by Jennifer Lynn Christie
From Fall 2017
“I know you aren’t supposed to put your coffee on library books, but something inside of me just can’t help it,” says Mrs. Fender. It’s eight o’clock and here she is with a copy of Wuthering Heights as a coaster on the chestnut-colored coffee table. There are magazines scattered about as well, a queen of classics and opinion pieces.
“How is it?” I ask about the book, because that’s how you talk to adults, you ask them about their problems and wait for their heroic answers, but Mrs. Fender doesn’t give one, she instead asks if I’d like some soda. She picks up her coffee mug and reveals the brown rings beneath. Like, if I were a librarian, that would be one of my issues—suggestive rings all over the product. Mrs. Fender herself has no ring, but is still a Mrs. in her mind. Although, tonight she’s on a date, and I’m the sitter.
But I’m not really a sitter. I’m here as backup, reluctantly so. Mrs. Fender doesn’t know me, but she knows my sister, Lillian. She thinks very highly of Lillian and wishes Lillian could be here tonight, but understands how conflicts arise. Boy-o! Does she ever.
Mrs. Fender takes another sip of her coffee and says she’s got to go. When she stands up from the couch her gown ripples like desert wind. It’s flesh colored, this flowy thing my own mother, no mother I know, would ever wear. It’s the kind of thing that brings in attention from distant corners of a dark room, or across the street, as in you’d have to describe Mrs. Fender as voluptuous forever after seeing her in this dress. Unlike me. I’m wearing shorts and a T. I stand up with her, like maybe I must shake her hand. I don’t know. I’ve never babysat before.
“If you get hungry, eat whatever you like, and remember, the emergency numbers are where?”
“In the cupboard,” I say. I sit back down and turn to look at Mark, who is lying with his head against the Persian rug that overlays the carpeted floor beneath. He’s been there, silent, for as long as we’ve been perched on the couch. When Mrs. Fender closes the front door, he sits up like he’s been shot through with a bolt of lightning.
When I’d first arrived at the Fenders’ door I could tell it was going to storm. I’m not good with premonitions, but the wind had picked up and I could see all the leaves around the house shaking their fists. Which is fine, that’s normal. This is a Friday night at the end of September. Storms happen.
Mrs. Fender smoked several cigarettes as we walked around, which I found deeply intriguing; I’d never seen a mother smoking inside before. She brought to mind the image of a 1950s housewife given completely over to the island of her days, lost, but holding on. So there were the cigarettes and this dress, and she moved like a cat, trotting through mud but trying hard to keep her paws clean. I first laid eyes on Mark when we arrived in the kitchen; he was sitting on a stool at the counter in pajamas, and when he saw us he slid all the way down to the floor to where we couldn’t see him anymore. I heard him scooting away into another room on his butt.
“Where’d he go?” I asked, and Mrs. Fender shrugged. “He’ll be around. Ply him with ice cream if you must. It’s fine. It’s from the creamery.”
I had no idea what she was talking about but asked about the television.
“Do you have HBO?” I said. We don’t have HBO at my house, but sometimes the cable company accidentally channels it in and all these smutty shows come on, shows explaining topics like how dildos are made in Taiwan or China or wherever. It’s infinitely fascinating, though I wouldn’t know what to do with a dildo to save my life, and the shows aren’t how-to’s or anything, more like Unwrapped, but for dildos. I wonder if Mrs. Fender has a dildo tucked away somewhere, but it’d be crazy to ask.
“No, dear. I have jazz,” she said, which was a response that meant she had no idea what I was talking about either, and for a second even I had forgotten what I’d said, so consumed with the idea of dildos I’d become. We’d left it at that.
Will Mrs. Fender kiss her date tonight? I wondered.
It doesn’t matter. Now it’s just Mark and me, and he’s showing me a collection of treasures.
A seahorse, a crab claw, and a rabbit’s foot. Everything fits into his tiny hand, all of it smooth, or soft, and dead.
“What do you see when you dream?” Mark wants to know. We’re sitting in the bathtub because I’m worried about the storm. We’ve placed candles here and there due to the flickering electricity, though we’ve heard no rain. The wind, however, is a viper at the windows.
“I don’t know,” I say. “Usually people from my day.”
“Like your sister?”
He sighs. “I like Lil.” I flinch because her name is definitely not Lil.
“Lillian,” I correct. If I called Lillian Lil she would punch me. The lights above shudder, which continues to add to the strangeness of the night. It feels like something else is here in the house, but I haven’t yet seen an animal. “Do you guys have a cat?” I ask.
“No, just Tobias.” This is the third time Mark has mentioned Tobias. Lillian, apparently, knows about Tobias as well. According to Mark, Lillian and Mark talk about Tobias when she babysits—or babysat, I should say. She cancelled on the Fenders last minute with no excuse at all. Not even I know where she is. But Lillian is like that. She’s hard to pin down.
And so too is Tobias, it seems. Tobias, says Mark, is somewhere in the walls.
“Is Tobias a rat? I think those are kind of cute, you know.” In case he’s trying to scare me.
“No, Tobias is Tobias. Hello, Tobias!” he says.
“Stop it,” I say. Mark, in his Spiderman pajamas, is adorable. I’m alarmed at this observation because I have never found children adorable. Or anything. I’m neutral. Lillian finds children interesting and can meet them on their level, as our mother likes to say in praise. I wonder what that’s like. To have Lillian of all people really get you.
We go downstairs when the lights come back fully and put on some music. Distinctive Jazz. I take it off the record player after a few minutes, however, because I begin to feel lonely and crazy.
“How about this?” says Mark. He pulls out some orange vinyl from a sleeve designed to look like a piece of express mail, or maybe it is express mail, it’s impossible to tell. We set it down to spin.
Everything is going to be okay
When you throw your dinner
In the glowing ashtray.
You are not alone,
My delicate beast
Preparing for the world
an intricate feast.
Come on, baby,
Let’s dance up in the clouds
We bop our heads in unison. “This is great!” I have to shout because the volume is up all the way.
“Yeah!” says Mark, and we bop until the electricity flicks off again.
In moments like this I can get a little lost in my head. We are staring into Mrs. Fender’s medicine cabinet of wonders and all I can think about is everyone else who has done this before—taking down the pills, body scrubs, some kind of plastic shell with the days of the week marked out around its circumference—everyone who has existed in this very spot in front of these shelves, everyone except me.
“Did you do this with Lillian?” I ask. “Like, before?”
“Lillian loves to do this,” says Mark. “Here, put this on.” He places an eye mask over my eyes and I see those bright spots that appear on the back of your eyelids when you look at the sun and then have to close them.
“What do you think this is?” Mark says, and something is placed in front of my nose.
Whatever it is, it smells like a skunk. I pull off the eye mask and examine the bottle: Bovine liver salts. It’s full of little powdery tablets.
“You want one?” Marks offers. From the flame of a candle, there forms a twinkle in his eye.
I see no reason to say yes, except that I do.
“Did Lillian ever take one?” I whisper. I don’t know why I’m whispering, but it feels like it always does when talking about Lillian—like talking in a mausoleum.
“Lillian likes this.” Mark pulls out a vial of liquid with a dropper cap. Holy Basil. “For your fears.” I take a bovine liver salt pill instead and place it on my tongue. It tastes just like it smells, but I swallow.
“Stop trying to creep me out.”
Mark takes a pill for himself and says, “What do you mean?” He chews it like Pez.
“Tell me the truth,” I say, “where’s your pet? I feel it stalking us.” Which is true. I can feel a pair of eyes on the back of my head and keep twirling around.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” says Mark, a little sultan, thoughtfully swallowing the awful medicine. But I know that he does. In fact, there’s a dog, there’s a dog somewhere in this house. Lillian would talk about it, back when she used to show up to the breakfast table the mornings after babysitting.
This whole time I’ve been thinking that name Tobias sounds quite familiar. But Tobias is not the name I originally remember. What I remember first is the dog.
In fact, I remember this dog very well now because it involves an incident when I saw Lillian on a night I shouldn’t have, a night that almost never existed—the night I first learned about this little dog she so loved, a little dog named Orlando.
Around the time Lillian began babysitting, I decided to sneak out of the house—the evening after my fourteenth birthday. There was no forethought on my part. Most kids go out with friends, but I don’t. I just showed up that night to a place teen bands play.
I saw Lillian immediately and unexpectedly, not standing back in the crowd, but up on stage. Four boys were playing behind her, making all sorts of discordant sounds that didn’t seem to mean anything, except, I slowly began to feel, in that room, that they did, that they must, that these sounds were breaking up the night. I stood there, frozen and terrified, realizing that Lillian and I had independently escaped home, only to meet its most inner, integral parts out in the wild. I thought, Lillian doesn’t play instruments. Lillian doesn’t know how to sing, either. She doesn’t even listen to the radio, forgetting there are so many things about Lillian I no longer knew.
That night the lights were flashing and a disco ball was spinning, and illuminating strands of Lillian’s long, long hair, and she was looking off to the side of the stage as if she saw something, but when I looked there was nothing except a cinder block wall, so if there was something to see, only Lillian saw it. I shouldn’t have felt it, but I did—I started to feel stupendously embarrassed for Lillian, the way you do when someone loses control of themself in a public place like the library or grocery store, like she was about to let go in a totally inappropriate way. And I realized then that if this was all it took for me to feel this way, that terror and shame must always be right there under every other human emotion we feel to distract ourselves from the steady panic always ready to go, that always actually is going, like a heartbeat, hovering, and we only realize this is our normal state when something visual presents itself to us in our individual terror’s symbolic form, and we greet it immediately, familiarly, because deep down it is the only thing we truly know.
Then she started to sing and my whole body deflated, indicating I’d been a little puffed up, which is so incredibly weird because I’m the kid sister, and Lillian hadn’t spoken seven words in a row to me at that point for what must have been years. And when she sang all the dissonance behind her mellowed into a melody, though I realized, furthermore, the noise was always actually a series of sly, very sly, intricate notes (like lace is to the eyes)—which is amazing because the only element in the room that had changed was Lillian’s voice over the fuzz, order revealed in chaos; she was telling some kind of story, and slowly it occurred to me that I knew this story, that it involved me directly, that it was my story, too, and I just stood frozen in the back of the room because what she sang about was a memory I believed only I had been holding on to for a very long time.
I mean, let me just say it plain: My sister loves me; at least she did up there on that stage. There was significant lack of proof of this before (one day she did, then one day she just didn’t), but then, you see, I saw that she did.
The name of the song was called “Boris the Bloodhound.”
Boris was ours, he always had been.
He was the last thing to be ours.
That moment under the disco ball—the noise, the boys, the slim beam of Lillian’s voice—it shimmers like a lost baby tooth in my mind, fairy-blessed and glowing.
We sat together in a booth that night, after she’d seen me, splitting a soda.
“Do you remember Boris?” she asked, sipping slowly. Another band was already approaching the stage and soon we’d have to yell to hear one another, and this realization further agitated a tightly coiled panic within me.
“Yes! Yes, I do.” I was very excited.
“Well, I have a theory about Boris,” she said.
When we were young, the two of us alone had seen a wild dog around the time of our father’s departure. We spoke no words concerning the beast—for he was huge and magnificent—but, after we saw him, silently rode our bikes away, past a neighborhood pond, disappearing together up a hill, and in the days thereafter would affectionately refer to him as Boris the Bloodhound, a name that we’d seemed to agree on telepathically. He was a kind of good luck charm, the symbol we needed to get through the brutal simplicity of a carefully orchestrated day to day existence, time slots, phone calls, the little treats of confetti icing chocolate mud cake (Lillian’s request) that our mother used to win us back over if we became anxious about the new reality our days now encompassed. Even as tiny children, we simultaneously realized this, that Boris must be an angel, our angel, though we’d never see him again; and when our mother told us later that year that our father had bought a plane ticket for France one-way, it was like a breath we’d been holding conjunctively let loose, and we generously released Boris back to the world, never to bring him up again. If Boris couldn’t bring our father back, then perhaps he was meant for some other child, or children, for a family where there was still some hope. And our hope in another’s hope was itself a kind of hope. However, on the subject of Boris, silence became our code, a code that pervaded, slowly but deliberately, into all other aspects of our relationship. We became something other than companions—a technical formality of the blood, two blossoms near but separate, on the branches of a wintery family tree. There was no word for us anymore, no definition, no definition at all. Just silence.
Until that night under the disco ball, which was still going as we spoke, which never that night stopped spinning.
“Boris is alive,” Lillian said.
“Billie, do you believe in reincarnation?”
“I don’t believe in anything.”
“What are you talking about?”
“I mean, I believe in everything.”
“Good answer. Me too. Especially now. There’s something I’ve been meaning to tell you.”
“Really?” Why hadn’t she? But then I remembered we hadn’t spoken like this in forever. “What is it?”
“Billie, I think I’m in love.”
I took the soda and sipped it down past the label. “Oh?” I didn’t believe her, or maybe I just didn’t want to. Couldn’t we, for one second, be friends? Of course an outside party would ruin that.
“Let me tell you about him.”
“He’s homeschooled, and very interesting. He’s just convinced his mother to let him drive all the way to California. By himself.” She sipped a little soda. “He’ll be back in a month.” Was she planning on going with him? Would she run away?
She told me an involved story about the first time she saw him, on a walk in the rain, a boy and his dog, how from a distance she saw him bend over, pick up the dog as the first drops fell, no hesitation in this reflex of care, and turn to walk home.
“I don’t know. It was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen in my life. My knees turned into jelly, but I ran after them. Like, it was, it must have been, love at first sight.”
“Where was Boris?”
“Boris was that dog. Orlando.”
“That’s an impressive name. But is he even a bloodhound?”
“Don’t be an idiot, Billie. Boris was never really a bloodhound, he was a wolf. We didn’t know that then, we were just being kids when we called him ‘bloodhound.’ One of us heard that word early on and I guess we both liked it. But he was never a bloodhound, he was always a wolf. Now he’s a beagle.”
I wondered why she thought this. I mean, the whole point of Boris was his mysterious, no doubt mystical capabilities, capabilities he’d never actually bestowed upon us, which in some ways made him all the more divine, and I suppose the potential for his divinity, the belief in divinity at all, had never left us entirely. Boris meant hope, and because we were there having this conversation, we must, I realized, be hopeful not just for the world, but for ourselves. But what did that really mean?
Boris was for the nearly impossible.
Bringing us back together, not ripping us apart.
Right before the second band began to play Lillian started talking more about reincarnation and I, distracted, sucked down the rest of the soda.
I suppose, in retrospect, I should be grateful. She was, in her own way, trying to reach me. But I felt disgusted, and betrayed. It wasn’t possible that Boris would come back as a beagle because one doesn’t transcend from beast to beagle, unless you’d gravely sinned, or something, and Boris—he was an angel. Her theory didn’t make any sense. And besides, Boris was ours, not hers, and not mine. Ours. She’d given Boris new life without even brief consultation. That’s what hurt.
The little place in my heart, held up high on reserve, it was breaking in two.
The band picked up.
“And the guy? What’s his name?” I cried.
She said something, but I didn’t hear. She was already turning.
“What?” I screamed. When she said it again, I could barely make it out.
“Tobias,” she shouted, and never looked back again.
The pills we’ve taken start to make me feel whoopsey. I have developed a great and healthy hunger. Mark and I scan the freezer for the ice cream. The fridge below holds three pristine carrots, and that’s it. The ice cream is in a tasteful pint-sized container, the cream, notes its label, comes from the happiest of cows. We pass the pint back and forth on the couch, each with our own spoon.
“Tell me more about Tobias,” I say. There are pieces of delicious, perhaps elderberries here? I lick to excavate. I have only intuitive knowledge of the elderberry, having never seen one before. I examine the ingredients as Mark shakes his head.
“Ask him yourself.”
“He’s here? Hiding? Like a weasel?”
“I think he’s upstairs.”
Perhaps Tobias is Mark’s older brother. All the pieces could come together in a satisfying way like that: Lillian meets the hermit brother of the little boy she’s been charged with and falls in love (or thinks she falls in love) because this older boy is some genius, incapable in many ways, but still somehow endearing, affectionate—a well-meaning prodigy. It’s odd I’ve never seen Tobias before, not even a picture. Could he really be here?
The lights have remained on for some time now, and a thought keeps surfacing: Who is the boy that stole my sister? I take the pint with me upstairs, Mark trailing behind.
“If Tobias is up here, why do you need me?” I ask. Maybe it’s the bovine liver salts talking, or maybe it’s just plain old truth. “Does anybody really need me? Or is everyone too busy with their own lives to care about what I think, think about what I’m doing? Huh? Why isn’t he watching you tonight? Probably out there with Lillian showing her the stars, making out over a landfill, or whatever. Or is he really here? Oh, I know about Tobias, Tobias and Orlando, your dumb dog, and his big dumb eyes, bla, bla, bla.” I turn around. Mark has sprawled out on his belly in a pose of sudden futility. He looks up at me and there are tears in his eyes. Forget him I think, which is certainly not what I’m getting paid to think, but face the doorway of a room that is immaculately arranged, as in, if we were in a TV show, this would be the set, and if someone accidentally wandered inside before the film began to roll the director would slap them for insubordination. Everything has been placed in a just so way, items of a person who never intended on coming back. Plaid comforter, sheets turned down, old-fashioned typewriter, wooden desk and suddenly I get it, I get it so fast I’m bowled over. I dramatically crumple to my knees because in one blazing thought, like a sign from God, I’m thinking, Oh God, he’s dead.
All the pieces come back to form a new story, not Lillian’s, but the Fenders’: A widow and her little boy living together with the ghost of one child now dead. Tobias: the lost child. Tobias: the dead boy my sister still loves.
“Who’s Orlando?” weeps Mark, and I cry, “I’m sorry, I didn’t realize.”
We have an intense moment at the top of the stairs, separate but together, and it passes. We let it, without words. Silence.
Soft glow of candles. The power is out again, and only now do we remember how earlier we’d lit wicks for all the rooms of the house.
There are some things that don’t add up, but then again, what ever does? For example, I will never know where Lillian is if she isn’t here, right here beside me. She is my ghost and I am hers.
And the eyes, the eyes in all the rooms, following me, on the back of my head? That could be imagined. Or it could be anticipation—that I’ve been waiting for Boris in the form of Orlando to arrive.
Show me a sign, is what I’m always thinking.
But actually it’s Mark catching me from behind, Mark asking what I’m doing. I thought he was asleep and feel instantly guilty because really what I’m doing is looking for dildos and who looks for dildos at a time like this, when you feel like you and everyone you know is dead?
“Nothing,” I say, and slam the drawer. No dildos. Never any dildos. “Looking for the emergency numbers.”
“They’re downstairs in the cupboard. I can show you.” Down the stairs we go. It must be ten o’clock at night. Perhaps Mrs. Fender is giving a magnificent hand job to a bank man in a rain-glistened parking lot at this very moment. Some things are better left unknown.
He opens the cupboard and I say, “Ah, yes. There they are. You are so right. Good thing I have you around.” Then we sit at the kitchen counter after I take the three carrots from the fridge, an act, I believe, of motherly affection. We don’t eat, but stare at them. Still life.
“Mark,” I say. “Is Tobias dead?”
“Yeah,” says Mark. “Tobias was Mommy’s first boyfriend. She said he died in a car a long time ago.” He says this so casually.
“Oh. He’s not your brother?”
Mark shakes his head. “I don’t have a brother. Mommy used to talk about Tobias to Lil. Lil used to come over and play with me and ask about Tobias.”
“Did Tobias die on his way to California? Did he have a dog named Orlando?”
“I dunno.” Mark has picked up a pen and begun to draw on some spare paper. “Where’s California?”
“What else did your mom tell Lillian?”
“Like, what he’s like. Mommy calls a psychic and she says Tobias is an angel and watches us.”
“Like a guard dog?”
“Like a good dog.”
If there’s a Tobias for Mrs. Fender, there’s an Orlando for Lillian. If there’s an Orlando, there’s a Boris, and if there’s a Boris—even a whisper—well, us two girls can make it out of here, fatherless but alive.
I look at the picture Mark has drawn.
“Oh, that’s nice,” I say, though the rendering, made with a ballpoint pen, is somewhat Rorschach.
“Sometimes Abraham speaks to me,” says Mark. “At night. Mommy says I have the third sight.” He draws what could be a mole on what might be a cheek.
“What does he say? Abraham, I mean.”
Then the dark peace we’ve discovered is broken by crashing boots walking through the front door and I scream, seeing that, unfortunately, there’s no time for emergency numbers in an actual emergency. I try to grab Mark to bring him down to the floor behind the island, but he’s up and running away and shouting, “Daddy!” I’m too frightened to go after him, the one who confronts the intruder, the boy who talks to Abraham Lincoln. This is exactly how some people must die. No electricity. A dead landline. A fainthearted girl who has insulted the ghost of a boy another boy’s mother loved, a mysteriously kept spare room on the second floor, dildos so well hidden you’d have to hack through the floor to get to them, like in that Poe story we read in English with the heart, but not a heart, a pulsating dildo, because maybe, just maybe, there’s nothing sacred or beautiful in this world. Just death for the dying. It all makes some kind of sick sense.
“Who are you?” asks a man with a beard and very wet jacket and I scream again, and I die.
But I’m not dead and he’s looking down at me on the floor, cradling Mark in his arms, who has his face embedded in the man’s burly neck.
“I’m the babysitter,” I croak, cold and dumb as a snow angel.
“Aw, shit,” says the man, and then apologizes for the curse. “Don’t tell Mom I said that.”
Then Mrs. Fender walks in through the same door and her hair is all mussed and lipstick is pale, and she’s wobbly in her heels, and I’m like, suddenly getting it, this is the father of her child.
“I told you I could be home early if you were going out tonight,” the man says. There is just no love there in his voice.
“I didn’t think you’d get the night off,” says Mrs. Fender.
“I can get every night off, any night off, if you just tell me what you’re doing.”
“I’m going upstairs,” says Mrs. Fender, and then, “pay the sitter, won’t you.”
These are all horrible things to hear. I’m dead on the floor, I’m melting into the carpet.
Mrs. Fender disappears up the stairs like an actress for the stage. The man takes out some bills and hands me $100. I’m being paid to keep a secret, to keep this quiet, all of this, to keep their world silent.
“You need a ride home?” he asks, but I say no, I’ve got my bike, and the storm, it’s subsided.
Is there anything sadder than what is happening right now?
I touch the man’s leg and say, “Can I help you put him to bed?” and he says, “Sure,” and we go upstairs together.
Mrs. Fender’s bedroom door is closed, and instead of taking Mark into his room, we go into the other bedroom, and let him rest on that bed. The man takes off his jacket and hangs it up in the closet, and I see the clothes there are also the clothes of a man, his clothes. This is his room. And that’s when I want to flee.
What in this world is good?
I see what Lillian has done. Of course she didn’t want to keep coming here. The family is—and this is when I actually want to cry—better than ours.
I say goodbye to the man, and then I ride my bike slowly up a hill, through the streets, over a bridge. There is not a car, not a sound, but, I’m imagining the eyes of a dog in every other window, staring softly at me, no barks in their throats, being nothing, nothing more than the good boys that good boys are meant to be.
I’m going to tell Lillian something terrible, something that will haunt her as much as it’s haunted me: that Boris is not Orlando, that Boris and Orlando are nothing, that hope is dead, and that nothing is ever meant to be, and Lillian can lie to me and say she already knew it, that she knows everything first, that the world is actually a very terrible place, that there is such a thing as love and then it disappears leaving a complete vacancy, goodbye forever, goodbye, over the sea, goodbye, and that its disappearance, no, that letting it go (any angel might tell you this in their conniving little way) is the only way to be free.