This is for the best. I repeat the thought in my head again. For the best. I grip his hand tighter, willing for blood to pump back into his cheeks, but they stay pale and still and ice cold. I almost slip off the edge of the bed when his eyes flutter open. Of course, there’s still time. I force my lips to curve for him; I want to make sure that his last memory is of my smile, even if he knows that it is filled with pain. I don’t expect him to be able to speak anymore, but I wish he would show some sign other than a glossy gaze to acknowledge that he is still here with me.
Maybe this is the reason why Mother couldn’t stay in the room with her son during his final hours. I forgive her now. Maybe I should have left with her. Sam’s pinky finger twitches and I scan his eyes for indication of life. A flicker, a spark, anything. But his eyes maintain their same glossiness, almost just blank with emptiness. Almost. I can still steal glimpses of the blue eyes that were there only a week ago, sparkling with laughter after they saw me fall off a ladder and land in a snow bank, growing large and pleading after they realized that Mother wouldn’t let him stay up an hour longer, and fading out after a long day’s work.
He can’t give me a sign; so instead, I wrap my pinky around his. Maybe this was his sign, a pinky promise. I don’t know what to promise him. I want to tell him that everything will be okay, but a lie is the last thing he will want to hear. Despite myself I laugh, maybe it will be the last thing. I immediately stop. Unbelievable, laughing in front of a dying child. I wish he would frown at me or push me off the bed for laughing, but I receive no reaction.
Fine, be that way. The Mantearia should have just taken him. He’s got a real talent for stubbornness, but they don’t see that as a desirable trait. My brother didn’t have enough desirable traits to be picked. I correct myself, he doesn’t. If I was a boy, they probably wouldn’t have picked me either. His pinky twitches again. Yes, he’s still here. I’m still here. But then his left leg jerks, and his hands whip from mine, and his whole body starts shaking violently.
No, this is it.
I jump away from the bed. There’s nothing I can do. His eyes are still wide open, their blue hue jumping excitedly to and fro, resembling the waves of an ocean during a storm. I shut my eyes, unable to look any more, but still unable to turn from him and leave the room. There is no sound. No gurgling sound from choking on the rising foam in his throat, no squeaks from the springs of the bed as my brother dies.
I open my eyes. He lies still, looking no different than he did a minute ago, except for the white foam around his mouth. His eyes stare at me, and I look at him. I walk over and wrap my pinky finger around his. I lay my other hand on his forehead and bring it down his face, closing his eyes. He doesn’t look as if he is sleeping. He looks dead. His pale blonde hair glows against his white skin. The sun from the window beside his bed beams down on him, lighting his face. It’s unfair that today has been the brightest day of the fall. I secure the link my brother and I have with our fingers. “This is for the best,” I tell him, “now I can promise you that you won’t become a monster like the rest of them.”
So this is what it feels like to lose a brother. The feeling is nothing like the descriptions from books I have read. My heart doesn’t feel hallow like they say. I don’t even cry. I’m not even quite sure if there is still pain left lingering on my smile. So when Annie asks me if I’m okay, I tell her the truth.
She plays with her ring around her finger, unsure whether to comfort me with a hug or to just stay still. “That’s good,” she returns my smile with her own. A breeze catches our hair and entangles itself in them. Annie’s auburn hair seems to ignite the blue sky on fire. Then it stops, and the world is still again. That’s how the feeling is. My brother was just a breeze who came and passed.
I reach for my purse on the bench and take out the bottle of Thyme. I drop a pill into my palm. Annie lays her hand on mine before I can bring it up to my mouth. “You already had one,” she says.
“I know, but it hurts.” I want him back.
Annie nods, “then let it.” Finally, she envelops me in her arms. “Cry, if you want to,” she whispers. But I don’t want to, especially not in the park. I purposely told her to meet me out in the public, so I wouldn’t do anything stupid, like cry for someone who is best dead.
Annie brings her arms down and looks at me. I see something in her eyes, surprise, I think, but what is she surprised about? That I didn’t cry? But why would I? She looks down at my empty palm. The pill doesn’t really take the hurt away, but it makes it bearable. Why would I cry when I feel nothing? She pushes my black hair behind my ears like a mother trying to comfort her child. I push her hands away and look out into the distance.
I see children playing in the snow. A snowball hits a boy and he crashes to the ground, laughing. Another ball hits him. I trace the direction of the origin of the snowballs. An older boy, about my brother’s age, is loaded with them. He will soon die, I think. Just as he was about to throw another snowball, a woman, probably his mother, grabs his arm, stopping it from swinging.
She is angry. The boys’ game of war stops. Good. They shouldn’t have been playing a dangerous game like that.
“Rose, you shouldn’t have done that.” I don’t care. “You know we’re only supposed to take it once a day.”
“No one says that.”
“Don’t.” Annie forces me to turn my head towards her, her hands squishing my cheeks making me feel like a child. “Don’t become like your mother.”
I scoff. “That’s what you’re worried about?” I remove her hands from my face. “Don’t worry, I won’t. I’m stronger than this you know,” I rattle the bottle in front her face, “I’m nothing like her.” Except for today. Today an overdose is okay. I put the bottle back into my purse.
Without it, I might desire something dangerous, like the life of my brother back. I remember the book I just finished reading, Frankenstein. We talked about it in class, we didn’t read the book of course, but Mrs. Lin handed us an excerpt. The classroom livened with excitement that day. It’s rare for us to be able to read anything written before the outbreak of the Sex Disease. In it, a scientist wanted the power to give back life, when he managed to do so, he saw that he had created a monster. Later on, he realized that his creation wasn’t the only monster in the world. All of men were.
Mrs. Lin told us that a woman had written the book in order to warn us about the dangers of men. Mary Shelley was one of the first women in the early 19th century to acknowledge the dangers of men, but no one believed her, so she kept quiet and secretly shared her knowledge through her book. That day, I went down to the underground cabin and searched for her book. Sure enough, it was there.
I’m not quite sure why Annie was expecting me to cry earlier. This is why I needed another pill. It washes away the desires that can kill us, or worse, turn us into monsters. It doesn’t interfere with the small, frivolous desires, like craving for ice-cream, but attacks the strong, wicked ones. Dangerous ones like my wish to let a boy become a man.
“Let’s go,” Annie says, breaking my thoughts, “they should be done by now.” She’s talking about the women who came to take Sam’s body away. My mother and I couldn’t give them the sufficient amount of money for him to be buried, so instead, they will toss him into the giant fire pit made for boys whose family could not afford them a burial, which is mostly everyone. Oh, well.
“I don’t want to go home yet,” I say. Not because the empty presence of my brother will hurt, but because I cannot face my Mother right now. Annie nods, she knows.
She hops up, her long hair bouncing against her waist. We have similar hair: long, straight, and silky, except hers are auburn and mine are pitch black. Everything about us can make you think we’re sisters. Our awkwardly tall height, the shape of our lean body, and our personality. I think this is why we became best friends; we couldn’t find others who thought more alike than us. But if you look at our eyes, it becomes clear that we could not have the same fathers. While my pale skin suggests that I could be of Irish descent like Annie and her mother, my eyes tell otherwise. Annie says that my black hair and eyes make me look intense, like I could stun anyone with my glare.
These features don’t come from my mother, her eyes are brown, her hair brunette. Her body is short and plump. I think the only thing I inherited from her are her long, nimble fingers which can untie a shoelace knot faster than anyone or weave the most delicate designs on baskets and blankets.
I stand next to Annie. An announcement on the large billboard catches my attention. It’s an ad for a newly released make-up that promises to cover up all your blemishes and make your face glow. I laugh at the thought. Then an image of my brother’s blonde hair flashes in my mind. I quickly search for the Thyme bottle again, but Annie grabs my arm and drags me across the park to hail a cab.
“Let’s go shopping,” she says. “I’m in a major need for that new make-up thingy.” We both don’t care much for make-up, but since it’s such an expected thing to wear, we pretend we do. I know she’s trying to help distract me, so I play along.
I let my fingers run through the assortment of lipsticks lined up from pink to red to purple for the third time.
“Miss?” A woman in uniform asks from behind the counter. “Do you need help deciding?” Without my answer she walks over and picks one out. She must have been staring at me for the past ten minutes I’ve been in the same spot, automatically determining the right shade of red for me.
“Oh, thanks.” I take the tube of lipstick from her. “It’s perfect,” I chirp, or else she’ll linger around. Annie rushes over from the perfume section. She has nothing in her hands even though we’ve been in this store for about half an hour and she’s probably seen everything they have on the shelves.
She takes the lipstick from me. “Let’s see,” she reads the label on the cap, “oooh, Rose Red. Wow, that lady’s good, this’ll go with your lips perfectly, Rose.”
“What happened with that new make-up you wanted to try out?”
“Huh? Oh.” She nudges my side with her elbow. “We both know that’s not what we came here for. But,” she waves the lipstick, “this is exactly what you need to brighten up your face. To make you look like an actual Rose instead of –”Annie stops midsentence, but I don’t need her to finish for me to know that she was going to compare my pale skin to the dead.
My fingers unconsciously fiddle with the zipper of my purse. Annie notices and grabs my arm again and wraps it around hers. “Let’s,” she taps her finger against her lips, thinking, “go get something to eat. I’m starving.”
The taxi drops off Annie at her house first. The sky has already darkened and I watch as she enters the front door and the first window lights up. “North of Pivot Street,” I tell the driver. I count the number of lit windows as we pass the houses.
I keep doing this to keep my mind busy. As the numbers fill my head, something else swells inside me. I feel a drop of water on my hand. I quickly wipe my eyes and grab the bottle of Thyme. Three will be the maximum. I pop the pill into my mouth and the swelling stops. There’s still a numbing pain, but the longing is gone. And the longing is the worst part.
“We’re here, Miss.”
“Thank you.” I hand her the money and get out of the car. My house is about half a mile from here, but that’s not where I plan to go. The long street is lit up by the tall lamps. From my perspective, the street is a perfect line slowly narrowing so that I cannot see its end. The houses follow this perfect structure, lined side-by-side while facing another house. But there is one imperfection.
I found this two years ago during one of my jogs. I had gotten tired on my way back to the house, so I lay in one of the beautifully mowed fields meant for the public to sell their baked goods or grill since many houses do not have yards like they did in the past. A toddler in a tantrum threw her Barbie doll into the hedges fencing the field.
With the mother busy calming the child, I went over to retrieve it. As I searched for it, I noticed a large coin-like object on the ground. I bent down to examine it, sweat slipping off my face. It was bronze, covered with dirt, and had a symbol in the middle which looked like the number 8 but could also be an infinite sign. I tried to pick it up, but it seemed to be attached to something in the ground. I tugged again. Then I noticed the cracks in the grass. I pushed the hedges aside, and noticed that the cracks formed a square. A crack in the ground of our perfect streets. The coin-like object must be a handle to open it.
To open the crack and enter into the ground would have looked ridiculous. I closed the hedges around it again and grabbed the Barbie doll. That night when the streets emptied, I came back. I made sure not to open my flashlight; the lamps on the streets were enough. I felt for the handle on the ground and pulled it as hard as I could. It must have be locked. I pulled the hairpin holding my braid into place out of my hair.
I had never done this before, but I’ve heard stories from the elders of robbers back in the day picking locks with hairpins. Now that crime has become something of the past, almost like a myth to scare the children, I was surprised to find it locked. But at the same time I wasn’t. What else would be locked if not a mysterious crack in the ground?
It was too dark to see so I turned the flashlight on, making sure it only pointed at the crack on the ground. I searched for anything that looked like a lock but there was nothing there. Then I noticed a small hole on the dirt shaped almost like an hour glass. I decided it must be a keyhole.
I didn’t know how long it would take for me to unlock it a trapdoor, but I had already suspected it to be locked, so I had stuffed my backpack with snacks and a water bottle before I left the house. To my surprise, it took no longer than half an hour. I silently thanked my mother for giving me her fingers.
I wasn’t sure what I would find in the hole underground, but I hadn’t really thought of it until I pulled the trapdoor open. I pointed my flashlight down the dark opening. There were steps of a ladder creeping down one of the narrow walls. For a split second, I wanted to go down. But the feeling passed. I wasn’t even sure why I was there. I closed the trapdoor shut and didn’t come back until almost a month later.
Every night I come here now like I have an obligation to the books hidden under the trapdoor. There’s no longer a need for a flashlight. I unlock the door and slip into the ground. I pull the door shut above me and climb down the ladder. The lights do not open automatically like in other buildings, so I have to flip a switch much like they did in the Modern Era. The lights flicker before they settle.
The first time I came down here, I knew instantly that this small room was not meant to be a library. Just like the floor, the walls are metallic. Some parts are rusted, but overall they still look fairly new as if someone comes down here to wipe them every week. But I know that is not true. Tables broken and functioning have been pressed against all sides of the walls, each covered with piles and piles of books – old books of fiction and fantasy – all untouched until I found them. A small area in the middle is all I have to walk around in.
Though I have read many of the books, more than half are still left untouched, carrying the heavy burden of grey dust that neatly compile themselves one at a time. I pick one of those grey books. The cover is of a young girl with blonde hair sleeping under a tree with a book in her hands. I use the sleeve of my jacket to wipe the dust off its title which, after I finally see it, reads Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Light and thin – a children’s book, I decide.
Careful not to rip its vulnerable cover off, I open to the front page, and sit myself on the floor. I flip to each yellowing page using the tips of my fingers. The main character, the same girl on the front page, follows a rabbit down a hole in the ground, and for her stupidity, she falls and falls. Why would she do that? Then I realize I had done the same thing. I close the book and dust strike my face. I sneeze three times before I finally get my sight back from dust entering my eyes.
I put the book back on the table and decide to move on. With so many books in one room, it’s ironic that there is only one bookshelf, like it’s misplaced somehow. It is tall and thin, reaching the ceiling of the room, and though I’ve seen bookshelves before in the state library, there’s something ominous about it.
Sounds of footsteps and clanging suddenly appear then disappear – distant familiar noises that echo around the room once and a while. I have learned to ignore them and focus on my nightly task of reading. As I search the bookshelf, my eyes keep darting back to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. I really should finish it. I’ve never once moved on from an unfinished book. I take the children’s book and place it on my lap. There is an invisible cat, a smoking caterpillar, an evil Queen of Hearts, and that rabbit, that conniving little rabbit . . . I fall asleep like the child on the cover embracing a book.
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