Here’s the second part of “He Isn’t There”. You can find the first part here.
When I woke the next morning everything felt different. My mother lay curled up beside me, gently snoring, in the bed we shared. As usual, she had not woken me when she came home from work. She must have had a hard night because she was still wearing the clothes from her night job at the hotel. She was snoring and restful and I decided not to wake her, even though it was my birthday and I wanted nothing more than to have her awake so I could found out if she understood yet how different our lives had just become.
I woke up bruised and sore. My arms and legs ached and it hurt just a little bit when I breathed. And yet, I also felt alert and better rested than I had in a long time. The apartment was silent except for my mom’s breathing. I listened for the usual sounds of my brother’s morning routines. The television was not blaring, unwatched, in the living room. There was no yelling or cursing at Call of Duty on the Xbox. There were no scorched smelling things coming from the kitchen toaster.
I imagined myself an astronaut crashed landed on an alien planet. Carefully, I left the safety of my ship and stepped out into the strangely hospitable atmosphere. I slid from the bed slowly, careful not to let the bed shake and wake mom. I watched her for another minute then made my way out of the bedroom and into the unknown space of our apartment.
It hurt to walk, but I managed just fine. I was tough and had learned how to keep moving normal even when things hurt. Our bedroom door was open, which was good because it usually squeaked when you opened it. The light in the hallway was on but that probably just meant that mom had left it on. She was always leaving lights on no matter how many times I explained what I knew about energy and global warming.
My brother’s bedroom door was open. I peeked inside, not expecting to find him there. I had developed a kind of psychic ability to feel when my brother was and was not around. I didn’t feel him anywhere.
His room looked the same. Piles of dirty clothes. Monster truck magazines with girls in hot pink bikinis. Food wrappers. Broken DVDs. I looked at his bed from my safe perch at the doorway. His bed had not been slept in. His backpack from school was laying right where it had been the day before with sweaty gym clothes spilling out like a weird volcano. He wasn’t there. He had not been there.
There was a weird, metallic smell in his bedroom. Weirder than usual. It was like the smell of gunpowder after a bunch of fireworks went off. Or the smell of a place where lightning has been.
I went to the living room. The TV was off. The cards from our Go Fish game were still on the floor, exactly as they had been. I found the broom stick pieces and picked them up. They were small but pointy with sharp splinters. I liked the way they felt in my hands and carried them with me to the kitchen.
The kitchen looked totally normal. The bowl I used to cook macaroni and cheese in the microwave was on the stove. I forgot to put it in the sink, which was one of my main chores. I put both sticks in one hand so I could carry the bowl. Then I noticed the big chocolate muffin on the counter beside an envelope that had Happy Birthday written inside a great big heart. Chocolate muffins are my favorite kind of breakfast and sometimes mom brought them home from the corner gas station as a special kind of surprise.
I put the sticks on the counter, knowing I would not need them. If my brother were here, he would already have eaten my birthday muffin or smashed it up inside the package just for meanness.
Suddenly, I wondered if my brother was really, truly gone or if he had just left the apartment for fear of mother finding out what he had done. I had to consider both possibilities, unlikely as they might be. Mother never found out about the things he had done or, if she did, never seemed to know what to do about them. Though last night had been different. He would have been in a whole lot of trouble. Bruises make mom scared and when she gets scared she can be a holy terror.
I opened the birthday card. It was puppy making goo goo eyes over a birthday cake. Too young for me but I secretly liked that mom went for the mushy stuff.
I LOVE YOU SO MUCH. YOU ARE AN AMAZING KID. HAPPY BIRTHDAY!! LOVE, MOM.
All of a sudden I felt weird in my tummy. I looked up and saw the shape of my brother standing beside the trash can at the other side of the kitchen. He was there and he wasn’t there. He was a dim gray shadow. It took me a minute to bring him into focus and find his face. I could see him best when I wasn’t looking at him and had to learn to unfocus my eyes and look just to either side of him. Once I learned the trick of this, I finally found his face. I grabbed my sticks, expecting him to be angry and ready to attack. Instead, he looked sad. Pathetic. Like he might actually cry.
“I see you,” I told him. He could not answer. His mouth did not work. He opened and closed it like he was talking but no sounds came out. I couldn’t even read his lips because the words they seemed to be making were not real words that I knew.
I smiled, gripping the broken broom sticks. Stepping toward him, I said, “You can’t hurt me. I made you a ghost.” He twisted away in fear and I lost the specific shape of him. He was just a dark smudge, trembling behind the clothes washer.
I took another step closer and he became even less real. Just a shadow inside the darkness of the laundry closet.
I put down the sticks and opened my great big chocolate birthday muffin. I ate while he watched.
It was so delicious.