“Mom,” I call, “Steven’s sick!” It’s nighttime and I’m standing in the dark hall outside my bedroom, a long corridor that connects my room to my little brother’s. I am nine years old, and Steven is seven. The light is on in the bathroom at his end of the hall; it’s bright, the bathroom very white in the darkness. He’s thrown up in the hall just in front of the bathroom door. I woke up to the sounds of him heaving and the acrid smell of vomit. I hug myself, trembling in the cold.
I call out again, “Steven threw up,” and hope my mother hears me. She sleeps heavily. She snores. My father sleeps in the other twin bed in their room, unless he’s away on a business trip. Their twin beds have white bedspreads. One time Steven and I got in trouble for jumping back and forth on the beds instead of taking a bath. My father burst into the bedroom with the broad-backed pink plastic hairbrush, the hairbrush used just for spankings. That time I ran shrieking through the hallways, my father in pursuit. He spanked me anyway, when he caught up with me. Steven stood by, stoic, waiting his turn.
Steven and I spend long days outdoors on our own. In the summer we explore the woods, catching turtles and small fish at Birchwood Lake, where dragonflies hover over lily pads and invisible frogs croak on the muddy shoreline. In the winter we drag our snow coasters to Pollard Road and hurtle down the hill. I read to him. Before I know how, I pretend. We sit on the orange couch in the walnut-paneled living room, our chubby legs stretched out straight, as I recite The Little Engine That Could. “I think I can, I think I can.” I know the words and when to turn the pages from having heard the story in nursery school. My father reads to us sometimes, but he gets home from work in the city very late. My mother never reads to us and has stopped cooking dinner lately, saying she isn’t up to it. She watches soaps in the afternoon, and spends more and more time in bed. The curtains are always closed.
Finally, my mother answers, her raised voice weary. “Tell him to clean it up and go back to sleep.” She doesn’t get up and come out to us.
At nine I’m not surprised by my mother’s response. She doesn’t like to be disturbed. She’s always tired. “I didn’t sleep a wink last night,” is what she tells my father when he gets home from work every night. “I think I’m coming down with something,” she says, holding her hand to her forehead, checking for a fever. She gets hives when she cooks or vacuums or mops. She’s afraid she’ll catch something from us when we’re sick. She isn’t getting out of bed.
I don’t remember what happened next. I don’t remember how long I waited, or if my father woke up, or if he was even there. I don’t remember if I helped my brother. It is only later, when I have a child myself, that I recall this night at all.
What I remember: just that moment, outside my door. Me shivering in my thin nightgown in the darkness, the chill on my bare feet and legs. Steven’s silhouette against the bright light of the bathroom to the left. The dark hall straight ahead between my parents’ bedroom and mine. The closed door at the end of it.
Jacqueline Doyle lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her award-winning flash chapbook The Missing Girl was published by Black Lawrence Press last fall. She has recent creative nonfiction in The Gettysburg Review, Superstition Review, and NOR: New Ohio Review, and recent flash in Wigleaf, New Flash Fiction Review, and Post Road. This is Jacqueline Doyle’s second publication in Cleaver. Find her online at www.jacquelinedoyle.com and on Twitter at @doylejacq.
Read more from Cleaver Magazine’s Issue #25.