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Sander opened his eyes and felt around internally for his usual pains. Yes, they were there—the ache in his sixty-seven-year-old knees, gifted to him by his high-school job laying carpet. His arthritic fingers. The twist in his lower back that was aggravated by lifting objects, or sneezing, or moving, or not moving.
No one had ever told him that growing old would hurt so much.
He turned his head and allowed himself to believe that the mound of pillows on the other side of the mattress was the silhouette of his wife, slumbering peacefully. Alive. But he stared too long and another familiar pain, worse than all the others, joined him in the night. Barbara had been dead for more than two years.
He made his way to the bathroom, where it sometimes seemed he spent more of his time than he did sleeping. When he shuffled back to bed, something new bit at him from within, and he sat on the edge of the mattress, massaging the area just over his heart and frowning. “Never felt this one before,” he muttered.
His dog, Winstead, stirred on the floor, reacting to Sander’s voice by raising his head and staring into the gloom.
“Sort of a sharp, stabbing feeling,” Sander advised the dog.
Maybe Winstead heard something in Sander’s tones that alarmed him. At nine years old, he was senior for a wolfhound, so it was unusual that he roused himself and padded over to put his head on Sander’s thigh. Sander reached down and scratched his dog’s ear with a gentle finger, and Winstead leaned toward it with appreciation.
“Good boy,” Sander whispered. He drew in a breath and let it out in a long, contemplative sigh. “God, I miss her.” He glanced over at the row of pillows.
For a long time there was no sound but a quiet hum from the clock radio next to the bed.
“I wouldn’t do it any different,” Sander finally told his dog. “She got to stay at home, and she died in our bed, just the way she wanted. I never told her how much it was costing, the in-home care, or that I would have to sell the place once she was gone. She never would have allowed that.” He shifted his attentions to the dog’s other ear, and Winstead tilted that way. “I couldn’t let her die in a hospital room.”
After a long moment, Sander struggled out of the bed and sat in his big recliner, one of the few items of furniture that had made it when he moved in with his son’s family. He put his hand on his chest, taking deep, diagnostic breaths. Winstead went back to his dog bed and collapsed into it with a groan.
“Okay,” Sander said aloud. “This could be it.”
Winstead thumped his tail once, not understanding.
* * *
The next morning Ello opened her grandfather’s door with her heart pounding. He hadn’t responded to her light tapping, and she was terrified he had Died In The Night and she would be the one to see it first.
Of all the emotions that had been rampaging through her system like drunk rioters since she’d turned thirteen—the fear, the anxiety, the angst, the rage—this was the worst. This … dread. The worst, and the most common. She felt it about everything—school, her clothes, friends—everything.
One of her teachers had told her that it was normal, when your hormones decided to attack the host organism, to be riding “a roller coaster of emotions.” As if it were a joyride … as if you could stop every so often for a hot dog and cotton candy. But that wasn’t how it felt to Ello. If she were indeed trapped in some sort of demonic amusement park from the land of insanity, it wasn’t a roller coaster—it was a merry-go-round. Around and around she went, always the same ride, always a different horse.
Ello was carrying a tray with a cup of coffee, some perfectly fried eggs, toast, and a chicken sausage. This was what her Grandpa Sander consumed every morning of his life, brought to him by Ello as if she were a Servant In Her Own House. Only the breakfast meat changed, on the whim of the kitchen. The sausage looked disgusting.
She always felt phobic when she knocked and opened her grandfather’s door. This particular morning, Grandpa Sander sat slumped in his chair, with sallow skin and thin hair that had not seen the discipline of a comb for some time. To Ello, Sander’s birch-bark skin matched his hair, which matched his lips, which matched his teeth.
She knew she was supposed to love him because he was her grandfather, but most of the time, she could not.
And now the dread was all-consuming because he wasn’t moving. His eyes weren’t completely shut either—Gross!—as if he’d passed away before he could fully close his lids. Ello stood perfectly still, wondering if this was the morning she’d always known would come. She glanced over at Winstead. Winstead also wasn’t moving, also didn’t appear to be breathing.
Maybe they were both dead. Maybe Ello was dead.
Would that be so bad? If she were dead, she wouldn’t have to go to school and face the impossible, grinding pressure of eighth grade. She wouldn’t have to endure the humiliation anymore. She could ascend to heaven with this platter of eggs as her offering and be escorted back to sixth grade, the last time she was truly happy, when all of her friends adored her and her boyfriend had bought her a Valentine’s Day card with a chocolate heart before she broke up with him.
She heard the thunder of her brothers hitting the hallway like Santa Claus falling off the roof. In mere moments, the twins would either blow by the open doorway or veer in to inflict their havoc on Grandpa. They always did this, always woke up simultaneously, as if shocked awake by the same bolt of lightning.
Their choice today was Sander’s bedroom. Garrett and Ewan, three-year-old identical twins, somehow made running into the room sound like a collision.
Grandpa reacted as if he’d been hit with a taser, all four of his limbs spasming as Garrett leapt into his lap. Winstead jerked in sympathetic detonation.
Ello decided that the old man was not dead.
“Which one are you?” Grandpa Sander inquired in a voice that did not sound as if he really cared about the answer.
“That’s Garrett,” Ello reminded him, setting the meal on the serving table next to the recliner.
“Cudory cad dah wee wowo!” Garrett shouted.
Sander frowned in disapproving noncomprehension.
“He says good morning, Grandpa, and he wants you to read him a story,” Ello advised.
Ewan picked up a dog toy—a red rubber ball—and, yelling “Wenked!” threw it seemingly at random with all the propulsion his little arm could manage. It knocked down a framed photograph, like in one of those carnival games where you throw a ball at a stuffed clown, then bounced and landed with a muffled thud in the center of Grandpa’s bed. Winstead flicked a single ear to signal that, under other circumstances, he might have been interested in this violent treatment of what was, after all, his toy.
Not for the first time, Ello wondered why the ball was red. She had learned at school that canines cannot see the color red at all. It seemed a cruel joke to play on a dog, much as her parents were playing a cruel joke on her, making her live here and do chores and go to school when She Had Never Asked To Be Born.
“Well, go away, Garrett,” Grandpa instructed.
Ello smirked. As if it were that easy. As if the twins hadn’t come breaking into their lives like axe murderers entering a farmhouse. “Okay, boys, go get your breakfast,” she suggested.
The boys did leave, not so much because they were told to—they never did anything they were told to—but because the word “breakfast” reminded them that there was food to be flung at each other. They left at a sprint, but Ello lingered for a moment. As her father had mandated, she asked her grandfather if he needed anything.
Grandpa sourly regarded the plate next to his chair. “I don’t seem to have much of an appetite this morning,” he confessed. This was pretty much what he said every morning, so Ello did not respond.
God, she hated living here!
“Okay, goodbye,” she said after a dismal moment.
The merry-go-round. Same place, same people, same conversation. The carousel horse of dread had bucked her off once Grandpa opened his eyes. Now Ello was riding the dour horse of apathy. Next would come breakfast, then school, then home, then repeat. It Was Pointless.
* * *
The scent of sausage was so joyously thick on the air that Winstead was lifted out of bed and dragged across the room by it. He sat with all the good dog he could muster, focused on his person, who for some reason didn’t respond by tossing chunks of food. Winstead could catch treats thrown in his direction—it was his special skill.
He thought of his person as “Daddy.” That’s what he had been taught from the time he was a puppy. “Go to Daddy! Come to Mommy! Give Daddy a kiss!”
By staring relentlessly, Winstead forced Daddy to lift his eyes. Excitement coursed through the dog; surely now they’d share this tantalizing meal.
Daddy raised his fork.
He cut into the meat, releasing billows of delicious odors that rose from his plate like a flock of birds.
He smiled at Winstead. “What, you want some of this?”
Time to roll out another trick. Winstead lowered his body to the floor, lying down in such a worthy fashion that he knew a piece of sausage would be the next item of business.
Winstead snagged the chunk of meat and gulped it down so quickly he didn’t have much of a chance to taste it. Now he stared again, waiting for an encore.
“Sometimes I think you’re the only one left who loves me, Winstead,” Daddy whispered.
Something in the voice, in the unknown words, broke Winstead’s maniacal focus on the sausage. He’d heard that tone so often, lately.… When he pressed his body against Daddy’s leg, he felt the mood radiating down the hand that momentarily stroked his head. Sadness. Daddy was sad, and Winstead couldn’t seem to change that, no matter how good a dog he tried to be.
* * *
Juliana watched without comment as Ewan regarded his plastic fork with a devilish expression on his face. She knew exactly what was happening: her son was drawing a connection between the soft tines of his breakfast cutlery and some portion of his brother’s anatomy. In a moment, Ewan would turn to his twin and stab something. The damage would mostly be to Juliana’s eardrums as Garrett howled in protest, then escalated the conflict with a plateful of food heaved at Ewan’s face.
“Ewan,” Juliana warned, “don’t you dare do anything with that fork besides use it to put scrambled eggs in your mouth.”
Ewan’s expression was one of frank assessment. How had she known?
Garrett was trying to squish his breakfast into a stegosaurus. “Garrett, stop playing with your food and eat it,” Juliana instructed.
Garrett affected deafness and kept molding his eggs with Jurassic intent, his brother gazing on malevolently.
“What would happen,” Juliana asked herself, idly and aloud, “if I just let them go ahead and kill each other?”
Would she be implicated in the crime? How could she have known—what reasonable mother would ever suspect that her sons harbored such homicidal designs toward each other?
You could plead insanity, her lawyer brain advised. People who talked to themselves were insane, right? Since they’d begun having children, Juliana had been chatting out loud to no one but her own self. Probably because she yearned so desperately to speak to an adult.
She sighed. A few days ago, she had wandered into the kitchen and found Ewan helping Garrett climb up on the counter to retrieve a chef’s knife from its wooden block. They’d both giggled insanely when she admonished them. It was interesting that Ewan would participate so willingly in his own evisceration. Or maybe it wasn’t that. Maybe they were planning to kill their parents, take the family car, and drive south from Traverse City to Miami Beach for spring break.
“Good morning, Ello,” Juliana greeted her daughter as she shuffled into the kitchen. Like all girls her age, Ello had mastered the art of walking without picking her feet up off the floor. Conserving energy, Juliana supposed, for the next teenage tantrum.
Ello sat at the table without saying anything and dug methodically into her eggs. She pushed the sausage away with a look of utter scorn. She was going through a vegetarian phase, except for eggs, except for dairy products, except for steak.
“So, Ello,” Juliana began.
Ello looked up with cold eyes and gave Juliana a sour, head-to-toe assessment. Ello was examining her mother’s body, lingering on the post-pregnancy “orchestra and balcony,” as Juliana’s mother liked to say, and apparently finding fault with all she surveyed. To be fair, Juliana had given herself the same look that very morning—a critical examination in the mirror of what had happened to her once-taut physique since the twins had blown up her body from the inside and then so overtaken her daily schedule that she hadn’t been to a gym in three years. Juliana used to hit the beach in a bikini. Then a one-piece. Next time she’d probably wear a tracksuit. Was that it? Was that why Ello was regarding her with such distaste?
Juliana decided to push past her daughter’s contempt. “I have some news.”
Ello went back to her eggs to demonstrate her lack of caring, and Ewan tried to slug his brother with a sippy cup. Garrett didn’t even look up from his breakfast-based dinosaur project.
“Stop it, boys,” Juliana commanded automatically. She uttered this phrase so often that she should put it on a T-shirt, on a bumper sticker, on her headstone. “Ello, do you want to hear?” she prodded, because the expression on Ello’s face was so blank it wasn’t even clear she understood the language her mother was using.
Garrett smashed his stegosaurus’s head with a closed fist, sending a splatter of eggs over both boys.
“Sure,” Ello admitted begrudgingly.
“It came over the parental portal this morning. They fixed the flood damage in the girls’ locker room. So be sure to take your stuff today. Gym class is back on.”
Ello had long ago mastered the dead stare, revealing nothing of the once-joyous little girl who Juliana fervently prayed still inhabited some part of her soul. Juliana assumed Ello liked gym class—who didn’t?—so she wasn’t expecting any particular reaction out of her daughter.
Instead, Ello rocked in her chair, widened her eyes, and took in a shocked breath. “No!” she wailed. “No. I can’t. No. I can’t. No.”
Juliana was puzzled. “What do you mean, you can’t? Can’t what?”
“I mean I can’t!” she shouted, leaping to her feet. “Nobody cares about me in this family. This is the worst day of my life!”
Ello ran from the room as if pursued by vampires, her mouth set in a silent scream. Juliana calmly poured herself a cup of coffee. Obviously, something huge was going on with Ello, something to do with gym class.
Juliana wondered what it could possibly be.
Copyright © 2020 by W. Bruce Cameron