The soccer ball tumbles to a stop about two or so feet away from my checkered sneakers. Less than a minute later, on cue, a gangly five-year-old boy comes around the bend, red-faced and smelling of sticky sweat and tire exhaust. He flashes me a rabbit-tooth-like grin, crooked and wild. My lips don’t twitch upwards in the slightest.
“Aw, come on Laurie. Play with me...!” His pleading eyes glance up at me. Blue, I think again. The odd one out of the family. My dad, green as the grass; my mother, the same dark brown as the eyes of her grandfather, and generations before that; and me, green as well.
“No.” I toe a groove into the haphazard piles of sand that’d escaped from the vicinity of the playground. One line, a ditch, going on and on and on.
“Why not...? Pleaseee?” For a brief moment, I am glad to be reminded of the fact that above anything else, my brother’s ability to incessantly whine until he met his goals always came out unscathed no matter what the situation. But that thought doesn’t last long; it never does.
I suddenly hear a groan close by. A familiar one that seemed to always hold the promise of incoming vomit, accompanied by uncoordinated shuffling and a clink against metal wire that I know isn’t a normal sound that a puff of wind can make to a chain fence. My blood chills, then relaxes. Then tenses again. Something that’s familiar isn’t always a good thing; I know that better than anyone. My brother’s blue, blue-as-the-sky eyes widen as he rounds the mahogany-colored brick wall that shielded the preschool playground area away from the rest of the school yard. Even from a distance of about thirty feet, I can see his distinctive figure, and my blood begins to boil with a quiet, cool rage.
He is drunk again. He leans against the wall as support, because he had no strength to stand alone, much less enough to wave to his kids like a normal parent would. He smiles a sleepy grin, but it instantly shifts into a snarl; the demons only he could see are acting up again.
By definition, they were nasty as hell. They made my father slam his fists against the dinner table no matter how many of my mother’s precious porcelain dishes from their honeymoon in Hong Kong were set on top, gulp down shot after shot, bottle after bottle of drinks that all went far over the alcohol percentage level that delicate wine for special occasions contained, and rage around the cramped living room with an uncanny level of alertness so that no one could pass through without falling victim to his fight against any human presence he could sense nearby. By definition, this kind of disease tells you all the physical symptoms, the mental side-effects. The internet never fails to leave out anything important.
But what they don’t tell you is the humiliation and dying flame of hope for everyone in the vicinity that one day, something will change.
Sometimes I couldn’t care less about the words he throws at me whenever I pass by his sorry existence. But this time, it was a public show for everyone to see.
“God damn it, where’s the beer the damned bartender promised? It‘sss just bull how no good h-h-h-hard-working man can’t get what he paid f-f-f-for…!” His mouth foams at the edges; I can see it even at this vantage point. The other preschoolers in my brother’s class stare agape-faced. Do I shield their visions from that wretched human I call my father? Do I stand up and be the hero of the day, indicative of the big, caring sister I’m supposed to be?
I do neither; I prove my worth just like that, standing there behind Dean, rather than in front. The bottom of my lip cracks when I bite down hard on the skin; I taste blood, iron and real. I often wish that these are the only repercussions I get; but this time, it’s not just me who gets forcibly handed a new film roll of a corrupted memory.
The obscenities my father screams in gargled words, infused with aimless hatred and bitterness, must be marked in each and every one of my brother’s classmates, all young and innocent for now. One day, they’ll take joy in passing around damn, fuck, and other comparable words starting with every other letter of the alphabet that all speak of nothing pleasant to everyone around them like M&Ms, imbued with the same colorfulness and triviality. They don’t know in their hearts how much those words can stroke the flames of an already boiling stew of conflict, festering and ready to erupt.
“Call the teacher, Timmy! He’s scary.” A boy runs through the woodchips and across the pavement into the building, where inevitably he’ll cry for Ms. Frendt to come save them from the straggly-looking man with a stained dress shirt and a skinny bottle of beer in his hand. Just as inevitably, Ms. Frendt will reply calmly that it is Dean and Laurel’s father and it’s just that his personality is loud and booming, a boisterous one. My father is good at hiding the most telltale evidence from those who actually have power. Timmy will tug and tug on Ms. Frendt’s floral shirt sleeve until she finally acquiesces to walking outside to do her teacherly duty.
My father begins to stumble forward amongst the rubble of woodchips and pine needles around him. He shakes the bottle in his hand, holds it up to eye-level, shakes it again. Out of gas; it must almost be time to leave the scene, I muse. When he shifts his green eyes back and forth, undoubtedly searching for that “god-damned” bartender, bless his soul and pity his place in life, I suck in my breath. The blood taste is stronger than ever; I run my tongue over the crack for another confirmation that everything I see here, now and forever, is reality. He starts to shuffle sideways back around the bend.
Seconds before I glimpse an equally as bright and flowery skirt through the glass school building doors, my father has gone. My breath releases in a visible puff of air.
“Laurie…?” Dean looks at me with that same pleading expression as when he was begging me to play soccer. Suddenly, I can’t see straight. Blue eyes become forest, green as my own. Chubby, baby-soft cheeked face becomes a rough, unshaven one. I am fueled by the dying flame because if I can’t use it to spark a change in my own world, I’ll use it to make myself feel something, anything that proves that I have some sort of power that is mine and mine alone.
My own voice echoes with something inexplicably ugly, something that absolutely shouldn’t have escaped my lips; Dean’s head sails diagonally through the air and hits first against the metal pole of the swing set as the pure force of my hand pushes his entire spindly body backwards.
Ms. Frendt shrieks. I sense my own cry of horror bubbling up my throat, but I instinctively swallow it. As do the tears that begin to trickle down my pock-marked face; they taste salty and of guilt.
It doesn’t make a difference how long I sit crouched next to my brother’s immobile form, how closely I cradle his bleeding head in my arms with the only visible sign of emotion I can muster: self-hate. The damage is done, and the flame of hope for me that, not just that my reality can be edited into something more akin to a fairytale, but that I can be more than just a mirror of something disgusting, has died out completely.
In my mind, I’m holding a bulky piece of coal. Dark, chalky, and heavy to carry. My fingers slip easily over its smooth surface, and they come away smeared and dirty from the residue. I imagine setting it on fire; it blows up in flames easily like they did in the tarnished fireplace in my old home, and I’m left facing the ashes. The ashes, I know, are about ten times more radioactive than the unburned coal. Emotions are the same way, once they reach a certain threshold where they begin to drive you rather than the other way around. Once it’s the heart that’s speaking, not irrefutable facts and mind. It’s unreliable, dangerous, and ashes themselves can fly away with the slightest blow of the wind, light as they are. Flee really, as soon as the environment gets tough, and their strength is tested. They’ll land wherever they please; it’s not in my jurisdiction in the slightest.
For that reason alone, I don’t trust it. And as far as I’m concerned, Liam has just set himself on fire.
Confined Connections, Aug 2017 [An excerpt, renamed "Brother"]