All That I Left Behind (We Are)

I return on a late summer day, the air heavy in a way I had forgotten, drowsy with heat and humidity. Mosquitoes hover like dust motes as I climb the porch steps. That my key still fits the lock surprises me; that no one appears to greet me breaks my heart again, as I knew it would.

I am home.                        (at last)

Between the time I left and this return is a chain of moments, a bridge between then and now, each link fitting snugly together. A bridge paved in blood and regret; if I had known  (we knew)

if I had known how it would end—me here, alone in this dusty, decrepit house

(oh we knew)

—would I still have done what I did?

(yes)

I cannot answer.

The hall is cool and dim. The first thing I see is the large family photograph hanging over the credenza, a piece of cobwebbed black silk wound around its frame. Had they ever stopped mourning? Losing first my brother, then myself. No parent should outlive their child, the lawyer had said. Did he mean my brother, or us both?

All their sorrow. Yet I still feel a hint of pride, that I could so utterly destroy another human being.

(oh yes    at last)

I put my bag down on the credenza and breathe in the musty air. All these years and still there is a smell as familiar as my own. I take another deep breath and for a moment the sound seems to double, as if the house itself is sighing, perhaps in disappointment: oh it’s you. (us

at last)

As I turn into the living room I get a shock, so swift and violent my heart lurches. The curtains are the same lacy panels that were hanging that night, as bright and clean as they were twenty years ago.

(sweetness)

The same curtains. I can feel them still, feel the rough edges of the lace against my palms as I pushed them apart to watch the police creeping towards the house, their badges and guns gleaming in the dappled moonlight. Watching and knowing it was all for me, for me alone, their fear and their guns and their strange hand gestures that I had thought were a fiction of the movies.

(all for us)             (at last    sweetness)

I go to the window and slowly draw the curtains apart and glance to the side, as I had done that night, and I see again the decorative table covered with framed photographs. My mother’s pride. How did I come to be this, how did this I emerge from that smiling, rosy-cheeked cocoon?

(oh   we know

we know)

All the photos are exactly as they were. The wide lawn is empty and sweetly reddened by the sun. I feel a sudden, wrenching spasm of loss, as I have not felt since the trial. All that I might have been, had I not …

(you are)

Where did that smiling girl go, where did she go, and could I ever get her back?

(come

find out)

#

I fill box after box: clothes, books, keepsakes that I cannot take. The furniture will be hauled away next week. I’m not sure which are more disturbing, the familiar things or the ones I don’t recognize at all. Life went on without me, in spite of the lace curtains and the black silk.

(waiting    always)

When I find the scrapbooks of the trial, I unscrew the posts and burn the pages one by one in the bright blue flame of the gas stove, watching the pages curl and flake

(always    sweetness)

breathing in the acrid smoke of old glue, feeling nothing.

Later, when I am puzzling over my parents’ papers, I find yet another clipping—one of the first articles, a short statement of what happened framing a photo of the car. (at last) I cannot read the words, but I find myself cupping my hands, as if I was driving. The feel of the steering wheel. I had started up the car, and …

(at last) (yes)

But I had expected this, I had planned for this with my therapist. I perform the little rituals we had concocted, breathing and tapping, calming myself. Only then do I realize that all the papers before me—trusts and wills and certificates, the lists of accounts in my father’s neat hand—they all date to just after the trial, when I had gotten on that plane thinking never to return. These pages were never meant for me; they were made in the grim hope that my brother would recover, that my parents would still have one child left to them.

(we are

come)

And yet he is gone, and I am here. The feel of the steering wheel in my hands. (at last) The impact like a force of nature. (at last    we know) And then …

And then …

(darkness)            (us    we are sweetness    at last)

But as always, my memories become blurred, a shaky cutaway that no therapist, no psychologist, no threat has ever been able to undo.

(at last    home)

#

(come)

It is late when I make my way upstairs. I cannot bear to go in my bedroom, I cannot bear to look in my brother’s; instead I carry my things into the little guest room that had once been my mother’s sewing room. So crowded with junk that I do not see the photo at first, hanging in an alcove as if it were a shrine

(darkness    see)

my brother and I, long before it happened. (see us) Smiling and holding hands on our wide, sunny lawn …

(see) yet there is something in my eyes even then, the first glimmer of hurt and a cold anger, and something else that I still cannot name.

(hungry)

What did I gain from it all? In twenty years I have never had a proper relationship, never been able to hold a job for more than a few months. My life is perpetually behind a scrim, everything around me washed in grey.

(at last

we are)

I long to reach into that photo and seize that younger me, seize her and shake her, make her understand how it will change everything.

(sweetness    we know)

I reach for the photo, to do … something, but then I hesitate. Was it really there, so many years before? (at last) All this time I’ve told myself, told everyone, it was an act of rage, pure and sudden: the swift eruption of a hundred bottled emotions. But in this photo I am looking at my brother as if he’s already dead, and I am (hungry)

smiling.

Perhaps I should call my therapist and tell her about the picture … but what good would it do, save to give her incentive to put me away for good?

(you    we are) (at last)

The silent, breathing house. The dead heat of the night. I suddenly want to leave, just grab my things and walk out and never return. But who else would take care of it all, who would give my parents this last consideration? I can’t abandon them again.

(oh we know    darkness)             (at last)

#

That night I dream as I have not dreamed in years, not since I last slept in this house. I dream of my brother’s vast, dark form looming over me; as I wait, rigid with anticipation, he spreads black wings that blot out the light.

(waiting    at last    we know

oh sweetness    hungry)

(come) (home    find out)

(we know    the sweetness

the sweetness oh we are

oh at last)

And then it is no longer my brother who comes to me but another, something at once familiar and utterly strange that smothers me with its silken body, entwining its limbs with mine and weaving about us its long, soft tail until I cannot tell where I end and it begins.

(love)

#

The man presses the doorbell then knocks again, sharp raps that echo in the house like gunshots. With his free hand he clutches a briefcase; his eyes dart from side to side as if anticipating an assault. I watch him through the curtains, watching him come for me.

(at last    we see)

In the window (we) see the reflection of a middle-aged woman whose eyes don’t match her smile, who looks at the man as if he’s already dead. (sweetness)

(hungry)

(yes)

He draws his phone out of his pocket; a moment later the house fills with ringing, a deafening clamor that makes me cringe. He looks at the window and I jerk backwards, at once afraid and angry. How dare he just show up. (how dare) he think he can do as he pleases. (how dare he) as my brother dared.

(we know

oh we know) That night. He had said, I’m going to show them what you wrote to me. (see) Who do you think they’ll believe? I have photos, I know what you do when you think no one’s looking. (see at last) All his life, making me do what he wanted, and when I finally worked up the courage to tell him what I really was he twisted me into something monstrous.

(darkness    oh we are) (you)

Between now and then is a chain of moments, each fitting tightly into the next, spiraling back to that night when I followed him in the car. The feel of the steering wheel in my hands. His body flying up and back and disappearing into the (darkness), as easy as tossing aside a wrapper.

(sweetness     at last

hungry)

I’d stopped then. (darkness) I had not thought past that moment; I had not thought. But my father had taught me how to change a tire. (we) knew exactly where the jack was. The (hungry) had felt like power, like strength. All that I was capable of.

(sweetness) (yes)

I never left behind the smiling girl in the photos; I dragged her with me all these years, her dead eyes and the smothering weight of her pretense. For the camera I smiled but I could not hide what was behind my eyes, that (sweetness) winged and nursing on every moment he made me less. Until I swung the jack and felt (us) burst forth (at last).

(we were    are    at last)

(always)

I hear a voice then, dulled by the closed windows: the man says, are you sure she’s here. (darkness) He says, this doesn’t feel right. Maybe I should get a cop out here just in case. (darkness)    (hungry) The police creeping in the dappled moonlight, crossing the wide lawn. (at last) My brother’s wheezing as I brought the jack down. (at last sweetness) All this time pretending, pretending I had been that smiling girl once, that I was unable to hear myself when I had been listening all my life.

(at last    home)

He fears (us). (hungry    at last) I open the door and show him what (we really are).

L.S. Johnson

L.S. Johnson

L.S. Johnson lives in Northern California, where she feeds her cats by writing book indexes. She is the author of the gothic novellas Harkworth Hall and Leviathan. Her first collection, Vacui Magia, was a finalist for the World Fantasy Award. Her novel remains vexedly in progress. Find her online at www.traversingz.com.
L.S. Johnson

Latest posts by L.S. Johnson (see all)

L.S. Johnson

L.S. Johnson lives in Northern California, where she feeds her cats by writing book indexes. She is the author of the gothic novellas Harkworth Hall and Leviathan. Her first collection, Vacui Magia, was a finalist for the World Fantasy Award. Her novel remains vexedly in progress. Find her online at www.traversingz.com.

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L.S. Johnson

L.S. Johnson lives in Northern California, where she feeds her cats by writing book indexes. She is the author of the gothic novellas Harkworth Hall and Leviathan. Her first collection, Vacui Magia, was a finalist for the World Fantasy Award. Her novel remains vexedly in progress. Find her online at www.traversingz.com.

Latest posts by L.S. Johnson (see all)

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  1. Pingback: 2018 Award Eligibility — TRAVERSING Z

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