Authors: Colleen Nelson
brandished an envelope above her head like a flag. “A letter just came for you.”
I'd been waiting a month for that letter. Hopping off my bicycle, I let it tumble to the grass. Dry and scrubby, it crackled from lack of water. The summer had stretched endlessly and only now, with the hum of bugs in the air, did it show signs of coming to a close. “It's like someone didn't get the memo,” Dad liked to say when the seasons didn't follow his timetable. Last two weeks of August should have meant deer flies and cooler nights, a hint of the chill that would be coming with autumn, but not this year.
I took the sealed envelope from her. “It's thick, that's a good sign,” she said, her hands on my shoulders, not realizing how hard she was squeezing.
My hands shook. The tear I made was ragged and the letter got stuck. Finally, I pulled it free and unfolded it. “Ravenhurst School for Girls is pleased to inform you that you have been accepted for the coming school year.” I didn't read past those words. Mom started screaming and hugging me.
I waited to feel something. A gush of relief or a flood of emotion, but there was nothing. Instead, I felt more rooted to the ragged wooden planks on the porch. A stubborn will to stay.
“Congratulations, Hope!” Mom said and pulled me into another hug. The letter was stuck between us, my arm at an awkward angle.
Ravenhurst had been Mom's idea. She'd done the research to find a school that took boarders in the city and then laid out her plan over dinner one night, peering at me with her fork hanging in mid-air. “Wouldn't you want to go there?” she'd asked. I looked at Dad, head down, shovelling mac and cheese into his mouth. “Get out of this place.” She waved her fork around, as if “this place” meant nothing more than our house. Her eyes bugged out, begging me to agree with her.
“Uh-huh,” I said. I didn't realize that my non-committal grunt would start a two-month long odyssey. Acceptance to a private school in the city meant letters from teachers, an exam, and then an interview. Mom had bought a navy, pleated skirt for me to wear and flat black shoes that pinched my toes. I'd hobbled through the atrium of the school, gazing up at a two-storey foyer encased in glass. Sunlight streamed in, reflecting off the marble floors. Our footsteps echoed, too small to fill the cavernous space.
I wasn't kidding myself, Mom wanted this more than I did. As usual, I'd gone along with her plans, not wanting to be the one who upset the delicate balance that existed in our family.
Our splintered family.
I watch them from the street. I tuck myself behind a tree or a parked car and watch them eat dinner. All three of them. Together. My chair: empty.
I keep waiting for a pull to go back, a desire to be part of that picture again. But it doesn't come. They are something else, separate from me. I can't remember a life where I was part of that. I know I was. Hope leaves photos for me sometimes in our stump. Some memories for me.
She doesn't know that the guy in the picturesâthe hockey player, the kid smiling at the beach or raking leavesâis dead. She's pulling photos out of Mom's albums, quietly erasing me.
Tonight, I watch as Hope looks up from her plate and stares outside. Maybe she can sense me, her big brother, out here watching. Her eyes search, wanting something that isn't there. She turns to Mom, pulling her eyes away from me, reluctantly, I like to think.
She'll leave something for me later. Some treasure, in the stump.
I slink away, the heat suffocating, a hot, dry wind kicking up dust on the street. I'll find something to take away the dull ache watching my family gives me. A snort or a sniff or a prick to make it all go away.
the corner of our property, concealed in a thicket of prickly bushes, is a tree stump. Mythological in its presence, it's been there since we were kids. Like a portal to another world, it smells damp and earthy, the ground around it spongy and cool.
A dark hollow at its roots is our hiding spot. Today, Eric will find an apple, red and waxy; ten dollars of babysitting money, freshly earned, that never even made it into my wallet; and a shirt, one I found in his room.
I went in his bedroom last night, after dinner. Counting in my head to eighteen, I limit my snooping to as many seconds as his age. In eighteen seconds, I can rifle through one drawer or peruse one shelf of trophies, and then I force myself to leave. I need to make the secrets of his room last, like I'm slowly unwrapping a Christmas gift.
I left him a poem too, scratched onto grade eleven math notes, found under his bed. Eric used to call my poetry mental diarrhea, an excretion of words and phrases. He didn't understand my compulsion to solidify a thought. Like a conjurer, I swirled ideas into something tangibleâsomething that had meaningâand put them on paper.
At the table
I moved it
Making sure all the treasures were tucked into place, I took a look around. Was he nearby? Sometimes I could feel him, ghostlike beside me. But today there was nothing, no telltale signs he'd been there.
stared at the cigarette in my hand, thinking back to what I was like before the meth. Two years ago, I didn't even smoke. Now, I took whatever drugs I got offered. The smoke had burned down to the filter, but I kept sucking on it, inhaling the last wisps of a buzz held in the nicotine.
My real dad was a smoker. In the few pictures Mom kept of him, there was always a cigarette dangling from his fingers or one sitting in an ashtray beside him. Usually a beer too. He looked like a guy who liked to party.
Dick, Hope's dad, my step-father, didn't even drink. Maybe that was why Mom liked him; he was the opposite of my dad. A good role model for me, her young son.
But I turned out like this anyway.
A guy I knew drove up and rolled down the window. “Wanna ride?” He was off his night shift, kids were at school, wife at work. He was looking to buy and some company to get high with.
Dropping my cigarette on the road, I crushed it under my shoe and got into his minivan. “I'm tapped out, man. You mind spotting me a line?”
He pursed his lips and glowered at me. “I'm not a fucking ATM.”
I shrugged. “You should've asked if I had cash
the invite.” I grinned at him, leaning back against the seat.
“Fuck.” He sighed and put the car into drive.