By Faye Brinsmead
Somewhere in the world, my brother is eating his dinner standing up. The plate of sausages and mash is perched on top of the bookcase. A book is propped against the wall. It could be Squeakonomics: A Rodent Explores the Behind-the-Cupboard Side of Everything. Or, Hedgemon: Privet’s Plan to Dominate Your Suburb, Then the World. He gets his books from the same places he gets his clothes: dumpsters, thrift stores, those sidewalk tables with the hand-lettered sign saying “Take Me”.
Slowly he chews the words, the greasy meat, the blue-tinged potato. He will never forget this composite repast: a single syllable of gristle, a single morsel of meaning.
When the plate is empty, he closes the book, lowers his shaggy head and licks the red skid marks of tomato sauce. Taking a used toothpick from his shirt pocket, he fossicks between his incisors, staring at the wall. My guess is that he’s shelving the new information in the spiral library compressed inside his skull. It’s terrifyingly orderly in there. Everything else is bedlam.
I try to locate him somewhere along the New York-London-Paris-Tokyo axis. But he floats away from my balloon-headed pins. He always was evasive as an octopus. Except for that one time. Its shrapnel is buried deep in layers of quivering memory tissue, never to be dislodged.
Night after night, I chase him in dreams. Wearing a tiny red hat, he perches on a penny-farthing. After an initial speed-rush, my roller-skates melt into the pavement. In a Pink Panther wetsuit, he wind-surfs waves. I whoosh down in an aqua-plane which becomes an inflatable child’s toy. Candy-colored absurdity, but I wake up with my pillow-side eye puddled in tears.
Of course I knew he was sensitive. The bullying began even before he started school. Other people’s mongrels barked him into corners. Cats popped out of alleys to hiss and spit; squirrels flung acorns. He took it all with unending gentleness. By the time the playground tormentors got to him, he was already an adroit vanisher.
It wasn’t so easy to evade the five of us. He shared a bedroom with the other two boys until the day he left. We were quick to sniff out each new escape hatch, unriddle his mazes, stomp his burrows. We tracked our shadowy, wordless older brother like a squadron of drones. Each time we struck, he put his hands above his head and submitted to our impertinences, or worse. Seven feet three inches of meekness.
He’s in a turquoise hot air balloon, drifting over Spain’s Desierto de Tabernas. I singe the sky in a spitfire, so close I can see his crooked teeth glinting. Something slices off my propeller and I spiral towards spiky mocha massifs.
It was my 17th birthday. He was still living at home, derided by the rest of us for his want of ambition, his filthy one-third of a bedroom. Like other families of eight, we went in for home-made entertainments. My father had a filing cabinet of black-and-white films. I asked for roast chicken and vegetables, chocolate cake, and The Circus. I’d seen it scores of times before. Swing, little girl, swing high in the sky, And don’t ever look at the ground. Occasion-appropriate, I felt. In the ring of adult life, I wouldn’t miss a single hoop. I blew out the candles in one fell swoop.
At the far end of the table, he sat hunched over his cake like a jackal bolting antelope remains. We thought he never joined in the banter because he was a wet Catherine-wheel, no fizz in him. Now, I see him as our conscience. Silently, he pulled barbs from the victims of our jokes.
Mid-way through the little tramp’s disastrous Professor Bosco act, a shadow fell on my foot. It was his hand, turning the doorknob.
Later, though, he waylaid me on the stairs. Happy Birthday, Sis, he whispered. In sliced-up lamplight, I unwrapped a porcelain Mrs Potts. I hadn’t watched Beauty and the Beast since I was six. Her spout was chipped. Her hard-boiled egg eyes, staring up, looked so like his, staring down, that I giggled. He fled up the stairs.
Come back! I love it! I called.
In the morning, he was gone.
Come back! I call, running through the train that goes on forever. He’s becoming a stick figure, faint pencil lines smudging the far distance.
I didn’t mean to —
But even the echo of my voice will never reach him.
Faye Brinsmead spent much of her childhood in Michigan and now lives in Australia. Her work has appeared in formercactus, Twist in Time Literary Magazine and Reflex Fiction, among others. Say hi on Twitter @theslithytoves.