A body lay comatose inside of a velvet red-rimmed coffin. Weeping stone angels hovered by his side, their mouths punched into thin, hard lines. Their beaded eyes glanced from me to him.
From life to death.
Then from death to life. If only he could have made that leap, too.
But there he remained, as he must, a heap of memories in the shape of a body in a death box. And as people arrived, they only tossed more red and thorned memories onto the pile. No, I wanted to beg, keep them. He has no use for them anymore.
I had already herded my own memories of him together and drove them down to my toes, far away from my heart and my mind, for if they got too close to either one, they would torture me to no end. So I struggled with taming wild and elusive memories and, for a while, I succeeded.
Loud chimes shattered the delicate silence of the room, traveling through the walls and reverberating in pipes of the organ before kneeling in front of the altar and dissolving slowly back into silence.
The service was starting.
It was indoors, as the dreaded things often are, though I don't know why. One would think the healing powers of the sun would be praised in a time like this. Yet perhaps the brightness of the world was too much for people whose world had suddenly turned dark. Whatever the reason, that day we traded sunshine and the smell of dirt for gloomy light and the bitter taste of confinement.
Confining it was, because all of its open archways started to shrink, the stained glass windows darkened to close off all light from the outside; the tall ceiling felt as though it would collapse any minute, following the lead of my chest; and the of the altar threatened to charge me, bared with fire and a cross, and stab me through.
The most dangerous threat, though, was the life that resided in the red carpeted path lying before the altar. It laughed at me, teased me, waved its living limbs in my face, then looked at me pointedly as it ran down the aisle, past the pews, to stand in front of his body, surrounding him with a velvety skirt of passion and love.
Passion and love. At least someone had those things. I prayed that the people with somber faces held hope and love still in their hearts for him. That the emotions within were different than the words falling flatly out of the preachers mouth. I wondered what this was doing–who it was helping–for the monotone echoes, despite their depth or sound, held no depth of insight. A dead voice honoring the life of a dead man.
My mother's face was still, a reflection of the stillness in her heart. Her rigid body made me think of his, and how, in life, he had never been still. I'd wanted his ashes poured into the ocean. It would have been fitting, pouring a body that had always been moving in life into a body that was always moving, alive.
But the man had donated his body to science. He didn't have the mind for it, so he thought his body would do, instead.
The room was stuffy, and the preacher's words fell as flat as an old, rusted piano. If I had stayed any longer in this unbreathable air, I just might have ended up the one in the casket.
I excused myself from my mother's side, quickly citing the bathroom as an excuse.
I stepped outside.
It was a beautiful afternoon–a shining sun had coaxed the birds into song and the heat from the pavement penetrated the frozen film enveloping my heart. When the ice melted, despairing water flowed through my body, escaping from my eyes.
He was gone. My brother was gone.
“Leonardo Vasso!” The scream launched from my mother’s throat with the force of a rocket taking off. And with the same panicked expression as a pilot who realized he forgot to check the landing gear before takeoff, my brother leapt down from the branch on which he was perched. His long, lanky legs ate up the ground at an Olympic speed, only to dissolve into a deceivingly relaxed stride as soon as he was in the range of Mom’s eagle-like vision.
“We need to talk.”
That was all I heard, for the two remnants of my small family were promptly swallowed by a house full of secrets. I remained sitting stiffly underneath the great oak tree that I was fairly sure was the neighbor’s property. I shuffled my feet, unsure of whether to follow them inside or to stare here, lying uncomfortably in a pool of unfamiliarity. My left foot struck something and I glanced down to spy a pencil caught in the embrace of my shoelace. It was Leon’s drawing pencil, one out of an art set I got him last year. It must have fallen when he rushed off to the house, but, when I looked above me, I could spot his sketchpad resting precariously on the edge of the branch. Hesitantly, I pushed lightly against the trunk of the great tree. The pad did not move. I glanced around to confirm that my only audience was the fallen leaves on the ground, then, with a slight grunt, I jumped as high as I could, stretching out my hand so that the tips of my fingers knocked into the desired pad. The pad, knocked off balance, was forced to succumb to the whims of gravity, and landed square at my feet.
I picked it up (and nearly dropped it again, for my hands were sweaty from the heat of the summer sun) and flipped to the page with his most recent drawing. It was a flower, with long, lazy orange petals and a crooked green stem. Smudges of pencil markings from where Leo set his hand while drawing outlined the petals, but there, at the center of the lounging flower, was something eery. The specks of pollen in its yellowed center had suddenly become a thousand small eyes stalking me.
My thumping heart begged me to drop the notebook, run away and hide in the false security of four walls and a roof, but my eyes couldn't be certain that what I was seeing was the intended effect of artistry or the result of my fantastically imaginative mind. So I stayed put, rooted to the spot with my legs the same strange mixture of locked and wobbly as a newborn colt standing for the first time. I stayed until the sun began to explode in my eyes as it peeked shyly from behind the trees. I stayed until the warm air around me had flown away, replaced by the chilling breeze that darkness had claimed its own. I stayed until Leo returned, rescuing me from the monster he'd made.
“Jo!” Leo shouted. “What the living hel- I mean- heck are you doing?” Here he glanced back toward the house, as though Mom could hear him through the concrete walls. Then he whipped his head back to peer at me. He tore his drawing pad from my clenched fists. “Here, let me take that.” He began to ascend the steep hill towards the house. “Come on, now.”
I followed, calm now that Leo’s back separated me from the horror in his hands. Every step that carried me up the hill also carried up my courage and so I crept closer to Leo in the confidence that the power of familial protection would keep the strange monster dormant. At the top of the hill, Leo spun around to face me, and, after the initial surprise to find me so close behind him passed, he reached out to me, grabbing my shoulder and pulling me gently towards him. His jaw tensed and he opened his mouth slightly, but then clamped his jaw shut with the suddenness of ---. He grinned strangely, a Cheshire cat smile without teeth, the strained corners of his mouth begging to be less exercised. With his same suddenness, he began walking again, pushing me softly towards the house.
The smell of fresh empanadas drowned my senses and I found my legs and hands moving with a will of their own. Legs strode towards the table and hands grasped clumsily at the heap of soft doughy deliciousness, which had nearly reached my mouth when my senses returned and my eyes focused upon a mother’s glare. I slowly set down the food and folded my hands in my lap, fingers twitching and itching to move above the table.
Mom bowed her head. “Lord, we thank you for the blessings you have given us. We hope that you bless this food and our family. Amen.”
“Amen,” Leo followed, head likewise bowed.
“Amen,” I mumbled, fingers already moving magnetically to the empanadas, which were brought to my mouth equally as quickly. Sweet satisfaction translated itself into a deep sigh. I had exhausted myself from running about with Leo in the afternoon and I marveled at how each bite returned my energy to me.
Leo, strangely, was slow. He spent minutes arranging his napkin on his lap, then, once he did reach for an empanada, spent a few more minutes simply staring at it, as if skeptical of its ability to provide his body with any nutrients. Then, in an action as sharp as when he shut his jaw earlier, he set it down on the plate in front of him. These plates were never used. Our family, such a ravenous one when mealtimes came, ate with our hands, never setting the food down. The plates were crumb-collectors at most. They equally served as decoration, providing any visitors with the impression that we may eat just as a normal family might. To set down one’s food, as Leo did, could only be the sign of highest distress.
Quite frankly, it frightened me. What had afflicted my fearless brother so much so that he might abandon the joy of eating?
Leo was staring down at his lap. “May I be excused?” his voice was shy.
Mom was not, as I was, startled by this question. “Yes,” she said simply and clearly. She continued on eating with such calmness I suspected it was solely show. Indeed, it must have been so, for her hands trembled when she raised them to her mouth and her eyes were set so determinedly that they seemed inhuman in their expressionlessness.
My surprise, on the other hand, would have been visible to the blind. My body froze mid-bite and the bits of dough and cheese in my mouth turned flavorless. Panicked at the lack of reaction from Mom, my lower lip trembled. In fact, along my whole body ran a shiver so long and large I was convinced my skeleton would fall apart from such a severe shake.
I swallowed nervously, nearly choking on the pieces of food I had forgotten were in my mouth. “Is Leo…” I hesitated.
“Is Leo what, darling?”
“Is he… sick? Is he dying? Oh my god, mom, I don’t want Leo to die. I know I bug him a lot but I don’t mean to I swear and I just want him to play with me and he doesn’t want to but I want to but if he’s dying then he doesn’t have to play with me. I won’t make him play with me. I promise. I won’t bug him anymore. I just don’t want Leo to die!” And with this final exclamation I burst into tears.
Mom, listening to my outburst, looked simultaneously as though she were about to laugh and sob hysterically. Miraculously, channeling what I’m sure she would have termed... , she maintained her composure and assured me swiftly that, no, Leo was not sick and he was not going to die (although she said this with a slight pursing of her lip). Confident in a mother’s knowledge of such things, I was reassured and thus stopped crying and began to eat once more.
The empanadas, though, did not have the same taste as before. Before, they tasted of …, now they had the additional flavor of tear salt.
Once my stomach was satisfied with it’s work, I waddled to the bedroom, hesitating only briefly outside before entering. If Mom said he was fine, then so he must be. But, no, he was lying in his bed already, staring at the wall with his back towards the door and me. A fine Leo would have still been up and chaotic, singing and dancing through his nighttime chores and duties. This Leo, this stranger, must have done his chores in silence, and climbed into bed with equal bizarreness.
I went about my nighttime duties in a state of confusion. Darting between nervous and puzzled, my movements were erotic and unpredictable. The toothpaste was tightly squeezed into a mountain on my toothbrush, but it took me ten minutes to finish brushing my teeth, for my mind was constantly reverting itself to Leo’s actions at dinner, and so my toothbrush was left either absolutely still or gliding absently over my teeth.
After a while, I was ready to sleep. Leo still in the same position as he had been in when I entered the room, I climbed into my bed and stared at his back and thought that perhaps he had fallen asleep.
Then his voice, softly, sounded, “’Night, Jo.”
I at first started at the sudden sound in the previously silent room. But my surprise melted into joviality, for I now knew that whatever strangeness was happening to Leo, he was not so far gone from me as to not say goodnight to me.
“’Night, Leo,” I said, at last truly comforted. I snuggled into the blankets and pillow and fell quickly into sleep’s familiar embrace.
When I woke, the sun was peeping in through the blinds. It’s eagerness to greet me was one I did not return, nor had ever returned. It was only after long minutes spent still wrapped in the arms of a soft blue fleece that I, or rather my stomach, plucked up the courage to greet the morning air.
Leo was in the kitchen when I entered.
“Mom’s at work.”
“We have eggs.”
“And tortillas, I think.”
“I can make chilaquiles.”
“Not a morning person,” Leo chuckled, reaching into the fridge, “is a huge understatement.”
I just shrugged and rubbed my eyes.
Only one thing could bring me fully awake and that was food. Once it was served and consumed, I was much more responsive. Leo knew this well and waited until after the food had properly entered my body before proposing his plan for the day.
“Should we go to the park today?” He asked, with the usual twinkle in his eyes.
“Does Señor Rivera not need help today?” I asked, wondering as to why Leo had so much free time. He was often slaving away in the yard of the very old and very rich Señor Rivera, who had as many wrinkles as he did orders and thus typically kept Leo busy every waking moment.
“I’m not working for him anymore,” Leo said, brushing aside his unemployment with a few small chuckles. Seeing my quizzical face, he shook his head and reduced his laughter to a small smile. “It doesn’t matter, though. Do you want to go to the park or not?”
“Yes!” I cried, his question raising alarms in me. I couldn’t let my curiosity put an adventure to the park at risk.
“Then hurry up and get ready. Go, go, go!”
And go I did. I raced through my morning routine as if I were Ayrton Senna on the track, making up for my slowness the night before. Soon, I was dressed and eagerly pouncing at the handle of the front door.
“Slow it down, Speed Racer!” Leo called from the bedroom, where he was (very slowly) lacing his shoes. “Alright, alright. Let’s go.”
Then we were off. I galloped and skipped and leapt during the mile-long walk while he strolled along nonchalantly, entirely unaware of the necessity of arriving to the park before the other kids claimed all of the swings. Instead, he strolled and hummed and sang, here and there stopping to admire a flower on the side of the road or a bird singing it’s own tune up in the trees. His sketchpad was, as always, tucked into his back pocket, the pen behind his ear and often tangled in his long hair. Occasionally, he would reach for the two items, but, upon remarking my urgency, he would return his hands to his pockets and continue his stroll.