pole of a nearby chain-link fence. The rock only moved further down into the toe of his shoe. Elijah grabbed the fence with his right hand for balance and tugged the shoe off his foot, releasing the rock into the grass. He hadn’t even been planning on walking into town, but when he got close to the bus stop he had seen Julia’s cousin sitting on the bench. He couldn’t have handled the pitying glance when he, three days unshowered and still in yesterday’s clothing, walked up to the bus stop, only to be followed by a soft “How are you doing?” paired with wide, apologetic eyes and the hug that lasted a few seconds too long in order to express an appropriate level of empathy.
The wake had been unbearable. Dozens of vaguely familiar family members, friends, and coworkers wandering up to him, playing with the rings on their fingers or crossing and uncrossing their arms as the words “tragedy” and “wonderful person” and “I’m just so sorry” spilled out of their mouths as Elijah stared out the window and watched a Volkswagen get towed from the lot across the street. Even though he made a point of standing in a place where the coffin was out of his line of sight, he could still feel it like a wall of energy radiating toward him from the far corner of the room. He would have requested a closed casket, but Julia’s parents had taken on the responsibility of handling the funeral. Open caskets turned wakes into freak shows where people who barely knew the deceased could come in and stare at the wax-like remains of a body desperately persevered with chemicals so that someone, somewhere could have that last moment of closure. It made Elijah sick to look at her like that, her face barely recognizable under so much make-up and lacking muscular tension.
Anne had stood next to him during the wake, looking delicate in a knee-length dress of black lace and chiffon, her hand holding his firmly as the somber faces drifted by and placed their choice words in front of him. She barely left his side throughout the entire first week, in fact, except for when one of them had to go to the bathroom. It was as if she thought that if she left him alone for more than the time it took to finish a cigarette he might vanish as Julia had. At first her constant presence had been a comfort, and even her sorry attempts at conversation had been a welcome break from his circling thoughts. But as days turned into weeks he began to realize the guilt which was being masked behind the endless favors and her ever-present smile, and he wanted nothing to do with that. The last thing he needed was to have to step around someone else’s misplaced emotions.
Shoes now cleared of gravel, Elijah resumed his slow pace down the alley. Two squirrels fought in a nearby maple tree, their hisses and growls breaking the otherwise complete silence of the afternoon. The branches reaching out from the north side of the maple had been bluntly chopped off where they were encroaching on the power line which ran down the length of the alleyway; their circular white stumps seemed to glow in the overcast light. Sawdust mixed with gravel under the amputated tree. An above-ground pool was situated across the lawn, its thick vinyl covering weighed down by a layer of dead leaves and rainwater which had begun to pool on top of it. The last time Elijah had been swimming was with Julia five years ago, before they had even been living together. At the beginning of what in hindsight Elijah recognized as one of Julia’s manic states, Julia had convinced him that it would be a good idea to break into the country club down the road from her parents’ house and go swimming.
Julia’s parents were vacationing for the month at their Victorian summerhouse in Cape May, so Elijah and Julia parked Julia’s Jeep in her parents’ driveway and made the ten-minute walk down the winding, paved road to the edge of the country club golf course. Elijah remembered how Julia pulled her thick chestnut hair into a ponytail, the back of her neck milky-white from lack of sun. She was wearing cut-off jean shorts, a T-shirt from a music festival they had gone to in June, and Birkenstock sandals that thudded with every step she took against the worn pavement. The setting sun blazed orange across the golf course, turning the ponds into mottled gold and sending long, dark shadows of trees across the closely shorn grass. Elijah always wondered how they managed to get the grass so green. The air was heavy and thick with the smell of pine sap. Julia took off across the field, her ponytail bobbing as she ran. After a moment of hesitation he followed her; Elijah always felt comical now when he ran. Even though he played soccer in high school he could no longer find the right rhythm for his footsteps or how to properly hold his arms. Running made him feel old.
When he reached Julia she was peering through the bars of the wrought-iron fence that enclosed the pool, a wide smile on her face.
“Help me over,” she whispered. She placed her foot in the cup he had made with his hands and pushed off until her fingers made contact with the highest iron bar. She swung one leg quickly over the fence, hoisted the rest of her body to the other side, and dropped quietly to the ground.
“You’re like a kid,” Elijah said with a small grin. He grasped the fence and managed after a few clumsy moments to land with a thud on the textured concrete of the pool deck. The water looked as flat and smooth as a sheet of glass. Elijah suddenly realized that after walking all the way there, he hadn’t brought anything to swim in.
“I don’t have anything to wear,” he said to Julia. She rolled her eyes.
“You’re funny,” she said, and pulled her T-shirt over her head.
“What if someone finds us?” Elijah asked.
“Do you really think it’ll make a difference if we’re wearing underwear or not?” Julia said. His clothes lay in a pile by her feet, which were still clad in her leather sandals. Elijah felt a deep pang in his gut at the sight of her breasts hanging heavy and pale in the weak light of the moon. Elijah was never able to shake the excitement of seeing her in full, like a teenage boy peeling open a centerfold for the first time.
He stripped quickly, barely paying attention to where he tossed his clothes. He lowered himself into the pool slowly; the water was dark and freezing cold against his exposed skin, but the sight of Julia floating on the surface of the water made him keep going. He trudged, shivering, over to her, and she let out a tinkling laugh into the still night air. He grabbed her around the waist and pulled her towards him, but her skin was so slippery she managed to teasingly escape his grasp. He lunged at her, arms flailing, and with a girlish shriek she grabbed hold of her nose and ducked underneath the surface of the water. He felt for her blindly in the darkness until she popped out several feel behind him. They continued this game for an hour, Elijah groping in the water until Julia finally returned to him.
One of the squirrels landed on the fence enclosing the yard, bringing Elijah back. He realized that he had been gripping the top of the fence; red indentations were left where the metal dug into his skin. Elijah’s curls hung heavy with rainwater and his socks were soggy and bunched around his ankles. He shivered despite the humid air, shaking a few droplets of water into his eyes. Cars drove slowly by him as he ventured out of the residential neighborhood, their tires slopping dirty water onto the curb. He walked into the first building he saw with neon signs in the window, the stale smell of cigarette smoke leaking out the door as he walked in. He pulled a leather billfold out of his back pocket and placed a wet five dollar bill on the bar, which was sticky with spilled beer. Elijah glanced around to make sure that he didn’t recognize anyone else in the room, but it was completely empty except for a man in a sweat-stained baseball cap at the far end of the bar who had five empty beer bottles next to him and a sixth one in his hand.
“What’ll it be?” asked a gruff voice. Elijah turned his gaze away from the man in the baseball cap and faced the bartender, a thin, unshaven man in his mid-thirties. He wore a small gold cross on a chain around his neck and the top two buttons of his shirt were unfastened, exposing his blond chest hair.
“Jameson,” replied Elijah. He looked down at his hands resting on the bar as the bartender filled a glass with an ample amount of whiskey. The gold ring glinted back at him in the dim light of the room. He held his hand in front of his face for a moment, his eyes fixed on the ring.
The full glass hit the wooden bar with a thud. The bartender began to walk into the back room, ignoring Elijah as he stared at his hand.
“Hey, wait a minute,” Elijah called out. The bartender turned around and looked at him. Elijah pulled the gold band off his finger and held it out to the bartender.
“Could you get rid of this for me?” he asked. “I don’t care what you do with it.” The bartender took the ring from Elijah and without even a glance, dropped it into his breast pocket before disappearing into the back. Elijah finished his whiskey in two gulps, then reached into his back pocket and pulled out a damp twenty dollar bill and placed it on the counter.
With heavy lids, Anne glanced at the clock on the mantle in her living room. It read 2:14 A.M. She let the copy of Portnoy’s Complaint she had been reading fall from her hands onto the couch beside her. As she went to stand up her foot brushed a half-full glass of wine and burgundy liquid poured across the carpet. She swore loudly. Why bother to wait up for him in the first place? Anne picked up the fallen glass and headed to the kitchen for a dishrag, but at that moment she paused at the sound of heavy footsteps on the porch and the jingle of someone fumbling for their keys. She waited in anticipation for the door to open.
He was visibly drunk. Anne had stopped hoping this wouldn’t be the case when he didn’t show up for dinner that night. Elijah stared blankly at the keys in his hand as if he was trying to decide where to place them, but he never had to because they slipped through his fingers onto the freshly stained carpet. Anne felt the urge to pick them up, but something in Elijah’s expression kept her from moving. His glassy eyes drifted from his empty hand to hers, her fingers looped around the stem of a wine glass which she was holding upside down so that the last few drops of wine slid down the curved bell of the glass and onto the floor. Anne shifted her weight self-consciously.
She had never changed her clothing from that morning, and Elijah could see the outline of her small breasts through the thin cloth of her shirt. She looked so small standing there in her oversized T-shirt, nothing like Julia with her full curves and stretch marks. Anne’s skin was soft and warm in the yellow light of the single lamp which illuminated the room, and he was overcome with the urge to touch her. He took an unsteady step forward, his hand outstretched.
“What are you doing?” she asked, looking at him with a wary eye. He stopped walking, but his hand remained raised awkwardly in the air. He parted his wet lips as if to speak, but instead moved wordlessly forward and grabbed her wrist. She dropped the wine glass and it landed with a soft thump on the carpet.
“Elijah!” she exclaimed, her eyes widening. She was wide awake now. “Let go of me,” she proclaimed sternly, like trying to get a disobedient child to sit still.
“Hey, Sis,” he slurred. A smile flashed stupidly across his face, but was just as quickly replaced with a somber look. Her wrist still held snugly in his hand, he reached for her hair and began to stroke it gently, as if in his drunkenness he had mistaken her for a cat. She smacked his hand away.
“Elijah, please,” she moaned. “You’re starting to scare me.” She tugged hard with the arm he was holding. The swift action made him lose his balance, and when he pulled back he did so with such force that she was thrust against his chest. He stumbled backwards slightly, his legs making blunt contact with the edge of the coffee table. Anne began to step away but he pressed her tightly to his body, and she could feel him hard through his jeans.
“You’re so beautiful,” he mumbled, almost as if he were talking to himself. He had let go of her wrist but she didn’t dare to move. The side of her face was pressed roughly against his chest, forcing her mouth open. The air tasted of whiskey and tobacco. His flannel shirt was soft against her ear, and she could hear his heart thudding rhythmic and slow beneath it. Pushed against him, she could feel her own heart beating fast with adrenaline. Her breath was shallow and brief. His hand clumsily found the small of her back and the tiny hairs on her arms and the back of her neck rose at the rough contact of his fingertips. “Pretty little Anne,” he whispered, his voice slightly muffled as he buried his lips in her dark hair. He began to kiss the crown of her head, swaying a little as he followed the part of her hair. He paused when he reached the top of her forehead and she could feel the smooth, wet flesh of the inside of his lower lip against her skin as he pressed his open mouth against her, contrasting sharply with his scratchy, unshaven jaw.
He let his hand drop to her side and slipped it underneath the edge of her shirt. She inhaled audibly, then instantly shut her mouth. Her back arched slightly as she tensed her ribcage. His fingers felt the smooth notches of her lower spine and the rise and fall of his chest grew more pronounced. He moved slowly down her back until the edge of his hand grazed the top of her underwear. This time she jumped at his touch, and the friction with his body made her blood rush and static flood her eyes. He immediately took his hand out from under her shirt. Separated but still touching, they stood in stunned silence. A car drove by the house, its headlights arching through the space between the curtains. When the grinding sound of tires on wet pavement fell out of range, Elijah let out a strange, guttural moan that at first sounded to Anne as if he were starting to sing. Anne leaned slackly against her brother as his warm, fermented breath moistened her forehead until finally she willed herself to wrap her arms around his thin frame and placed her hand on the back of his head. He leaned his weight against her and buried his face in the crook of her neck. “Oh God,” he cried, “Oh my God.” He kept saying this over and over as he shook within her embrace and dampened her neck.
Half an hour later, Anne dipped her cool fingertips into the bath she had drawn to test its temperature. Elijah leaned half-conscious against the tub beside her, his vomit still floating on the surface of the toilet water. He watched her with half-open but clear eyes as she unbuttoned his flannel shirt and removed his jeans and underwear. She folded the clothes neatly on top of the wicker hamper beside the bathroom door and then helped her brother as he rose unsteadily to his feet. Cold night air leaked in through the window which Anne had cracked open during the afternoon, causing Elijah to shiver so violently that she could hear his teeth clacking together in the silence. Anne placed a hand on his bare hip to steady him as he dipped his left foot into the steaming bathwater. She heard a sharp intake of breath as the scalding water shocked his toes, but after a moment he submerged the foot and eased the rest of his body under the surface until only his head remained above the water. Anne remained quietly by Elijah’s side until the water turned tepid and he was unable to keep his eyes open any longer, then wrapped his dripping body in a thin towel and helped him into the guest bedroom. The cup of tea she had prepared for him had already turned cold, but she knew he wouldn’t have drunk it anyway. Elijah fell heavily into bed, his mind gone before Anne was even able to place the blanket over his body. She tucked the corners of the blanket gently underneath him in some small attempt at protection but she knew it was a wasted act, like sterilizing the arm of the convicted before the injection of potassium chloride stops his heart.