I follow Mom out to the car. When we’re both in and buckled, she glances at me in the rearview mirror.
“We’re not going to stay long,” she says, “maybe five minutes. He’s bound to be exhausted.”
I nod, blow on the window, and draw a smiley face in the condensation. Leaning back, I consider how the five-minute visit might play out.
I want to show him how much I love him, how much I miss him even though it’s only been a week. A void happens when seven days pass without someone you’re used to seeing every day. It feels like there’s an empty bucket in my belly and it’s blue.
My plan is to show him my fingernails, how I stopped biting them, just for him. I haven’t nibbled all week. They don’t yet touch the tips of my fingers but I painted them anyway, borrowed Mom’s Avon nail polish—Peppy Poppy—without asking. The color reminds me of the cherry hard shell coating you can get on your twisty cone at the ice cream place on Route 60. I lick my nails to see if maybe they taste like— Naw. They’re bitter, chemically. Shiny though.
Hopefully Mom’ll leave us alone in the hospital room, so I can hiss to John, “I hate them.” The boys who did this. Because of them, I’ll never sit behind him on his motorbike again, my arms strapped around his midsection, my cheek flush with his poky, man-boy shoulder blade. I never really felt safe there and where I didn’t have a tangible excuse before (besides I’m chicken), now I do.
A week ago, a whole car, a Lincoln Continental, slammed into John and his Honda, tossed them both into the air—him left, the bike right. When I picture the crash in my mind’s eye, I imagine he flies up to the stoplight kind of slow, but then falls back to earth super fast. The black top receives him none too gently.
The Lincoln was stolen. The driver ignored the red light. All the guys in the car were drunk. High too.
I change my mind. I’m not going to hiss. I intend to yell. “I hate those boys!” Maybe even, “I wish they were dead!”
My mad words will ricochet off the almost pistachio-green walls (or will they be make-you-squint-bright-white?) and he’ll be satisfied, John will, that I’m on his side when ninety per cent of the time I’m nothing but a pain in his butt. That’s how he always introduces me; never, “This is my little sister.”
After “I hate them,” I’ll say, “It’s too bad.” That he won’t get to perform his Steve Martin imitation at the high school talent show. Not too long ago I’d crouched outside his bedroom door, the side of my face smooshed to the wall just out of sight, while he practiced in the mirror. I peeked in and saw him arrange a pillow case on his head. He watched his reflection sing, “King Tut, Tut. Funky Tut, Tut.” I stole another look, giggled into my shoulder as he shimmied and crowed, “I’m just one wild and crazy guy.”
When he finished, I pounced through the doorway with a grin. “You’re the funniest guy ever! For real! They’re gonna love you.”
That earned me a beating, for being a spy.
Who knows? Maybe I’ll apologize too. For the whipping he’d taken that night on account of me. And for all the other times. More than once I’d lied. To Dad. I’d told the truth that night, but I didn’t always. Sometimes I tattled just because. Truth or no, it didn’t matter. Daddy believed me without fail. For no other reason than I was his only daughter, the youngest child, his Honey Pot.
Whenever I snitched, Dad’s face would get super red, especially his nose, and his eyes would go all squinty.
“How could you do that?” he’d say. “For crying out loud, she’s just a little girl.”
John would glare at me from across the room, mouth two words: “Spoiled brat.” That was his favorite thing to throw at me, besides a fist.
Invariably Dad would maneuver John into a Vulcan nerve pinch and shove him out of the room. In the minute before I heard the siss of Dad’s belt speeding out of its constraints, I’d grin, snicker, enjoy a certain satisfaction. But when the thwack sounded—cow skin on boy butt—I always winced, regretted. Power didn’t seem so cool then.
I have other brothers, two in fact, but for some reason, I like John best. I have no idea why. He did after all try to kill me once, on the chocolate milk-colored sofa in the basement, after I told him no way he was going to my ninth grade prom. For starters, he was too old (two years and three months my senior) and besides, it was my school dance, not his. And did he not know what Kitty Howard did with Joey McComas behind the Convenient Mart dumpster? Did he really want to go out with a girl like that?
Seconds later John had launched at me, hands all T-rex clawed, his metal mouth gleaming through froth. He crammed my head into a corner of the couch, choked me until I saw stars, then nothing.
“Mom,” I yelled after I came to, “John tried to murder me. I blacked out. I’m serious.”
She didn’t answer. Turned out, she was in the back yard picking zinnias and cherry tomatoes, yacking over the fence with Mrs. McCallister about how many kittens they thought our cat Ginger would have.
I think maybe John and I are like Dad and Ginger. Dad’s forever grouching about what a nuisance Ginger is, all the time honking into the handkerchief he keeps in his front pants pocket.
“That blankety-blank cat is single-handedly making Benadryl rich.”
Whenever Ginger perches on the sill outside the living room window, I take the screen off and let her in. Not Dad. He murmurs to her real nice so she thinks maybe— Then, schwing! He cranks the window open so fast she flies out in the yard with a yowl. Plus, whenever he spots her sitting by the front door daintily grooming her pumpkin-colored paws, Dad’ll stroll up to her and point to his Hush Puppy oxford.
“Here, kitty, kitty. Let me introduce you to the number nine shoe. I don’t believe you all have met.”
Once again, she goes flying with a yowl.
Ginger adores Daddy anyway, always arches her back under his fingers whenever he nods off in his Ethan Allen wing chair during the nightly news. She’s not stupid though. When he’s awake, she holes up under his chair, her exposed and twitching tail the only evidence of her presence.
I think Dad must like Ginger a tiny bit because one time I spied him giving her an empty tuna can to lick when he thought no one was looking.
So, yeah, I’m pretty sure Ginger’s just like me, wants to be around the person who likes her least, is okay with getting one pat on the back for every hundred times she goes flying with a yowl. Doesn’t make a bit of sense, but she doesn’t care and neither do I.
As Mom and I step off the elevator, I reach into the back pocket of my jean shorts and pull out the picture I brought to show John—of Ginger and her seven kittens, in case he wants to see.
Mom stops a few steps shy of John’s door, lowers her voice and informs me his right arm will be in a sling and his left leg will be casted and in a pulley gizmo over his bed.
I roll my eyes. “I know, Mom. You’ve said that a hundred times this week.”
“There’s a chance he may be out of it,” she tells me, “what with the pain meds and all.”
My lower lip pooches out. “Aw, I sure hope not.” I glance at my fingernails. “I want him to see my manicure.” Want him to hear me say, I hate them and I’m sorry.
I’ve pictured how our visit will end. Hopefully Mom will leave the room and when she does I’ll grip the side rail of his hospital bed and lean close.
“Don’t tell anybody,” I’ll whisper, “but you’re my favorite brother.” Then I’ll watch his face closely, especially his mouth, to see if maybe, just maybe, he’ll say . . .
Diane Tarantini lives in a hundred-year-old house in West Virginia with one husband, three children, and a plethora of pets. Her writing has won awards in Appalachian, humor, inspirational, non-fiction, and book-length prose categories. Currently she is investigating the possibility of pursuing an MFA.