The river struggles through nets of factory smoke. I watch the sun pursue it, stabbing again and again until blood stains the fugitive waves. What pursued my brother when he fled across these waters and left me behind?
He used to bring me to this beach, littered with concrete from abandoned construction projects. We tripped up and down its length, tangled in the smoke, struggling to see the shore across the river. Around us, smokestacks caged the sky and cast long bars of shadow over our shoulders. We stood here, and spoke of the other side. My brother was certain that over there, no buildings scraped at the sky, no wailing sirens and coughing factories would keep us awake. We could see the stars! He promised to cross the river with me beside him. It seemed impossible. No bridge arched over the river and no boats ever mottled its waters. But somehow, my brother kept half his promise.
The night he escaped, a scream awoke me from a dreamless sleep. I jumped out of bed and rushed to wake my parents. They were already awake. I saw them crouched outside the bathroom door, my mom’s head against my dad’s chest, sobbing. My brother wasn’t there. The swish of liquid on bathroom tiles had taken his place. It sounded like a boat swaying in the waves. That’s when I realized he’d escaped across the river and forgotten to take me with him.
I never saw him again but sometimes I can hear his voice, drowning in the roar of engines. I can hear him in the conversations of people trapped in streetcars. Overhead an airplane screeches. In the distance behind me an ambulance howls. And faintly I hear him, my brother, no more than a whisper. Is he urging me to escape all this and join him across the river? I squint my eyes, struggling to see him on the other side. But I only see a sun chained in smoke, drowning in the river.
A car pulls up behind me, crushing pebbles and tiny shards of glass; I can hear them crack and pop like old bones. She’s found me again. Squealing, a rusty door swings open and her feet strike the ground. Her hair whips and coils in the wind. She’s scowling. With a sharp jerk of her eyes, she commands me to get into the car. My hands in my pockets, I trudge towards the grumbling car and her scowling face. Even when I don’t want to be found, somehow she always finds me, my mom.
In a smear, signs and billboards reel by as the engine’s grumble shifts into a nervous hum. At last, I dare a peek at my mom. With her lips stitched by a spider’s thread of saliva spit and her half-open eyes loosely fixed on the road, she doesn’t seem mad at me. Does she even know I’m here? Maybe it’s all a trick. She’ll explode the second I speak. Or maybe she’s too tired to yell today. Crow’s feet claw at her eyes. A powdered mask smothers her lined face. For a moment I can’t help thinking that maybe she’d like to cross the river with me. A gust of wind grazes the window. I turn my eyes away. No, my brother is right, she wouldn’t want to.
I lean my head against the window and sigh, watching the city swim by through fogged glass.
Mom’s car gradually surrenders to the growing traffic. Bleeding stoplights and glassy-eyed buildings stumble into focus. In front of me cars dash from side to side, like the frenzied aliens my brother used to shoot at the arcade. Mannequins stare lifelessly behind glass cages. Scrolling up and down over store windows, electronic signs flicker. A light bulb is missing from one of them. Feet patter madly as people scurry from store to store, their eyes darting about like tiny fish, frantic and blind. My brother is right. They can’t see me. Their eyes are as vacant as the mannequins’.
In front of an office building, surrounded by dust and empty cans, a fledgling tree claws at the air. Does anyone else see it scrabbling for life in the smog-choked air? I reach out, longing for the sensation of rough bark beneath my fingers. Instead, I feel only the chill of glass.
It’s dark when I arrive home. The sun must’ve sunk to the river’s bottom. Mom opens the door and the smell of unwashed dishes consumes me. Dad is not home. My backpack leans against the staircase; it hasn’t moved in a week. White guts spill out of its open mouth. From the top of the stairs, behind glass, my brother smiles at me, his hand resting on my shoulder. I smile back. Mom goes into the kitchen and I go upstairs to my room. We don’t say anything to each other.
As the stairs creak beneath me, I smile. His hand is resting on my shoulder.
I can see the moon, from my window, floating in sickly yellow light. I see the same yellow crawling down the streets, clinging to buildings. The lights - they’ve frightened away the stars.
I wish I could hear him now. But someone is drowning him out, pounding on the door.
My dad glares at me from the doorway, his warm breath flooding over me. He is flushed. Dimly, I hear a scream. My mom’s? My head itches where his fists touch me - where the spiders circle my skull, spinning violet webs under my eyes. I’m falling down the stairs again. I see his fist, cuffed in red, reaching for me. And I fall again and again. When dad is flushed, I always fall down the stairs again. But I don’t mind. It’s the only time I see stars.
A deep shade of violet, leaking into night.... Where are you now? Why can’t I hear you?
It’s been ringing for hours. The clock ticks in and out of beat with my dad’s snores. Mom must be asleep now too. She stopped crying a while ago. I rise from bed, trembling. It’s coming from my closet. Loose papers, discarded clothing rise like gnarled roots resting atop oak, a burnt out moon tripping me. The shadows blanch and darken again, as waves of pale light sweep in and out. Here is the closet door. The chill brass doorknob cuts into my hand and I bite my lip. Click. The door swings open.
Resting atop a pile of cardboard boxes, the plastic phone I used to play with is ringing shrilly. My hands shake as I reach for the phone.
I can’t stop smiling. You want me to whisper? But how can I whisper when I want to shout and yell? I haven’t seen you in so long.... I’ll see you soon? Without a sound, I set the phone down. And I can’t stop smiling.
Behind the bathroom mirror, the silver ticket shines, just as you said it would. Its cold edge bites into my palm. White-tiled floors, a damp green rug in the centre. Brackish waves lapping at a shore, the taste coats my tongue. My feet are cold and damp. And there, in the water, just as you described, the ivory boat sways. Back and forth. Swaying between moss-covered rocks and white-tiled floors. The wind kisses me on the cheek, the way mom used to. I slip into the boat. The moon looks like spilled milk in the river. My muscles tense. One stroke after another, I hiss, pulling away from shore. I can feel the boat pulsing through the waters. The ticket falls from my hand, warm. I can feel the river, laced between my fingers, trickling down my arms. Someone is shouting out my name. It’s my mother, I recognize through tears, on the receding shore, reaching out for me. Goodbye! I wave and smile at her. Then she is gone, claimed by fog and distance. But there! You stand with your hand outstretched! I can almost touch you....
© 2004 The Richmond Hill Public Library Board