Ona puts her hand on the familiar doorknob. Cut glass, cool and smooth. An artifact of her childhood. Her fingers close over the faceted surface. She turns the knob to the right. It gives a millimeter, then catches. Locked.
Downstairs. Her mother is in the kitchen. When they were young, she and her brother, they’d squeeze into the tiny room while she worked, pushing past her plump body to extract milk from the fridge, Triscuits from the pantry. Her mother wasn’t the type of woman to shout “out, out of my kitchen, vagrants!” But she didn’t much like them to be in there, rooting through the pantry or knocking over yesterdays leftovers in the too small fridge. She wasn’t one to say it, but Ona could see the tension. The stringy lines on the sides of her mother’s neck, flexing and pulsing.
Now, her mother’s body has lost its curves and handles. A young child could fit comfortably in the kitchen with this pale slip of a woman who holds an onion in her hand. But Ona has grown tall and full bodied, her own curves now too generous for the tiny space. Unable to force her way in, she stands in the doorway and watches her mother’s diminished form slice the onion. Down the middle through the root. Peel off the papery skin and a layer of scale. Lay the halves flat on the plastic cutting board, feathered with three decades of knife work.
Ona looms over her mother’s work, certain that her mother knows she is there. The tightening of her shoulder blades, the way her tongue pokes out between her lips. She is too intent on her work. She could slice an onion with her eyes closed. This overdone workmanship, this deliberate inattention to her daughter, is a show. She excises the root and discards it without turning her head.
Ona won’t speak first. She pretends to herself that she doesn’t want to interrupt, that her silence is a kindness. But really, she is just as stubborn as the woman she watches, scraping onions into a hot pan with the backside of her hand. The onions smack the pan with a sizzle. A dramatic cloud of eye watering steam fills the kitchen. When her father was alive, he would slow cook the onions. Forty-five minutes on low heat. The onions melted, the spice of their scales turning sweet. But her mother turns the heat up and makes haste. She likes her onions to bite back.
Now her mother turns to the refrigerator, maneuvering her body a half rotation to the left. Out come the eggs, a half dozen, pasture raised. Her mother buys the cheapest version of everything, made cheaper still with carefully clipped coupons. But not eggs. She pays top dollar for these. Having grown up on a farm, she can’t stand the idea of a caged hen.
Ona shifts her weight, careful not to make a sound. To do so would be a demand for attention that she is unwilling to make. Life has taken too much from her mother. She ought to be able to mete out her remaining energy as she pleases.
Her mother taps the egg on the formica counter, yellowed with age. A short, efficient rap to the broad side that flattens the surface and introduces a fault. With her thumbs, she pulls the halves apart and releases the sleek albumen and the glorious yolk into a bowl. She does this six times, then beats the ensemble with the flat side of a fork. She pours everything over the seared onions, turns the heat to low, and faces her daughter.
“Set the table, will you?”
Ona pulls out the fiesta ware and gets to work.
Growing up, it had often been Ona’s job to set the breakfast table. Not by default of gender, but by default of disposition. Ona was an early bird, Evan, a lie-a-bed. While Evan hit snooze and melted into his covers, Ona got to work. A pair of plates, forks, and napkins. A tall pitcher of water, chipped, but only slightly. She never set more than two places. Her mother ate standing up in the kitchen. Her father stayed late in his bed, a sheet covering his arm or his foot but never the parts that she wished were covered. Breakfast at the table was a mandate for the children alone. Bagels on Mondays, cereal on Wednesdays, pancakes on Fridays.
Tuesdays they had eggs. Scrambled two ways. Evan liked them whisked to fluffy and poured into the pan where they were left to cook without interference. Omelette style. She liked hers tampered with. Stirred and mussed from the moment they hit the hot oil so they came out looking like so many glistening stones. But soft, soft in your mouth. Her mother made them both ways, a smile on her face that only disappeared if Ona got in her way.
When Evan tumbled down the stairs, his blanket wrapped around his shoulders and the crust of sleep in his eyes, there was nothing for him to do but eat. Ona sat across from him and watched while he crisscrossed his eggs with ketchup, the vivid, vinegary red transforming his tidy omelette into something more carnal. Then he looked at her and raised his eyebrows, waiting for her nod before he doled out a small pool of ketchup into the corner of her plate. He knew she liked to dip her tousled eggs in the scarlet sauce.
Now her mother brings in the frittata. Eggs one way, dealer’s choice. They eat in silence.
After lunch her mother clears the plates.
“Nice day for a walk.”
“It’s raining,” Ona says but she gets her jacket anyway.
“Just a drizzle.”
Ona’s mother opens the door. Ona walks past her, grazing her cheek with her tricep as she goes. Can her mother have shrunk so much? Ona is certain she once stood shoulder to shoulder with her, before college and medical school and residency. Before the fellowship she has just completed, and before all the death. Back when they were a whole family. Now, her mother’s head would rest beneath her chin if she would allow herself to be held so tight.
Outside, it drizzles on. A fine, soft mist. The moisture seeps into Ona’s skin, her lips, her lungs. She breathes deeply, extravagantly, while her mother coughs and sputters, her system shocked by the fresh air. Ona ought to come home more often, she knows. Ought to have visited on school holidays and ought to have stayed longer than a business week when her father’s liver finally called it quits. But the years have been busy. Perhaps now, job in hand, she’ll have more time to visit, more time to parse the silence with her mother in the house turned mausoleum.
They walk through the town center and skirt the library, following short path to the lake. The lake is a grey mirror of the cloud dense sky. They stop at the edge and peer across. Ona skips a rock. It jumps across the water. One. Two. Three hops before it sinks. She tosses another, but it won’t perform. She stoops and searches, then hands a pair of perfect stones to her mother.
Her mother considers the offering. She looks across the water to the far edge. Ona follows her gaze. A stand of trees teeter on the embankment, resisting erosion with a gnarled mass of exposed roots.
“These are good ones, Ona. Just right.”
“Dad taught me well.”
“Finding the right stone is the hardest part.”
“Evan was the better hand, though. He could make it halfway across the lake.”
Her mother pulls her sweater in tighter, beads of mist condensing on the pilled wool.
“It’s chilly,” She says and pockets the stones. “Let’s walk.”
They make their way around the trail, headed for the stand of trees. Ona’s mother stays three paces ahead of her, unwilling to walk side by side. Her mouth is set in an unforgiving line but her shoulder droop in a way that makes Ona regret speaking her brother’s name. She follows behind her mother. Around the first corner, a snapping turtle blocks their way, ancient and unmoving.
Ona’s hand brushes against her mother’s. Her mother gives it a gentle pulse then shies away, urging her body forward. She wants no part in her daughter’s affection. It isn’t personal. She doesn’t let anyone touch her anymore.
They give the turtle a wide berth and continue on the path. The turtle stands his ground, its rusted back and scaly neck statuesque.
Sundays of their childhood. While their mother baked and their father slept off Saturday night, Ona and Evan walked around the lake. The rock strewn dust beneath their feet, the broad expanse of brown, unremarkable water, and Evan’s hand. He was instructed never to let go of her, and he took his work seriously. A mile and a half on stubby, unhurried legs. His hand felt massive, closed over hers.
One such Sunday they rounded the bend and came across a big snapper like the one she and her mother disregard today. Other passers by circumvented the snapper, but Ona wanted to see him move so they found a spot to sit in the low branches of a nearby tree. Evan cupped his hand under her foot to make a step ladder. Ona climbed up and nestled into a y shaped space in the gnarled cherry tree. Evan scrambled up next to her. The branch, which easily held Ona alone, bent. Evan held her hand and they watched the snapper sit stubbornly in the middle of the dusty path.
They waited, the upper branches of the tree whispering, whispering at the crown of their heads. Little gypsy moth caterpillar babies fell on their shoulders and crawled across the still surface of their tightly held hands. It tickled, but they didn’t flinch. The melting summer sun inched across the late afternoon sky while the unswimmable water mocked them, stranding them in the heat.
The sun shifted one more degree and Ona caught her breath and shook Evan’s daydreaming body. The turtle was moving. Slowly, slowly, its massive head seeming to prop up it’s massive shell and it’s massive legs, thicker than Ona’s wrist, it moved towards the murky water. They watched it trail through the dust and descend the grassy, eroding lakeside slope. Then, slowly, slowly it disappeared beneath the water and swam towards an offshore log where it emerged, triumphant, for air.
For Christmas that year she gave him a turtle. Marble, smooth to the touch. Perhaps she bought it at the Smithsonian gift shop on a school field trip. She can’t remember. But it became a treasure that Evan kept beside his bed, in a drawer with Pokémon cards and dental floss and his retainer. He touched its glistening belly every night. Rubbed it with the flat part of his thumb and said his prayers, silently.
Ona looks over at her mother, rounding the final curve of the lake path with a determined set to her jaw. She’s angry, still. The day had been going tolerably well before Ona spoke Evan’s name out loud. Now she scrambles to fix her transgression, her inner pleaser grasping for control of her grown woman’s body.
“We could bake something.”
Her mother’s face softens. Her sweet tooth has a strong hold. It hardens again. “I don’t have everything on hand anymore.”
“We can make a list. I’ll go to the store.”
Her mother turns to look at her. Assessing her value as a potential shopper. Whatever she sees isn’t enough. Hasn’t been enough for a long time. She shakes her head.
“We’ll go together.”
Ona stays up late that night, reading on the sofa. The first half of a voice-heavy memoir that pulls her out of her own sad house and into someone else’s. At a certain point, her mother kisses her cheek with dry lips and walks up the stairs to bed. Later, her mother clicks off the blaring television in her bedroom. An hour or so after that, Ona braves the dark and silent stairs.
In her mother’s room, the light from the moon presses through the sheer curtains. She walks over to the sleeping curve that is her mother and stands close enough to hear her breathe, a shallow chortling breath. When she feels certain her mother is asleep, she opens up her bedside table. A sewing kit, a jar of bag balm, a picture of herself and one of her brother on the day they came home from the hospital. A key, brass and old fashioned.
In an instant, she stands outside the door again. Her brother’s room. She’s been here before, fondling the doorknob, wishing to go in. For the first time, though, she has the key. Her breath quickens. Her belly seizes up. It’s been sixteen years since she last entered this room. Her mother goes in there, maybe. Her father too, before he died. Or maybe the room sits empty, has sat empty for all these years. Holding its own ghosts since her family closed it up the week after Evan turned eighteen.
She puts the key in the lock and turns the knob. She opens the door and sneezes twice, then stands frozen, horrified at the thought of waking her mother. Surely her mother deserves to have dominion over this one sacred space. But Ona has rights too. She is grown and degreed and soon to be employed. She wants a piece of her brother to carry with her into adulthood. She wants to lay the ghosts of her childhood to rest.
Once in the room, she stands and lets her eyes adjust to the darkness. It would be too bold to turn on the light. She crosses the room and pulls open the curtains instead. Her mother stirs in the next room, a slight rustling of the sheets. Ona holds her breath and eyes the open door. She needs to close it if she wants to stay longer, but is wary of the click of the latch. She tries to leave, willing her body to move towards the door. The room rushes into her, carrying all the force of her brother. It doesn’t want her to go. He doesn’t want her to go. She walks gingerly across the dusty blue carpet and shuts the door, holding the knob with white knuckles so the latch falls into place without a sound. She sits down on the bed.
When Evan died, she wasn’t there to see it. She was snapping bubble gum in front of the courthouse with Cassidy, waiting for the mock trial finals to start. Snapping bubble gum was about the extent of trouble that she had discovered by freshman year of high school. It wasn’t that she wasn’t curious about trouble. She’d have liked to get in some. But Evan wouldn’t allow it. When Cassidy’s brother gave her a beer at New Years, Evan dumped it out unceremoniously. Rumors of a joint being smoked in the woods behind the lake led to a lecture. She wasn’t even there.
But Evan had grown up with their dad, a sweet, generous man whose skin was already turning yellow with cirrhosis at the age of fifty-two. Their dad, who wouldn’t outlive his son by more than a handful of years. Evan was all set to walk the straight and narrow, foregoing the use of any substances that might interfere with his life plans. He was serious about finishing the school year and getting out of town. And he was serious about Ona following in his footsteps.
Evan was shot at 2:52 PM on a sunny, cloudless day in April of his senior year. Ona was a freshman. When her bus arrived at the courthouse, she switched swatch bands with Cassidy. Her watch read 2:45. The trial was set to start at 2:55. She knows exactly where she was when Evan was shot. Furiously trying to blow the biggest possible bubble before the opening arguments started and the girls had to sprint inside.
She knows what 2:52 was like for her. What she wants, what she has wanted for all these years, is to know what it was like for Evan. It isn’t that no one told her anything. If anything, people told her too much. And no two accounts were the same. He was getting on the bus. He was already on the second step or he was standing off to the side checking out the hockey puck that Alan caught at the Capital’s game the night before. He was next to someone. A boy with an Eddie Bauer jacket or a girl with a vintage Starter jacket or the bus driver herself, wearing a Guess jean jacket.
A boy walked up with a gun. He was tall or just tallish. Black or brown or some said white. He held a Ruger or a Smith & Wesson or a Glock. Polymer or steel or gunmetal. He didn’t point it at Evan. Anyone could see that Evan had nothing of value. A used bomber jacket from Army Surplus. A Jansport backpack that he’d been carrying since he ripped his first Jansport backpack on a tree branch in the fifth grade. Lee jeans that were too loose and too short.
He pointed the gun at the person next to Evan. Not Alan. A junior whose name Ona can’t recall. Maybe she never knew it. The junior, a girl, clutched her jacket in protest, shaking her head. Dummy. Or the junior was a boy, playing at bravery, who lunged for the weapon. Idiot. The gun went off. The bullet missed its target. It hit Evan in the chest. He fell. He bled. In three minutes he was dead. Ona spent the next sixteen years of her life wondering what his death was like.
But now she sees it. Here in this room, the final moments of his life are cradled. They’ve been waiting for her. She touches the book on his bedside table and he is laying on the sidewalk, certain he will be fine, cataloguing firsts. First kiss, first hand job, first time he got the puck in the net. Evaluating family vacations. The Catskills versus the Blue Ridge Mountains. Bethany Beach versus Nags Head. Ranking his favorite meals. Nonna’s jambalaya followed by Dad’s Frito pie.
She takes the edge of the blanket, the one Evan wore wrapped around his body every morning of his life, and another minute of his almost spent life passes. He starts to feel his body changing, dissipating into the air. He shifts to prayer. That his father would start drinking at five o’clock instead of four. That his mother would pay for the extravagance of having her left front incisor replaced. That his best friend, who’d been rejected from all but his safety school, would find satisfaction in settling.
She opens the drawer next to his bed. There is the retainer, just where he left it. A folded note, an unopened condom. Aspirational. Her brother died a virgin. And there is the turtle. She lifts it up and rubs its belly. There is her brother, splayed out on the sidewalk beside his yellow school bus, staring heavenward. He only has a minute left. He can hear the siren, now, but he knows it doesn’t matter. He’s already too far gone. Someone holds his hand. He closes his eyes and thinks about his sister. The passage of her face from baby to child to almost teen, the feel of her sticky palm in his, the way he held her tiny body steady as they sat on a tree limb together, watching a snapping turtle retreat into the lake.
Growing up, Ona never talked to God. That was Evan’s domain. She teased him about it. Called him a zealot, an altar boy, a goody two shoes. Secretly, she wondered what he said, and why he kept it so quiet.
Since Evan died, though, she has tried her hand at spirituality. Has meditated, gone to sonic yoga, stood in the middle of the forest naked and spoken aloud to the sky above. She doesn’t call it prayer. And she doesn’t know if God is listening, or even if God exists.
She rubs the turtles belly. A lightness enters her body. Perhaps the moon shifted outside the window.
Ona puts the turtle in her pocket and stands up. She closes the curtains and smooths the blanket. She tries to walk towards the door but her body freezes.
They’d spent their childhood in this room. Building block towers and wrestling mercilessly and constructing blanket kingdoms. One day they found a rusted out beach umbrella in the garden shed. Evan hauled it upstairs and stuck the base in a house plant. Ona popped open the umbrella gleefully. Only two of the ribs were broken. She clapped her hands together and they draped a massive sheet over it. The sheet was a dark maroon color, like their mom’s Dodge Caravan or the best crayon in the Crayola box. The makeshift room under the umbrella glowed pink. A real castle. The belly of a dragon. A turret in the sky. She and Evan spend days under it. She wanted to live there forever. He said it couldn’t be When he grew up, he’d have to move out. She told him she hated him and ripped down the sheet.
“I’m coming with you,” she said.
He shook his head, his dark hair flopping over his bright eyes. “It doesn’t work that way.”
Now, she tries again to walk towards the door. She cannot. Her hand moves towards her pocket. The little marble turtle is impossibly heavy. Its holding onto her, clinging to the room. It won’t leave the only place it ever belonged. She pulls it out of her pocket and replaces it in the drawer.
When she leaves the room, she closes the door, but doesn’t lock it.
Outside the moon is so bright it hurts her eyes to look at it. She clings to the key, the tooled edges cutting into her palm. She walks past the playground, under the bridge, and through the town square. She walks behind the community center along an unlit path through the woods.
In the darkness of the archway, her feet slow down. There are roots here, she knows, and rocks. So many ways to stumble and fall. She picks her way carefully through. At the edge of the lake it is bright again. She picks up a stone and tosses it. Seven skips. The technique is coming back to her.
She opens her left palm and eyes the key. She closes her fist over it and winds her arm up like a pitcher. She thinks better of it, though. She doesn’t need brute force. Instead she holds the key like a frisbee and flicks her wrist. She could let go. It would fly through the air, glinting in the moonlight. Hit the surface of the water with one, singular, miraculous skip.
Instead her fingers pinch the key. They cling to it. The shaft presses into the pad of her thumb, bisecting the whorl of her fingerprint. The pressure travels up her arm and rests in the base of her skull, which pulses.
Back in her mother’s room, her arm relaxes. She slips the key into the drawer and shuts it with quiet precision. Her mother turns in her sleep, a lock of her hair falling across her damp forehead. Ona reaches down and, with feather-light touch, brushes it back into place. She straightens her back and stands in a pool of moonlight. Her mother sleeps on.
Corinne Foster is a writer living and working in Belmont, Massachusetts and taking classes at Grub Street in Boston.