my brother used to tell me to hold my breath until i could hear the ocean in my head. and i did, it was a soft roar of sky fighting sea. eventually when my eyes rolled back like waves, he would make me breathe so i didn't drown.
he was always there to tell me to breathe out but now he is gone and i am forgetting how to.
we were very young when our father died (fell from a cliff photographing the moon) and our mother started dating the milkman. he was gangly man with white hair but otherwise very handsome. we didn't mind him at all. he made our mother smile and brought warm milk every night. but we missed our father and his stories about stars and planets.
one night we tried in vain to bring our father back to life in this man, he lay on our bed and we begged a story. but rather than talk about the grandeur of the milkyway he told us the percentages (down to 7 figures) of the essential vitamins in milk. we yawned and slept as he watched on proudly, thinking he had inspired delighting dreams of strong bones and teeth- when he'd only influenced desperate dreams of our real father.
when you are young you don't understand death. death to us was a tall, quiet man dressed in dark and very angry. a shadow of tree limbs on our bedroom wall, rustling and rasping and looking for greatgrandparents to suck and spit and leave to be only memories. death was whatever scared us most at the time. then it took our father, who was only young. and it didn't make sense for him to go.
once we all went to the sea. the only other time had been with our father and that had been a beautiful day. full of sun and seashells and seagulls and sand. this time we walked ankle deep and we laughed about the silly things our father had said last time we'd been there. the stories he'd told us about the moon and tide. his walrus impression he'd done with salty chips hanging from his wide mouth. we swam in the ocean and there was peace in the water. we found anyway we could to go back. in shells, baths and holding our breath.
the milkman loved our mother. i know because whenever she was out of the room he'd say to us, 'you know, i do love that mother of yours' and we'd just stare. stare him right out of existence. which we later thought about with hearts of guilt because he disappeared a little while later. there was an investigation with sirens and questions and my mother crying into his old shirts. but he was nowhere.
it wasn't long before my mother was dating Peter. Peter was an english professor at the university of baltimore. he wore a tie and said 'remember to say thomas and i, liane, not me and thomas' and i would just sigh at him. from then on i found every excuse i could to talk to him about 'me and thomas' and all the little things we'd been doing.
i was meant to call Peter dad, but you could have twisted my arm and pulled on my hair and i wouldn't have done it. i remembered my father. he was warm and kind and fascinated. i felt close to him because of all the times my mother cried and said i reminded her of him. luckily for thomas he looked just like our mother, and she always loved him.
i was getting older and full of angst. my mother would smack the side of my head real hard when i rolled my eyes or wore lipstick. i loved her, but i have to admit she was full of fire. and now that there was fire in me too, things were always hot. thomas was still the kind boy he always was and my mother would say 'why can't you be like your brother? you greedy little bitch' and i would spit onto the ground. then Peter would come along and say 'girls please don't do this. please don't'. and we'd burn him to ashes where he stood.
ironic actually, because a few days after our biggest fight (that lasted all through the night) he fell asleep at his desk and his classroom was set fire to. unfortunately the fire alarms were being refitted at the time and it was very late. the police said that he mightn't have even woken up. we had to admit, things were looking bad for my mother. even i secretly thought she had something to do with it.
the sirens were back and this time my mother was crying harder than ever. my brother brushed her hair out of her eyes and hugged her but i just stood and watched as she was taken away and locked up. it was my eighteenth birthday and four days away from my brother's fifteenth. they thought we were old enough to look after ourselves.
and so the house was empty and full at once. it was silent, but the air was heavier than water with all of our thoughts. i looked after thomas and held him when he cried for our mother- who had now disappeared like our fathers had. but by now i was numb. floating above the surface of my mind. things were not real or tangible. nothing had sunken in my mind.
everyday i woke up, made cereal for thomas, ran a bath for thomas, packed lunch for thomas, cleaned, watched television, checked the mail, picked thomas up from school, made dinner for thomas and slept. i did not leave time for thinking and i never ever did anything else.
my brother had become a child. he cried when he was frustrated and hardly spoke. we didn't have enough money to afford a lot of food so i mostly went hungry. i couldn't feel it. but i could see the sadness in his eyes when my toothpick fingers grabbed his hand. it wasn't until things finally sunk in for me that he became himself again. and that was tuesday september 18th, 2:35pm. it was the time the mailman always came with the mail.
any other day he would feed it through the hole in the front door and i would nervously collect it when i knew he was gone. but this time i heard it fall just outside of the door. i waited a little while and peered out to no one. so i opened the door and was smacked in the face with a kiss. right on the lips by the mailman. i pushed him back and he was grinning splendidly. he had messy blonde hair all about his eyes and was very young. i tried to tell my hand to slam the door closed but i couldn't move. he walked inside.
'you know, i think you're too pretty to be lonely.'
i hadn't really talked to anyone in so long. it felt strange. i felt like i should have been angry but all i felt was relief.
'what do you think you're doing just walking into my mother's house like that? do you know how unusual that is? i could call the police on you if i wanted.'
'well are you lonely?'
'what kind of a question is that? besides, i'm not.'
'you're hurt, i know you're hurt. your eyes look like my great aunt's and she is dying from cancer. you are too young to hurt like that.'
i stared at him, this strange, beautiful boy i didn't remember ever seeing. he was like the voice inside my head i'd kept quiet and now it was alive and i couldn't just silence it. to be honest i didn't want to.
i sat beside him on the floor and told him. about my father, the milkman, peter, mother, thomas, fire, galaxies and death. he listened quietly and when it was over my heart began to shiver and my head stormed and my eyes rushed. i fell apart in his arms. crumbling like dirt.
but he was too young. trying desperately to quiet and reassure me. not knowing what he had done. maybe he'd hoped for a kiss or romance without realising how messed up i was. the sun left and he left with it, i'd forgotten thomas. i was lost to things, running a bath and laying under the water. drinking it and bringing it back up into the sink. he came home and found me like that. something woke up in him.
he washed my hair and dressed me. lay beside me in the bed and told me all he'd been taught about space at school. suddenly he was father and i was very young again. he stroked my cheek softly. i said i love you and he said i love you. he said it will all be okay, put me to sleep and kissed my forehead goodnight. it was like we were children once more. it was beautiful.
then he killed himself. he tied a plastic bag around his head and ran out of air. there are no words. i tried it myself when i found him. i choked and spluttered and ripped it from my face. it wasn't that i didn't want it, i wanted it more than fucking anything. seeing death all over thomas like that, being utterly alone in the world. it just didn't work. but then it does, holding my breath without plastic, it does work and i feel it spread all down my throat, through my lungs and veins like a shadow. i welcome it and it's slow sleepiness that feels like warmth and quiet. it whispers and it's voice is liquid. death is not scary. he is here and he wants to take me to be with my father and brother by the sea forever.