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It’s the Stefan-is-bad-at-everything dancer, clad in red.
No one in our family ever says it, but I can hear the thought dancing a perfectly coordinated tango in the air over our heads as we sit at the dinner table. I can see it too, its bright coloring fluttering like a feathery dress, being led by its handsome neon orange what’s-wrong-with-him partner.
There isn’t really anything wrong with him, but there isn’t anything particularly right either. He bathes once every three days, and he’s lost his retainer twice. His teeth are still ugly in spite of the braces. His hair is too long. He has grades as low as a brain-dead jock’s, and he doesn’t even do any sports. He has the possibly unfortunate trait of developing an even layer of fat. It doesn’t gather around his stomach like it does for our father. It’s an even distribution all over his body. This means he has a double chin, and Mom always tells me that it’s such a shame. The smoky green if-only-Stefan-would-lose-20-pounds thought watches Stefan and sighs.
He wears nothing but baggy jeans and old band t-shirts. He smells a little, but he doesn’t seem to care. He spends his days locked up in his room strumming a guitar that Mom tells me Stefan must have borrowed from somewhere and never returned.
I’ve finished my plate. I’ve eaten all my vegetables, and tried all the new foods that Mom made. Stefan is chewing on the steak. The only other thing he’s served himself was corn and mashed potatoes. Mom had dumped a spoonful of zucchini and brussel sprouts on top of it all, glaring at him all the while. Oblivious, or just impervious, Stefan hasn’t so much as touched them. The smoky green if-only-Stefan-would-lose-20-pounds thought is wispy and transparent.
I watch as my mother sends me a meaningful look, and I feel the never-be-like-your-brother clown smash its toy hammer into the back of my head again.
I wonder why Stefan can’t see them. The flashy pair switches to a ludicrously fast paced waltz, spinning above his head in wide circles. The green thought has been fading, not as bright as before because Mom’s started giving up. That stupid clown has been hanging around me since Stefan was caught smoking with his friends.
Mom is staring at him again. Dad has become an expert at doing the opposite. Stefan drops his fork down onto his plate. The metallic clatter is sharp and is met with a silence like a wool blanket draped over everything. It’s heavy, and I hate it. The only ones who are immune are the two dancers and the clown.
Stefan gets up and leaves.
Mom sits as motionless as an ice sculpture, her features frozen into a dead mask. Then she looks up at me.
“Would you clear Stefan’s place for me, sweetie?” she asks. A smile cracks through the ice. I get up and clear the whole table in response.
I lie on my bed, this week’s literature book resting on my stomach. The clown bounces around the walls of my room, being a perpetual bother. I close my eyes. But those ugly colors are twisting around in my head.
It’s math class, the teacher is handing our tests back to us. When I see the ‘100’ adorning the top of mine, I almost smile. I end up not being able to because the clown is hanging over my shoulder, whispering ‘Good job, get an A on the next one too’ into my ear.
I’m not sure if I hate Stefan. I still remember when I used to follow him everywhere and looked up to him.
I’m not allowed to anymore.
I’m looking at my short, straight and clean nails while I eat in my school’s cafeteria. Stefan’s are crooked, and they always have some manner of grime caked under them. My sandwich doesn’t have any mayonnaise in it. It’s turkey with lettuce, tomatoes, and avocado. I have a bag of carrots and a bottle of brown vegetable juice.
“So it’s my birthday this weekend,” one of my classmates, Ryan, says. “I thought it’d be cool if we could all go and catch a movie.”
There are many sounds of approval at our table in the cafeteria. I sit at the end of the table, on the edge of the bench so the clown doesn’t bump into any of them. I smile at my classmate over my sandwich. The clown is digging its fingers into my shoulder.
“I can’t make it, sorry Ryan. Happy birthday though,” I say.
I clean my room for the second time today, reorganizing one of my drawers before I sit down at my desk and open up my history text book. I have a test coming up; I don’t have time to go to a movie with a group of friends I never spend time with anyway.
My door is closed, but I can hear the sound of Stefan’s guitar seeping through the cracks. It’s noisy.
I’ve reviewed Chapter Five three times now. I can’t seem to remember it, and the clown’s toy hammer is giving me a headache. Finally, I put the textbook down and exit my room. I walk across the hall to the door plastered with band posters and tap my knuckles on it.
The aimless chord progression emanating from inside halts for a moment, then starts up again. I knock a second time.
“What?” Stefan demands. I hear the sound of his bed springs as he rolls off. His heavy footsteps pound the floor like a human bulldozer. The lock clicks and rattles, and then he wrenches the door open. I just blink, silenced by his look of irritation. The clown smacks the back of my head and the words pop out anyway.
“I need to study for the history test tomorrow. I can’t focus with you playing your guitar.”
He just stares. My lower belly squirms.
“So?” The single syllable is filled with mild disdain.
“Could you stop?”
And then he slams the door.
Right on my foot.
He probably didn’t mean to do it, judging from his horrified expression as I let loose a shout of agony.
He wrenches the door back open and grabs my arm to balance me as I teeter on my one good foot. He guides me into his room, my usual apprehensiveness about encroaching upon his lair drowned out by throbbing pain.
Stefan runs out, and comes back with a Ziploc bag full of ice. I ask him to put salt in it to make it colder, he just gives me a funny look and places it on my foot. The cold feels almost as bad, and I attempt to pull it off, hissing. He bats my hands away every time I try.
After the initial panic has subsided, I take the opportunity to look around his room. The posters have multiplied, although I think they’re still of the same bands. I can’t recognize the names at all. There’s dirty clothing strewn across the floor, and a pile of untouched homework on his desk. Stefan has calmed down and gone back to cradling his guitar.
Then I notice something black poking out of his closet. I crane my neck and peer at it. The plastic black and white keys reflect the light, proud of themselves in spite of their hiding place.
“When did you get a keyboard?”
The question comes unbidden, but I’m too curious to say ‘Never mind’. Stefan looks up at me, surprise making his mouth drop open a bit, like he’d forgotten I’m here. He probably had.
“Uh, a friend gave it to me,” he says finally. Then he plucks at the strings on the acoustic guitar again with the navy blue pick. He scribbles more into the coffee stained notebook resting in his lap.
The clown mutters that Stefan probably stole that too.
I take a closer look at his desk. It’s drowning in sheet music, all handwritten. Some of it is piano, others are guitar chords.
Then I look at Stefan and see the two dancers waltzing lazily around him. He doesn’t look at them, not even acknowledging that they exist. He just strums another chord on the guitar, copying it down in his notebook. He’s humming as he adds more to the song, tinkering with melodies and harmonies.
Now I know exactly why he can’t see the dancers. He’s forgotten that I’m here, and he never acknowledges the useless colors whirling around him. He just plays, and as I listen.
I realize that the red dancer is deaf, and the orange one is stupid.