"The beer is too dark here."
I was sitting with Brett Easton, a coworker of mine, in the dinghy, high ceilinged bar next door to our office building. I donít know why he invited me to go for a drink with him. He never spoke to me casually at the office. I figured he probably just didn't want to be seen drinking alone.
"I like dark things," I said.
"Iíll bet the pizza here tastes like cardboard. That is, if our waitress ever comes back over here."
"I like the taste of frozen food. It reminds me of Mom's cooking.Ē
"Ugh! This beer tastes like dirty dishwater."
"That-reminds me of one of my little projects," I said.
"Where on earth is our waitress?"
"I started it when I was six."
"Huh? It's a little after six now." Turning for the whole bar to hear: "And it was five-thirty when we came in here!"
"Early that day, the weather turned, and the snow was melting into dirty water. I was standing at the curb watching the slush flowing along the gutter and into the sewer grate when I thought of it."
"You know, I'll bet you could strip paint with this beer."
"I worked on it secretly for days and days. I became obsessed with it. When it was done, I couldn't bear to part with it."
"Uh-huh. Oh, there she is! Miss! Miss!"
"I carried it around with me everywhere I went. In fact, I have it here now. Sometimes I like to sneak little peeks at it when no one is looking."
"Damn it! What, are we invisible?"
"My family tells me that I have a sickness, that I'm going to end up just like my sister. I worry that they may be right. But I persist in denying it."
Easton sighed. "I'm going to get another bowl of popcorn from the bar," he said. "You want one?"
I looked at him sharply. "I think what I want is to gouge your eyeballs out and freeze them and use them as ice cubes."
"That sounds great. Be right back."
Easton scooted out of the booth and weaved toward the bar. I got up as well and headed for the door. I doubted that my absence would even be noted.
I shuffled into the suddenly bright outdoors and turned toward home. Not my apartment home, but my parentsí house. Tomorrow was their wedding anniversary. I couldn't remember which one. I tried to count in my head. At least 35, because that's how old my eldest brother, Gerald, was. Their anniversary was one of the many occasions when the entire family was more or less obligated to gather and endure one another's company. All of my brothers and sisters (sister, I corrected myself) would be there, and to not appear was an excellent way to further ostracize myself.
I began the long walk to the house. I had to walk because there was something wrong with my car. I wasn't sure what, but I sensed that something was wrong, so there probably was. Regardless, I was now frightened of it.
The only member of my family who I remotely looked forward to seeing was my brother Frederick, and I wasnít certain that he would be there. I honestly could not remember when I had seen him last. Frederick spent much of his time out of the country. Because of that, he had not developed the family pastime of whispering about the youngest brother.
Gerald was certain to be there, along with his horrid wife Sharon and their horrid children, Matt and Louise. Gerald idolized Father, to the point of fawning. He spent every opportunity at Father's side. They even allowed him to sit at the ďotherĒ head of the table, opposite Father. I suspected that Gerald's attentions came from hopes of inheritance and not love.
Sylvia, naturally, would be at Gerald's heels in competing for Fatherís attention. If only she found poor, sweet Hannah nearly as interesting. But, alas, Hannah was only a child, and could not provide Sylvia with the comfortable, effortless existence she craved.
Helen, of course, would be unavoidably absent.
I was to be the family entertainment, the topic of whispered conversations and closed-door gossip. I would have to endure sideways glances and endless scrutiny. In Helen's absence, I was the next best sideshow. Everyone wondered if I would be the next to go. Sometimes I wondered that myself.
A loud rapping yanked me back to the present. I found myself standing in a gas station lot, gazing into the tiny glass booth where the attendant was scowling at me.
"You need somethin', buddy?"
"You've been standin' there five minutes. Somethin' I can do for ya?"
"Er, uh, no. No. I'm sorry."
Trembling, I turned and tried to run, but I found one side of my body unresponsive, and I sort of loped sideways to the street. Perhaps my family was right. Perhaps I was beginning the steadily quickening slide that would deposit me in the same cold place as my sister. I felt as though half of my brain were clinging to reason while the other half babbled incoherently.
Somehow, I found my bearings and arrived at my family's large Edwardian home. Lights glowed through the leaded glass windows. I could not bear to go inside. I could not take the inevitable questions about my well-being, which were really questions about my state of mind.
Using my key, I slipped through the side door and scurried upstairs to my usual bedroom. Just as my hand touched the doorknob, I heard Father and one of my brothers emerging from one of the adjacent bedrooms. I hurried inside and turned the lock, thinking I had moved too quickly to be spotted. But I did not even have time to settle my shaking body on the small bed before Father's familiar rap sounded at the door. I opened it and saw him standing with Frederick. Frederick had a beard now.
"Ah, Jonathan, you've arrived," Father said. "I was just showing Frederick his room."
"It's good to see you again, Johnny," Frederick said, shaking my hand. "It's been a long time."
"Indeed," I sat down on the bed as Frederick scanned the room.
"What's with the cameras?" he asked.
I looked up at the surveillance cameras protruding from the corners near the ceiling. Tiny glass eyes shone dully on the ends of their aluminum stalks. I didn't know if they were active anymore or not. They had been installed to monitor Helen when this was her room, in case she had fits. They were one of the few modern intrusions in this sprawling Gorean house.
"They were to keep an eye on Helen," I explained. "And me," I added, smiling maliciously at Father. "The disturbed one always stays in Helen's room."
Father was rescued from his uncomfortable silence by the appearance of Sylvia with her young daughter Hannah in tow.
"Does anyone know how long dinner will be?" she demanded. "If he knows what he's doing down there, it could be ten minutes from now. But if he doesn't, it could be twenty!" Sylvia had a habit to exaggerate her torments.
Hannah interjected cheerfully. "When Mumbato cooks, it takes, like, two minutes!" Hannah's endless optimism was one of Sylvia's many torments.
Mumbato was an African tribesman that Mother and Father had encountered on one of their many global adventures. They thought that it would be socially outstanding to have an ethnic cook. Mother never did learn to cook. Before we hired Mumbato, the only thing she ever made was frozen TV dinners. I grew rather accustomed to that cardboard- and plastic-wrapped cuisine. They tempted Mumbato away from Africa with the lure of a large (to him) salary and a room in a grand house. They opted not to send him to culinary school so as not to spoil his instinctive talents. As a result, Mumbato was never exposed to the wide range of foodstuffs outside of Africa. We ate grains a lot.
"I do believe," Father said, "that dinner is just about ready."
Dinner was torturous. Mother wanted to hear all about everyone's various ailments and maladies--especially mine--and she made no hesitation to report her own every ache, pain, and suspicious symptom. I gained a brief respite of silence when Mumbato served dinner--a kind of four-bean stew accompanied by rice- and corn-stuffed tomatoes. It was delicious, and I hated it. I longed for the stacks of frozen dinners in my freezer at home.
Father sat to my right, at the head of the table. Mother sat directly across from me, where she could keep an eye on me. Hannah was seated to my left, beside her mother. From the other end of the table, Gerald carried on a business conversation with Father, while Sharon award-winningly missed every opportunity to discipline her two children.
"I don't wike this chair," Matt complained. He was ten, but still spoke like a toddler.
"I'm sorry, baby, but this is all there is," Sharon responded, without looking at him.
"I hate this chair, an' I hate you!"
"Now, that's not nice to say, sweetie."
"I'm sowwy, mommy," Matt said, without a hint of sincerity.
Louise, meanwhile, was busy flinging pieces of corn at my parents' sheltie, Sid, who lay in the corner and flinched.
The stress was getting to me. I didn't have an appetite anyway, so I took advantage of the cacophony at the table to admire the little amusement Iíd created all those years ago. Thousands of times I had seen it, and yet it still fascinated me. There was such beauty in its simplicity, such basic order in its structure. Like fine music, add or remove one element and it all falls apart.
A voice to my left, "What's that, Uncle Johnny?"
Sylvia: "Oh, God. Jonathan, at the dinner table?"
Mother: "Dear, when are you going to lose your fascination with that thing? Put it away now."
Father simply stared at his plate. I was sure that if he could will me not to exist, he would. I know I would.
I screeched my chair back. "You know, everyone, I had a really hard day at work, and I have a bit of a headache. I think I'm going to turn in early. Goodnight, everyone. I'll see you all in the morning."
I went up to my room and closed the door. Helen's room, I reminded myself, not mine. It would always remain Helen's room. Her knickknacks were still arranged neatly on the dresser, and her clothes still filled the armoire. As if she were ever coming back, I thought. I removed several items from my jacket pockets and lay down. One of the items was a small, leather-bound journal, its pages stiff and bloated. I opened to the first blank page and wrote, Friday, July 25th. I had the same elegant, spidery penmanship that my father had learned from his father, the man who built this house. Father liked to say that change is good, but we must preserve the finer things from our past. Good penmanship, he said, is one of them.
I picked up my copy of Nine Stories, by J.D. Salinger, and began reading. The first story was A Perfect Day for Bananafish. It made me laugh. One passage in particular struck my liking, and I took a rusting razor blade and carefully sliced the paragraph from the book. Then I smeared a glue stick across the back of the fragment and gently pasted it into my journal. I pressed the bulging covers shut and set it aside. Lacing my fingers behind my head, I lay back and stared at the camera in the corner. I wondered who was watching at the other end.
I think I fell asleep with my eyes open. The knock at the door made me jump.
The door opened a crack, and Frederick stuck his head in the room. "Hey, Johnny. Can I come in?"
"Oh, hullo, Freddy. Sure." I sat up and slid over to give him room to sit. Next to Helen, Frederick was nearest to my age, and we had always been closer than our other siblings. He had struck out on his own immediately following graduation, and had spent the last thirteen years systematically conquering the world's highest mountains. Of the big ones, I think he had only K2 and Everest left to climb. Perhaps he had just come from there.
"How's peaks?" I asked.
He shrugged. "Got caught in a snowstorm on McKinley about a month ago and lost a pinkie toe to frostbite. Have to put off climbing for a while." He lowered his voice and grinned. "Don't tell Mom."
I smiled. "Deal." I have always been small. Freddy has always been lanky and muscular. When I was twelve, he came upon three of my classmates beating me up behind the school. He put two of them in the hospital. He was fourteen then. The other kids left me alone after that.
Frederickís expression suddenly turned serious. "I have to ask, are you ok? I mean, it's been a long time since I've seen you, and you don't seem happy anymore. You donít seem...alive."
I looked at the floor. "I don't think I'm well, Freddy."
"Are you sick?"
"In a way, I guess. Mother calls it a sickness. I think... I think the same thing might be happening to me...as happened to Helen."
Frederick frowned. "Has this been confirmed by a doctor?"
"Then how can you say?"
"Well, it just has to be true. I've been having these...blackouts where I lost track of time. And my mind feels like it's being pulled in all directions at once. And Mother says--"
"Oh, God," Frederick interjected. "Haven't you learned not to listen to a thing Mother says?"
"But doesn't it make sense? I'm Helen's twin. What happened to her should naturally happen to me."
"Look. Mother doesn't feel like she's being a mother unless she can find things to fix. Did it ever occur to you..." He looked up at the ceiling as though searching for words lurking in the wallpaper up there. "Did it ever occur to you that maybe the reason you feel the way you do is that everyone expects it from you?"
"Why would they want that to happen twice in the same family? I mean, no one ever talks about Helen anymore. She damaged their social standing quite badly."
"Johnny... This is one screwed-up family. Why do you think I literally headed for the hills as soon as I could? They were gonna kill me, buddy. One way or another, I wasnít gonna survive them. And I'm afraid that's happening to you now."
"I have to admit, I don't really enjoy spending time with them. If Helen were still here, it might be different..."
"Well, what about Helen?" Frederick asked. "Have you been to visit her lately?"
I shook my head. "I don't like it there."
"If she had a choice, I don't think she would be there either. We should go see her."
"I don't know if I can."
"Because... Because they might not let me out."
Frederick was quiet for a long time. "Listen. There is no conspiracy. I'm not trying to lure you there so that they can slap on a straightjacket and lock you away. Believe me, if I can rescue any member of this family, I want it to be you. I only wish I could have gotten to Helen soon enough to save her."
"I miss her, Freddy."
"So do I, bud. I'll call the hospital and let them know we're coming tomorrow."
The next morning, Frederick and I walked away from the looming family home, and went to see our sister.