The red door to my home opened and the fresh smell of warm turkey and cranberry sauce collided with my senses the way Sticky the beagle collided with my shins. Had it not been for his joyful barks of recognition, the rest of my family may not have noticed my entrance. From my school in Kansas to this house in Florida, the heat spiked along with my anticipation. It had been so long since I had seen my family. Thomas offered to bring my bags to my room for me while I hugged and kissed the others. The whole family was together again. The questions I had already answered on the phone dozens of times came rolling off their tongues: “How do you like your roommates?” and “Are your classes hard?” and “You know Superman lives in Kansas right?” I answered them all yet again with a smile on my face for being asked in person, for seeing the faces that speak the words.
“Oh my goodness! You’re so skinny. Don’t you eat at school?” My mother pinched at my waist for emphasis. My witty retort was interrupted by the response of a familiar voice.
“I think Brady looks nice.” Wyatt George stood in the doorway to the living room. I noticed the flicker I always see in his eye, as he wondered if he should have said what he said.
The electricity with us, which I had thought—maybe even hoped— distance would insulate, crackled in the air. My siblings did their best to ignore it and my parents maintained their blissful ignorance. Heck, blissful ignorance was something Wyatt and I had been pretending to have for years. Besides I may or may not have had a boy back at college. Then again, Wyatt may or may not care about that.
“You aren’t a parent,” My mother waved him away and he smirked. I mouthed a ‘thank you’ as my mom began examining my dress.
“It doesn’t matter if I eat at school, that’s why I’m here isn’t it? Feed me.” I teased.
“You can’t rush fine dining,” My mother reminded me.
At the top of the steps I saw Sticky sniffing around the corner to my bedroom and knew that it was only a matter of a time before he rummaged through my bags in search of a treat. I ran after him to stop the violation but got caught up with the newly organized pictures in the hall. My dad, in all his nostalgic glory, created a new form of a family tree. Branches of each child held leaves of memories extending from the trunk of family portraits and class pictures. The safety of my bags lay forgotten once I saw Little Darrell’s photo from when he lost his first tooth. Then I got stuck on a picture of an embrace between Wyatt and I at his high school graduation. My arms wrapped around his chest and his lips kissed the top of my hair. The picture right above worried me. A blonde girl had her arms around Wyatt’s neck, ruffling his hair. It took me a moment to realize that girl wasn’t me.
“Brady, the parade is on.” Thomas called up the stairs, dragging me from my thoughts. “Hurry, before dad changes it to football.”
“Coming,” I scooped up Sticky and joined the others in the family room. I sat in their company with my mind where my heart should have been.
The mirror is now my biggest enemy and that is the truth. No, I’m not one of those girls who think their body is hideous. In all honesty, I’m a beauty; call me cocky if you want. My hair falls in blonde waves to the middle of my spine and my face is speckled with golden spots that vaguely categorize as freckles. I rarely exercise—unless you include climbing on top of a chair to reach the dusty books from the top shelf—yet somehow my metabolism allows for my breasts to be perky, my stomach to be flat, and my rump to be round. Actually, I suppose I lied. I do a lot of running, mostly from my responsibilities, but also from more reasonable things like boys and memories. All my sneakers wear out in about two months thanks to the track behind the football field at school. No, I’m not the reason I hate the mirror, my sister is. The reason goes back to the summer I was twelve years old.
When I was twelve, I was not quite so fortunate looking. My hair was stringy, my freckles were a dark tan on my alabaster skin and I prayed to the Lord—though that always gave me pause—that the Florida sun would connect the pox marks and give me an even tan. Some girls my age enjoyed wearing their frilly bikinis because puberty was gracing them kindly, but my chest was all but concave so my one-piece suited me just fine. I stayed to myself for the most part and sat under the oak by the river with a few solid friends. Together we talked about The Outsiders and Haroun and the Sea of Stories while watching the older kids flirt and swim and swing from the branches. Maybe we could have joined them, but being separate never bothered us like it should have.
“My mom told me that as soon as I hit my growth spurt I’m going to thin out, you know? Then these shorts will fit right.” Amanda Kessler’s voice trilled.
Amanda always had some sort of excuse as to why her clothes did not fit. I could blame the Hostess products she shoveled down like a gravedigger, but her eternal optimism and blunt sense of humor allowed me to believe her here and there. She stood before the group of seventh grade quiet’s and modeled the hand-me-down shorts from her anorexic older sister. The brim of the denim pinched the fat of her legs like hot dogs getting filled with processed meat. We all nodded our heads in approval of her choices. The shorts were purely to cover up her bathing suit after all. Besides, Amanda’s curly black hair and charming gap in her teeth drew enough attention from her body because she was lovely when you thought about it.
“Don’t bet three cents on it.” Clinton Wright commented. His freckles rivaled even mine and were topped with wiry orange hair, adding to his resemblance to a carrot. “Look at the lovebirds making their nest.”
He flicked his thumb up to the large oak we sat beneath. The final two of our consistent friend group, Dennis Carpenter and Marley Hudson, sat on a thick branch, legs hanging over the side, smiling at each other. Dennis whipped out his classic, stolen pocketknife and carved Marley’s name into the bark of the trunk. Marley giggled and blushed and slowly gripped the fingers of Dennis’s empty hand. This would be the closest to a loving embrace the two would have until their first kiss three months later. I guess they wanted to take it slow after permanently pronouncing their love in our tree.
“I prefer parakeets,” I responded and lay across Amanda’s picnic blanket, peeling my shorts and button-down shirt from sweat-tinged skin. I closed my eyes for protection from the violent sun.
“Did you guys hear about Lorraine and Duke?” Amanda crawled over to me and straddled my stomach.
“Not a word,” I informed her, knowing she loved to tell a story, especially about her sister.
“So my mom came home early on Friday, but Lorraine was being really mean to me and hid the remote so I didn’t tell her, and Lorraine had Duke Benson over. I didn’t know what they were doing in her room, or that’s what I told my mom at least. So, this wild woman storms up the stairs and slams open the door. Lorraine and Duke were naked and I swear to you, Lorraine has the tiniest boobs I’ve ever seen!” Amanda cracked up at the idea as I looked down at my breasts, or lack thereof. “It turns out all those bras she’s been wearing are full of tissue. Duke on the other hand is a hefty guy, I’m surprised his fat didn’t just go and suck Lorraine up!”
“And Lorraine told you all this?” Clinton asked, skeptical as always.
“Heck no, I watched it all happen!” Amanda declared as if it made the story so much juicier. “Let me tell you, sex looks violent. I never want to lose my virginity.”
“Don’t worry, you never will!” Clinton and I chimed together.
“Looks to me like a couple of them are going to lose it right there in the water,” Dennis chuckled to himself and nodded toward the group not too far from us.
High school kids baffled me. Their confidence and self-assured manner of existing made me wonder whether I’d ever be that way. The boys could walk around without shirts, whether they were round or cut, and not give a damn. The girls could strut into the waters and flip their hair in such an appealing way. Still, none of these kids held a candle to my sister, Abigail Andrews. She stood without a single flaw on the rocks with her peers. The boys called her the Buxom Blonde and the girls called her the Honey Bee. As expected, the boys took to her bodacious curves and the girls took to her naturally sweet disposition. Abigail never followed the course of normality either. She was a cheerleader, yes. But, she was smart. She went to church on Sundays, yes. But, she wasn’t ignorant. She was kind, yes. But, Abigail was a spitfire. Yes sir, Abigail Andrews was utter perfection, according to the majority of my small town. People always told me, “You should be more like your sister.” I always told them, “I’m too busy being me.”
My sister and I were the two middle children. We had an older brother, Thomas, and then came Abigail, I was next, then Jim, and Little Darrell. Despite having two younger brothers, everybody in my family called me Baby Brady. I didn’t mind so much before I hit the double digits in the age bracket. Of course our family was close, but the tension from the comparisons always gave way to some hostility between Abigail and me. I loved her like a sister, but didn’t quite like her like a friend. I was a pain in her ass and she was a thorn in my side. The most obnoxious thing was watching her fix up her makeup in the mirror just to have it wash out in the river’s flow. At least she was willing to drive me with her to the river most days. Yeah, we were sisters until the end.
Only one thing about Abigail made me jealous and that was Wyatt George. He was fifteen years old—two years Abigail’s minor and three years my senior—but he was a real person. His brown hair stuck up a little in the back and his farmer’s tan seemed to fit his skin like a wedding band. He did a good job at letting the world think he was a strong, confident boy. Only I picked up on that slight twitch of his finger before shaking somebody’s hand, that slight flicker of uncertainty behind his eye before he speaks. I recognize his true troubles because I share them. Wyatt was on the football team with Thomas and the uniform sure made him look handsome. Some people couldn’t see it, but I could. He used to come around with Thomas’s friends, and still does occasionally, but now he tends to visit more for Abigail’s tutoring, though Abigail will never acknowledge the boy’s feelings for her. What I liked best about Wyatt was how he said hi to me.
Currently, Wyatt was among the other high school kids, putting his feet in the water and sipping on Cola. Unlike the male braggarts with him, Wyatt’s shirt remained on, probably to hide the scar on his back. I saw it at my house one time and asked him about it and he got really quiet. My mom told me I shouldn’t ask such personal questions. The scar ran as a line from his left love-handle to the small of his back. The scar didn’t look too violent, but I’m sure it was a real wreck at one point. I looked out over the distance between us and wondered if he’d take off his shirt like the other boys did. Apparently I spaced out on the white cotton shirt and drifted up to his face. Wyatt noticed and waved to me. I gave a small wave back and rolled over onto my stomach to hide whatever amount of blush my freckles couldn’t hold.
“You’re in love,” Marley sang down from the tree. “Don’t think I didn’t see you staring at that older man, Brady Andrews!”
“Shut up, mouth breather,” I hollered back. Marley stuck her tongue out to blow a raspberry between her braced teeth.
“Brady and Wyatt sitting in a tree,” Dennis and Marley began chanting from the branch overhead. The irony of the situation was not lost on me; let me tell you. “K-I-S-S-I-N-G!”
“If he hears you, I’m going to tell your dad you’re hanging out with boys, Marley Hudson!” I hissed, hoping their lyrics wouldn’t reach the ears of the high school kids.
“Fine,” Marley winked at me and returned to reclining against the sturdy tree limbs.
We stayed at the river until just before sunset. I only went in the water once and that’s because I had to pee and didn’t want anybody to know. Plus, Clinton wanted to play a game of Marco Polo. He forced my head under water so I made sure to pee near him. Most of the time I pretended to be doodling notes in the margins of my coming-of-age novel (this week it was The Taming of the Star Runner) while I actually stared at the older kids. That evening, Abigail offered to drive Wyatt home with us. He was on the way and none of the other kids were really up to the task.
Wyatt came from a troubled home I guess you could say. His mom died when he was three from mysterious circumstances. While the autopsy was inconclusive, the entire town of Briar Rose knew it was his father who did it. Since then, the sporadic-recluse Mr. George gave trouble to Wyatt. Mr. George was overprotective to a point of insanity and, according to my dad, prone to fits of rage. Before he killed his wife and shut himself away on their two-acre property, Mr. George was known for getting drunk at bars and picking fights with strangers. I suspect his son was his only sparring partner now. It was a wonder Wyatt survived so long without a mother there to protect him.
“So what were you staring at Baby Brady?” Wyatt asked me from the front seat of the Pontiac Grand Prix. I didn’t mind so much when he called me that pet name. “Every time I saw you, it looked like your mind was out in la la land.”
“I have a pretty good idea,” Abigail winked at me in the rearview mirror.
“I was just thinking, I guess.” I answered, wondering if the beginning of the fading sun offset my red cheeks, and wondering how often he looked for me.
“You think too much,” Abigail teased. “Try living instead.”
“Hey, the unexamined life isn’t worth living,” Wyatt came to my defense, quoting something he learned from Abigail no doubt.
“What he said,” The edges of my mouth hooked slightly.
“The two of you are just too smart for me,” Abigail smiled at me in the mirror. That’s one thing about my sister: Whenever I needed hope, she gave it.
At his farmhouse, Wyatt got out of the car and we could hear his father smashing who-knows-what inside. The house was grey with maroon shutters with a barn out back and a shed to the side. The grass was mown and the shrubs trimmed. Wyatt spent most of his time doing chores for his father, only let out for school and the occasional tutoring session. His effort didn’t go to waste seeing as the place looked nice. Only the banging from inside and the scar on Wyatt’s back gave proof to the home’s real damage. The flicker popped up into Wyatt’s eyes yet again and I caught it.
“You want to come over for dinner?” Abigail asked after a particularly gruesome noise, making me wonder if she too saw the uncertainty in his face.
“No, I don’t want to be a burden.” Wyatt shrugged and scuffed his feet.
“It’s no trouble really, you know we all love having you around.” Abigail reassured the boy.
“I’ll be all right. You two get home safe.” Wyatt nodded. He didn’t want to show his fear after Abigail so willingly professed some sort of love. “Thanks for the ride.”
He walked to his door with trepidation and attempted a reassuring smile before entering. The scene inside was left to play in my imagination and I sensed danger. The noises continued even with Wyatt’s presence. Abigail, unhinged by the sounds from inside, undid her seat belt and remained in the driveway. She knew better than to take off and head home. As if on cue, we heard an ear-splitting cry undoubtedly in Wyatt’s voice. Being the fierce and dedicated friend that Abigail was, she acted.
“Take my phone and call the police.” Abigail handed me her Nokia. “I’ll be right back.”
“Where are you going?” I pleaded, grabbing her hand to stop her.
“Don’t worry, I’ll be right back.” Abigail promised. Another shout of pain shocked me into letting go of my sister’s hand. “I’ll be fine.”
Abigail snatched a rake from the side of the shed and ran into the house. I flipped open her phone and dialed the police, not knowing what was actually going on but scared nonetheless. The operator informed me a patrol car would be by as quick as possible. The information didn’t make me feel any better, and I couldn’t wait that long.
Following suit of my sister, I grabbed a shovel and crept toward the door. My breath hitched in my chest, not allowing me to inhale properly. I figured that was a good thing. It kept me alert. I slowly nudged open the door and noticed the banging and squeals of pain had subsided, and were now replaced with slow, methodical thuds. Sirens in the distance punctuated the dull, repetitive sounds. As the door crawled forward to give me a better view, I saw broken plates scattering the floor. I saw fabric ripped from the couch cushions. When it was wide enough I saw Wyatt’s ankles poking past the side of the wall. He was down. Finally, I opened the door to the fullest and saw Mr. George for the first time in my life.
He stood hunched over, splattered with blood, and holding a meat tenderizer. His greying hair stood on end and his face was wrinkled with scruff and malice. His clothes bounced with each downward thrust of the cooking utensil. It found impact.
The thuds I heard were the pounds that slowly chipped away at Abigail. The rake lied forgotten on the floor. The skin ripped with each contact with the metal tool, allowing blood to flow freely onto the carpeted floor and her body to jiggle like gelatin in a bowl. The blonde hair of my sister was matted with red from the crack on her skull. While the inside of her mind finally showed itself to me, I could never tell you what she thought. I was too preoccupied with what she felt. Despite her dazzling blue eyes being vacant and lifeless, Abigail felt sorry for leaving us all so soon.
I gasped and dropped the shovel, alerting Mr. George of my presence. His eyes felt only hunger that couldn’t be satiated. The meat tenderizer looked my way and came swinging toward my face. I thought I would scream at the moment of imminent death. If I did the sound of gunfire drowned it from the air like a child trapped under the ice of a pond. Mr. George was shot dead by the quick action of Officer Mullin, but his body wasn’t finished. As it tumbled to the ground it took me down with it, knocking me out the door until my forehead made contact with the two stone steps beneath.
That was seven years ago. The first dead body I ever saw was my sister’s and the second was her killer’s. Now, I’m a freshman in college, visiting home for Thanksgiving. Since that night, I have found a lot to be grateful for, believe it or not. I’m thankful I survived and was able to tell the world that my sister died a hero. I was thankful that Wyatt survived so my sister didn’t die in vain. I’m thankful my family didn’t blame Wyatt and I was able to share this holiday meal with him and them in the dining room. Before we said grace—though that always gave me pause—I went upstairs to the bathroom and looked at myself in the mirror.
Puberty hit me like a lightning bolt striking the torch of the Statue of Liberty, hard and miraculous. My only flaw now was an indented scar on my forehead just below my hairline. Puberty eradicated the appearance of that awkward twelve-year-old girl, yet couldn’t quite destroy her spirit. I even dated occasionally, and the boys liked that. Remembering how my sister used to apply her makeup in this mirror, I did so now. Once the lipstick had left my mouth and returned to the counter I heard footsteps behind me. Wyatt George stood in the doorframe. Puberty hit him more gently, keeping his boyish charm but adding muscle and scruff far from that of his father. I watched his eyes flicker before he spoke.
“You really do look nice, Brady.” Wyatt nodded and looked me up and down.
“Oh you’re just saying that,” I waved his comment away. My cheeks no longer blushed. It was internal now.
Wyatt moved toward me and pushed a lock of hair behind my ear and I failed at looking away from his eyes. We held each other’s gaze for a moment and I knew I could do it should I want to. I still cared for Wyatt more than any other man and I knew he cared just as much for me. The only barrier we faced was the reason why he cared for me. Was it because I was like a little sister to him? Was it some sense of devotion to Abigail? Was it because he fell in love with me somewhere in these seven years? Finally I had his attention, but my doubts would never let me truly have him.
I squeezed Wyatt’s arm and turned back to the mirror, directing him to leave me be and return to the others. That moment was all we may ever have. On the shelf to the right I lifted up a family photo of the Andrews’ kids by the river. Abigail never reached my age, but her grace and understanding always made me forget that. Her blonde hair rolled from her head like the waves that drowned me in the picture. Her skin had no flaw; a peaches-and-cream complexion as far as the eye could see and several places it could not. Her breasts were perky and soft and her hips were curved like a basin. Had she survived, she’d have a single flaw: an indented scar on her forehead just below her hairline. I put the picture down to look in the mirror I hate so much. I no longer hear the words, “You should be more like your sister.” Instead all I hear is, “You look just like your sister.” Murder wound and and all.
The featured image, ‘Abandoned Farm’, was used with permission of artist, xmas-kitty.