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Sustainable Development

Part 3 of 3

(Read Part 1 and Part 2)

Her period was late. She had a drugstore pregnancy test in the back of her bathroom cabinet, waiting. She needed to take it. But not just now.

“Uncle Brad is coming back soon,” she told her daughter. “Only this time, he won’t be living with his friends.”

“Will he live with us?” Lily asked.

“Not this time. He’ll be in his old room, at Gramm and Grumpa’s.”

That night Lily said she had to kiss her Uncle Brad goodnight.

“You mean your castle?”

Uncle Brad was in the castle, Lily said. He was inside the castle.

“For pretend. For pretend Uncle Brad is in the castle,” Harper said softly.

No, Lily insisted. Uncle Brad was inside his castle and he would come back when his body left the hospital.

Harper didn’t argue. She sang quietly to her daughter. She sang to Lily every night. Lily said that she was too big for lullabies, so Harper had been singing pop songs to her for the past month. She knew the lyrics were often wrong. “Love is like oxygen,” she sang. Her voice was light and clear. “You get too much you get too high...”

She lay there in the dark long after Lily had fallen asleep. Lily wasn’t afraid of the dark. Oh, how terrified Harper and Brad had been. Mom would plug in a Little Boy Blue nightlight for Brad, and she always left the door open a crack for both children. She’d kiss them each, lightly, on the forehead, and then check both closets and under both beds for night creatures. Harper would plug in her Light-Bright after Mom had gone downstairs. Sometimes, Harper would sneak into her brother’s room when she couldn’t sleep. Brad could always fall asleep, no matter how frightened he said he was. The sound of his breathing, the sight of his sleeping body would reassure her. Sometimes, she thought that he was the braver one. She was just too ashamed to admit it when she was scared.

After her arm fell asleep she walked over to Lily’s castle. There was something she didn’t like about it. It was not the sweet Cinderella castle she’d imagined Brad would paint for his little Thumbelina. No, this castle did not belong in a frilly little girl’s room. It was too stark, too gothic. The drawbridge fell over a slate colored moat that roiled and waved like an ocean. He’d dappled the waves with silver specks, so that they shimmered as if kissed by moonlight. Harper rested her head against the drawbridge’s mouth—it was flat black, the darkest black of the mural. She hated the mouth. It was a gaping black hole. Why did Lily find it so reassuring?

Harper waited for the phone to ring. She wanted to hear David’s voice. She didn’t want to see him, only to hear his voice.

That night she fell into a deep, velvety slumber. She dreamed of something sweet and sticky and rotten. She was inching along an oozing string. She felt herself surrendering to it, and then she finally sank into its mire. She felt a deep, sweet hurt, and then a throbbing in her belly. She awoke in the dark and damp. The bleeding had come to her in her sleep. The blood had come so heavily and so suddenly that her sheets were stained. She wasn’t pregnant. She was definitely not pregnant.

David did call, the next day. But she didn’t move to pick up the phone. He was sorry, he said to the machine. He loved her, he said. He loved her so much. He’d cut his hair, all of it, he’d join the goddamn Army reserves, he’d fly an American flag from a flagpole in his front yard. He’d do whatever it took.

***

David bought a giant pink coconut cake in honor of Charlotte’s homecoming. Before adding four boxes of baby blue birthday candles, he remembered the jar of maraschino cherries in the back of the pantry. He spelled out her nickname “Charlie” with the cherries, and then stuck as many candles as he could fit into the pink frosting. After he was done, he stood back to admire the monstrosity. It was big. It was hideous. She was going to love it.

Charlotte stood in the doorway, surveying the living room, for about five minutes. He held the crook of her elbow and felt her trembling.

“You can let go of my elbow,” she finally said. “I won’t break.”

“Sorry,” he mumbled. “What do you think?”

“Looks good, buster. You must have been vacuuming and spraying with Lysol for half a day. I’ve never seen the place look so polished.”

David smiled. She sat at the sofa when he brought out her cake.

“Is it my birthday?” she asked, concerned. “David, it hasn’t been that long has it? Is it my birthday?”

“It’s not your birthday, okay? I just wanted you to have a treat when you got here.”

She laughed and clapped her hands as he turned out the lights so that the birthday candles cast their flickering shadows against the walls. He sang “Welcome home to Charlotte” to the tune of “Happy Birthday.”

“Do I make a wish?”

“Of course,” he told her. She scrunched her eyes into slits and blew with all her might. She managed to blow them all out.

“Wow,” he said.

“Just call me the Big Bad Wolf,” she said.

“What did you wish for?”

“David,” she said seriously, “I can’t tell you that.”

They ate half the cake. It was surprisingly tasty.

“How do you feel?” he asked.

She was licking a big curl of frosting off of her index finger. He waited for her to finish.

“Well,” she said, “like this is the best cake ever. And like I just woke up from a hundred years of beauty rest, after I got gobbled up by the Big Bad Wolf.”

“That good, huh?”

He showed her the attic room he’d painted for her. He’d chosen Princess Pink. It was an ice-cream pink that reminded him of Easter eggs and spring flowers. Pink was her favorite color.

“So I’m not staying in that linen closet I used to sleep in? Oh, I get it. The Madwoman in the Attic.”

He shrugged his shoulders. He hated it when she made wisecracks like that. She always treated her illness with levity, but whenever he joined in with the jokes she’d get bristly and insulted.

She squeezed his hand when she saw the room. “It’s beautiful, David,” she said.

“I want you to be at home,” he said.

He had forgotten about dinner, but she told him that was okay. When he asked her what she wanted to do, she said that she wanted to play Scrabble. Of course she wanted to play Scrabble. It was her best game. He’d never defeated her at that game, not once. But almost as soon as they began to play she pushed her tiles aside. “Never mind,” she said.

“What? Don’t you want to play?”

“I can’t. I can’t concentrate. All these letters are giving me a headache.”

“Well, what do you want to do?”

She wanted to catch fireflies and watch the sun come down. He told her as they sat on the porch about Harper.

“What is she like?”

“She’s nice.”

“That tells me a lot, David. A hell of a lot.”

“She’s pretty. She’s nice. She’s tall.”

“Does she look like the brother?”

“I don’t know. I never met him. What does he look like?”

“Like a cute schizophrenic. Ha ha,” Charlotte said flatly. “Well, tell me. Is she fiery and mysterious?”

“I wouldn’t call her fiery. Maybe a little mysterious.”

“That’s odd. You always go for fiery.”

“She’s impossible to describe. You’ll know what I mean if you meet her.”

“When I meet her, you mean.”

He made her Pop Tarts and Jiffy Popcorn. When they were kids, strawberry Pop Tarts had always been their favorite breakfast. They ate them almost burned, with the strawberry filling melted and molten against their tongues.

“Anything else for the homecoming girl?” he asked.

“You mean queen. Homecoming Queen,” she corrected.

He smiled. “You sound like yourself, Charlie. You’re back.”

She looked down at her sticky fingers for a moment, and then said, “No. Not myself. Not my full self.”

“Yeah,” he interrupted. “Anything else? You feel like watching a movie or something before you go to bed?”

“One more thing,” she said, “before I retire. Just one more thing.”

She walked over to the bookcase and lifted the Bible box.

“Thank you for keeping it,” she said solemnly.

“You’re welcome. I didn’t open it, Charlie.”

“I know,” she said. She carried it to the coffee table and sank into the sofa. She gazed at it intently. Then she lifted it, and held it up to her nose.

“It still smells so good. I forgot it was made out of cedar.”

“Do you want to take it up to your room?”

“No. I’m going to open it.”

“You are? You want me to leave the room?”

“No, David. Stay, please. I’m a little scared.”

She didn’t look afraid. She just looked very tired.

“Of the box?”

“No,” she said. And she opened it. He looked over her shoulder.

“It’s empty,” he said.

“I know. I know,” she said. “Look at that, David. It’s empty.” There was the hint of emotion in her voice. She sounded relieved. He had to hug her. And she looked good, too. She was too thin, but her skin was clear, and her blouse was tucked neatly into her wool skirt. She could be going to a job interview, that’s how groomed she was. Even her fingernails, those nails that were usually so ragged and chewed up, were clipped and buffed.

“You look great,” he said.

“You mean I look sane.”

“Yeah, whatever.”

“Hey, I want to do one last thing,” she said.

“What’s that?”

“I want to put something real in the box.” She deliberated for awhile. Then, finally, it came to her. Grandma’s ring. She wrapped it with tissue paper and placed it gingerly inside. She made him kiss it before she closed the lid.

“Now, it’s your box. Say a prayer.”

“You know I don’t pray.”

“Fine, then. Just say a prayer to the universe or something. Like a wish, only you are making it to something larger than yourself. If you pray hard enough, she’s going to come back to you. I know it.”

***

Harper's mother called her within the first week of Brad’s release.

“I don’t know, honey, I just don’t know.” Her voice was thin. Harper imagined her tucking a section of frosty hair behind her ear, pursing her lips.Harper didn’t fill the silence that followed. She usually reassured her mother, or praised her efforts. She didn’t feel like comforting her this time.

“I don’t think he's adjusting well.” Another pause. “Harper, are you there?”

“I’m here, Mother.”

“I think he might be having…what you call the positive symptoms.”

“What has he done?”

“Well, he hardly speaks to me at all, Harper. At all. And when I came home from choir practice yesterday, do you know that all of the glass doorknobs were missing? I just know he’s hidden them, but when I asked him if he knew where they were he wouldn’t answer me. Please, you need to come over now. Maybe he’ll talk to you. He always listens to you.”

Harper sighed. “I have to pick Lily up from the Little Annex. But I can come over later tonight. I’ll bring Lily over for dinner.”

“I think you should come over now. Do you know what he said to me? He…I don’t even want to repeat it. He looked right through me and he said, ‘Mother, you are white on the outside but inside you are a sand nigger.’ He used those words.”

“Mom…”

“I told him that was not nice. I never taught you to use such ugly language. I never taught you to think of other human beings that way.”

“I know you didn’t, Mom.”

“How could he say such a thing? It is so hateful. It hurts me to see him being so hateful.”

“He’s crazy, Mom. When he gets this way, we can’t hold him accountable for the things he says.”

Her mother was crying. “He says he is going to go to Iraq. What if he runs off again? Please, Harper. Come as soon as you get her.”

Harper’s cell phone rang as she drove out of the day care center’s parking lot. She pulled over to the side of the road as soon as she heard her mother’s shrill voice.

“Harper, you must come here immediately. It is an emergency!”

Lily fidgeted in her car seat.

“I can’t talk to you right now, Lily. We have to go to Grandma and Grandpa’s now, okay?”

Lily sat up straight. She knew what that tone of voice meant.

Harper tried to keep her hands from shaking as she clutched the wheel. She felt fear stab and then break her heart as if it were made of ice or glass and easily shattered. She knew, she knew what he’d done. She imagined it completely. He’d cut it out. He’d cut off his tongue. She could feel the searing pain as he took their mother’s gardening shears and gathered up the courage to do it, to finally do it, to do away with the implants once and for all…. She imagined the blood, dark and heavy, pouring from his mouth, choking him as it poured down his throat….

But he was not injured. He crouched in the corner of his room, rocking back and forth. He wore a red, white and blue skull cap pulled tightly over his ears.

“Mommy?” Lily stood in the doorway.

“Lily, wait downstairs like I told you to do. Now.”

Lily turned and left. Harper took a deep breath, and waited for the sound of her daughter’s light steps to fade.

“Brad?” Harper tried to catch his eye, but he wouldn’t look at her. Instead, he lifted his fingers and sniffed them, one by one.

“Brad? Mom says her doorknobs are missing. Do you know where they are?”

He said nothing, only lifted each fingertip and licked it slowly, deliberately.

“Brad? What happened, Brad?”

He laughed, rolled his eyes, then laughed again.

“What are you laughing at? Is somebody else there with you?”

He didn’t answer.

“Brad? It’s me, Harper. It’s your sister. Are there other voices in your head?”

“Twin?” He looked up at her as if she were a fuzzy image he couldn’t quite make out.

“Yes, it’s me. Are there voices in your head?”

“No. Not in my head. In the room. I can’t make them stop.”

***

Harper left him, closing the door quietly behind her. She felt so tired. She wasn’t sure what to do. She was never sure. That was what her family didn’t understand.

Lily sat in the den watching television. Mrs. Lee sat at the dining room table behind a plate of Madelines and a pitcher of milk. She always poured milk from out of the carton into a glass pitcher.

“What is she watching, Mom?” Harper asked.

Mrs. Lee grimaced. “You’d ask me that at a time like this?”

“I just want to know what she’s watching.”

“The Cartoon Network, I think. Is he feeling better?”

“No, Mom. It doesn’t work like that.”

“Have you eaten yet, dear? I gave Lily some tomato soup.”

“I’m fine. How long has he been this way?”

“Did you see that ridiculous cap? He told me it is to keep his thoughts escaping from his head. He told me that lesbians are stealing his thoughts.” Mrs. Lee shook her head.

“How long has he been like this?” Harper asked.

“I can’t go up there, Harper. I just can’t.”

“Mom, has he been taking his meds? Have you been monitoring his medication?”

“He brought them with him. I put them in the medicine cabinet.”

“Yes, but did you see him take it?”

“He’s not a baby, Harper. A man needs his privacy.”

“Mother, he needs someone to help him watch those things. Especially when he is first released. I told you that. Where is Dad, anyway?”

“Your father’s on a business trip to Dallas. Should we call the doctor?” She looked up from the table so helplessly that Harper felt her hard resolve to chasten her mother dissolve.

“Oh, Mama,” she sighed. She sat down and took Mrs. Lee’s small hand into her own. She felt her eyes grow shiny with tears. She did not look into her mother’s eyes. She knew that if she met them they would both begin to cry, and that would solve nothing.

“Sometimes,” Mrs. Lee said, “I just want to shake him. I just want to shake him and shake him.”

“I do too. But that wouldn’t change anything. It wouldn’t help.”

“I used to think, they used to say, that if the mother…”

“That’s all bunk, Mom. You know that.”

“There are times when your father and I want to give him a good talking to. There are times when I almost convince myself that’s what he needs.”

“Mother, listen to me. I think we should consider some other kind of care for Brad. We can afford it. I mean you can afford it. Most people can’t.”

“Harper, what are you saying?”

“There are nice places. Private institutions. Day facilities, too. With activities. People without insurance or money don’t usually have the options we have.”

“Are you suggesting that we put your brother away somewhere?”

“Mother, listen to me. The money you were going to give me for Lily. For her school? I think that should go to Brad.”

“Now you listen to me. I am still the mother and you are still the daughter. There’s a reason they did away with those places. One of those places ruined your great Uncle Cleigh. Absolutely ruined him.”

“Mom, I’m not saying forever...listen to me. I would never want Brad to be in a bad place. Things are different now. You know that?” Harper’s voice was calm and reassuring. She didn’t feel assured. She didn’t want to send Brad away.

“Absolutely not. Absolutely not.” Mrs. Lee shook her head.

“What are you going to do? Are you willing to watch him, to stay here instead of going to the Oleander Festival or whatever to make sure he’s taking his medicine, to make sure he’s not running off somewhere, to make sure he’s eating and brushing and bathing?”

“He listens to you, Harper. He’s better off with you.”

“It’s out of sight, out of mind with you, isn’t it, Mom? Do you know how many times I’ve seen him like this? Do you know I actually had to bathe him? To put the medicine on his feet to kill off his fungus? Do you know that he had ringworms? And lice, and all kinds of nasty crawly things? But you don’t know that, do you, Mother. Because I’ll clean the shit out of his pants so that you don’t have to get all worked up and injured over it, because you are so sensitive. So vulnerable and sweet and sensitive. Isn’t that what you used to say?”

It was what she’d said all the time, when they were children. When Brad was her sweet boy and Harper was the difficult child. “Brad and I are two peas in a pod, we feel things, and you’re a hard nut to crack just like your father,” she’d tell Harper, shaking a finger up at her. Since she was eleven, Harper had been taller than Mrs. Lee. Sometimes she found it difficult to remember a time when her mother wasn’t looking up at her.

“You can’t have it both ways Mom. You can’t leave him to me and then tell me that I can’t make decisions for him.”

“Harper, that is no way to talk to me. I won’t have you talk to me that way in my house.” Mrs. Lee’s jaw hardened.

“Fine then. I’ll leave.”

“What? What about your brother? What am I supposed to do?” Mrs. Lee followed her to the doorway, shaking her finger as she spoke. “Are you listening? Don’t get mad at me, Harper. This isn’t my fault. Where are you going, young lady? Are you leaving Lily here?”

“Why don’t you watch her for me? Since she’s such a fucking joy and pleasure?”

Harper heard her mother’s sharp intake of breath, but she did not turn around. She slammed the door and tore out of the driveway. The neighbors had definitely heard them. Good, Harper thought. Let Mom deal with that one. Let her deal with the neighbors asking about the strange squirrelly man who peeps at them through the slats of her venetian blinds. Let her deal with him running out of the house to pee on her precious azaleas.

***

David stood for a minute in the doorway, taking her in. There were specks of ashy dust under her eyes, probably beads of mascara. Her long hair had fallen from its clasp and hung, disheveled, about her face. The first two snaps of her shirt had come undone and her shoes were caked with mud.

“You look crazy, Harp,” he told her.

She gave him that lopsided smile.

She walked over to the sofa, sat down, crossed her legs and lit a cigarette. She looked around for a moment, then stood up and began to pace.

“I didn’t know you smoked,” he said.

“I haven’t, for a long time. Where is she?”

“My sister? Charlotte’s asleep.”

“Oh. Do you have an ashtray?” Her eyes darted about the room. David handed her a mug.

“Just use this.” He watched as she stamped her cigarette out.

“I don’t know what to do,” she said. She clasped her elbows and wandered over to the window. All of the windows in the living room had long white curtains. Harper thought they looked like bridal veils stirring in the breeze.

“Why don’t you start by sitting down,” he said, “and telling me what’s wrong.”

She sat down again. David sat beside her. He wanted to push her hair back out of her eyes, to kiss the top of her head.

She was the one who reached out and stroked his bare face with her fingertips. He’d shaved off the beard. It made him seem younger. She felt the cleft in his chin, the angular planes of his face. She looked into his eyes. They were such a bright, unsettling green.

“My brother is lost,” she said.

“Right now. But that doesn’t mean forever.”

“No, you’re right. Maybe not forever.”

“We’ll take care of him,” he told her.

“How?”

“We just will.”

He pulled her against his chest. He kissed the top of her head. Harper felt something like solace, but it was too bright, too silvery to be called solace. More like the way she felt when Brad first showed her plans for a trip to the moon. Her brother was right. She was full of starlight.

Claudia Smith’s stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Pig Iron Malt, Word Riot, hobart, Pindeldyboz, the Salt River Review, and Zacatecas: A Review of Contemporary Word. She lives in Austin, Texas.

Copyright © 2003 by Claudia Smith.