It was a game she played as a kid. “What’s going on in his mind?” Always guessing, always laughing. Her laugh sounded like a couple of bells chiming together, but not harsh, more like a cascade of sounds. She was beautiful. Beautiful blonde hair, falling in beautiful curls. Beautiful blue eyes and a beautiful smile. I looked nothing like her. She was like one of those beautiful porcelain dolls and I was more like the rag dolls she played with. One saw her, and thought ‘beautiful’. She was like that. And I had to protect her. As soon as they saw her, they would crowd around and say ‘Oh! What an angel!’ ’How lucky you are to have a sister like that little Mikey’ or ‘such a delight, such a delight’ or ‘don’t you just love her?’ And I say,” Sure”. Everybody loved her. There was just no doubting that. She was always the fairy or the angel or the little princess in all the plays. Ma loved to dress her in little frocks made from leftover fabric. I complained once and Pa asked me to be a man, he said it was womanly to complain about my sister’s clothes. So, I never did after that day. Ma and Pa would look at her and share those smiles, I called them the ‘brownie smiles’, they were so sweet and chocolaty.
I have always hated brownies. But I loved my sister. Sure, it hurt that she always got to put the star on top of the Christmas tree or that she got the last piece of pie or that I was always supposed to look after her because she was the younger one. But most of the times I didn’t really mind. I knew she used to look up to me for everything and that used to make me feel real good. It was I being Pa. Sort of. Also, it was she who used to hold my hand while going to school and Mary-Ann thought it was so sweet. So I didn’t really mind. Honest.
It started with a cough. And then blood. The cough was so loud. I would wake up in the middle of the night just by the sound of it. It was harsh and hollow, sort of like that ride we went on last year. Pa said it was dangerous to go on that cart. It was rusty and hadn’t been oiled and made a loud sound. Pa’s cough sounded just like that, rusty, loud and like it hadn’t been oiled in a long time.
After that, Pa could not even get out of the bed. I heard Mrs. Weimer whisper to Mrs. Johnson,” it’s the dreaded one”,” poor kids”. I wanted to know what was the dreaded one. Who was this dreaded one? No one told me. Not even a single person. I would ask and ask but they would just not tell me. I guess eleven-year-old kids aren’t supposed to eavesdrop, but I tried to listen in anyway. Once ma caught me and she burst into tears. She said I just would have to be the man of the house now. Why? But I knew this much, whenever ‘the dreaded one’ called, we were asked to go out and play! Who was this ‘dreaded one’? Maybe it wasn’t such a bad thing after all. After all, we got extra hours to play, even after dark. Pa was beginning to spend an awful amount of time in his room and we weren’t allowed to see him. Ma too kept busy. A little too busy if you asked me. We had dry bread again for dinner last night. And some stale soup from Mrs. Johnson’s house. Doesn’t Ma care about us anymore? I sneaked a look into Pa’s room when no one was looking. He was sleeping. I don’t understand.
It has been a while since that day. Things have changed. Our little garden is now full of weeds; I can’t pull some of them out no matter how hard I try. My beautiful mother now looks like that old gypsy woman selling balloons at the Rio festival. We never really went to Rio; it was just a carnival that came to our town at the beginning of last spring. I remember that gypsy woman very clearly. She wore skirts, and skirts, and some more skirts, all scarlet red. She had gnarled hands, droopy eyes, wisps for hair and eyes that saw through you. I remember her, cause I bought a balloon from her. She gave me two instead of one that I paid for. I knew she couldn’t see clearly and couldn’t even hear. I should have given back that extra balloon. But I didn’t. I was given a penny that day to have fun. And it was such a fun day.
Not now. Not anymore. There is just no more fun. Even my friends don’t come around to play anymore. Now they don’t look at my sister and say ‘beautiful’, it is always somehow ‘ those poor kids’ these days. I wonder why. Now Ma says, we are on charity. I don’t understand what charity is but I sure don’t like it. I miss Pa. He never did come back. I am scared of coughs.
Ma says Pa is in heaven. He is happy there. There is everything you need there. I want to go to heaven too. Ma gives me a sad smile. Not one of those brownie smiles, I miss brownies. I don’t even have friends anymore. Not the way they used to be, everything’s changed now. They even let me bat first because I heard them whisper that their Pa told them to be nice to me, and my sister, and I really didn’t mind that, not really until Mika said I couldn’t come to her party because poor people aren’t welcome in her house. But she doesn’t understand that we aren’t poor. How could we be? Wouldn’t Ma have told me otherwise? Even Mary-Ann has changed. She doesn’t look at me anymore. Does this have anything to do with being on charity? How is it that adults never explain anything? How is it that they think we don’t understand anything? How is it that they think we can’t help, decide or even just listen? I can see changes but am still not close to understanding. So what if I still like to play or hate the dark? Am old enough to help. I just wish she would let me. That’s what I miss most about Pa. He would always let me help. Did I mention that it was me who would help him carry his tools belt? I even helped him carve. Now no one cares. There’s something else that bothers me, everything is getting so dirty. Pa’s workshop is all dusty. I never noticed before but it sure gets real dusty, real soon. Pa once told me that sometimes when you get real lucky, and look real hard at the sun beam and the dust dancing in the sunlight, you can see whole pictures caught in that moment and every time after that when the sunlight and just the right amount of dust come together, you can see that whole picture again. I never really believed Pa. Ma only laughed. She said when you want anything real bad, you will see it, but that was no reason to have dust around. And she would make us clean. I didn’t believe her then, but I want to. I stare, stare and stare some more but I see nothing. Ever. I looked for Pa. I looked for everything that was before everything changed. But I saw nothing. I really wanted to believe. I wanted some sign. Was I being punished for keeping that extra balloon? One night, when Pa was ill and having a really bad bout of coughs, I lost my temper. I told him to shut up, I yelled and I cried and I shouted. There was no one home that time. And I feel so guilty.
Is that why I am being punished? Is that why I don’t see the pictures my Pa saw so clearly? I cleaned today. I cleaned every spot. I missed lunch. I don’t think Ma even noticed.
She doesn’t wake up! Mrs. Weimer tells Mrs. Johnson,” those poor kids, whatever will happen to them?”, “ poor souls”, says Mrs. Johnson. “Where’s Ma?” “She’s in heaven”. “Where’s heaven?” “Oh poor Mikey, you are so young for this to have happened to you and your sister” “For what to have happened?” “Shh. Go out and play till we call you in.” And that’s when I knew things have definitely changed. Ma too was gone and she wasn’t coming back. Maybe they didn’t love us enough but I knew that wasn’t possible cause I remember their brownie smiles. They were going to send us away. They said we were orphans. They said we needed help. And they said we were very lucky cause a very nice family agreed to take us in. Lucky?
And we ran. My beautiful sister and me. She doesn’t laugh much these days. We were playing by the river. Like we used to once, before rushing home for supper. I know she too remembered the good times. She starts to cry.
It was a game she loved to play,’ what’s on his mind”. Always guessing what others thought. This time she knew. Just knew. She knew what was on my mind. Gave me a sad smile. We held hands and looked into the river.
How could I have ever hated those smiles? Its great being a family again, a beautiful sister, and those brownie smiles between parents.