In December, I became The Girl Who Saw Her Brother Drown, even though that’s only half true. I saw the ice open up and the lake breathe him in, then it was only Augusta maple trees and snowflakes on my eyelashes and so much silence, like he’d never even existed.
It takes three minutes without oxygen for your brain to start destroying itself. I waited for twenty-three minutes sitting cross-legged below an aspen tree, drinking tea from Tai’s thermos. It was too hot and he’d said to wait or I’d burn my tongue, but I burned it anyway and kept drinking until everything tasted like ash. Then the northern lights started casting purple banners across the sky, fifty-four minutes too late. I saw every colour and I saw colours that only existed for that moment and I saw every single star combust, but I did not see my brother drown. He was somewhere beneath the ice, while I was looking up at the sky.
When I took the bus back home alone and told my mom what happened, she grabbed my shoulders and shook me so hard that my brain sloshed back and forth in my skull and the flowers on the wallpaper looked like they were melting together.
“Why didn’t you say something?” she said while the violets reeled overhead. “Why didn’t you tell someone?”
The policeman asked me the same question.
“I don’t know,” I said.
“You don’t know.”
The officer looked at me the way you look at sour milk, pen hovering over a yellow notepad.
“I was scared,” I said. His eyes went soft and he nodded, scribbling something on the page and putting the notepad away. I fed him the words he wanted to hear, the words that made sense, made him go away. The poor little girl with pigtails is traumatized, wearing her dead brother’s mittens, drinking the tea he made two hours ago. She’s only twelve, after all. Her parents shouldn’t have let her out in this weather. Her brother shouldn’t have walked across thin ice. She’s suffered enough. She was scared.
He didn’t want to know that I stopped being scared the moment Tai fell in, or that he was already dead when we got to the lake. He didn’t want to write in his yellow notebook that twelve-year-olds can read Shakespeare and give speeches to the UN and tell their moms when their brothers are drowning but this one didn’t, and it was only when all the tea in her thermos was gone and her mom made her take off her mittens that she started to feel like the world had stopped turning and it would always be 11:34 p.m., always this infinitely dark and crushingly cold.
“I’m worried about Jing,” Mrs. Levins said, handing my mom a tuna casserole in a blue china dish a few days after the funeral. My mom didn’t understand that the American remedy for grief was a vat of pasta and cheese.
“We all are,” Mrs. Levins continued. “She’s so quiet now.”
I expertly continued to be asleep on the couch.
“You know, the neighbours. Kids are so impressionable, after all. You really should have her talk to someone about it, otherwise she’ll grow up a bit … off-balance.”
I opened my eyes just a little as my mom opened the fridge and pushed one of the other eleven casseroles to the back, placing Mrs. Levins’ on the middle shelf.
“Thank you for your concern,” my mom said.
The next week, she told me we were moving to Boston.
“This town is too small,” she said. “There’s nothing out here but trees. We’re from the city.”
You’re from the city, I wanted to say. I’m from the trees that leave sap on your hands and the pine needles that get stuck in your hair. But when you let someone’s son drown, you have to do what they say.
Tai always sat behind the driver’s seat when the four of us took road trips, but we filled his seat with boxes rather than waste the extra space. When I asked to stop at the woods, my mom said we had to beat the traffic.
“But there won’t be woods in Boston,” I said.
“I know,” she said.
I wondered what else I wouldn’t find in Boston. I wondered if there would be fireflies, or sledding hills, or snow.
“We’re lucky to live here,” Tai had said one day in August, back when he was still my brother. “In the cities, there aren’t any stars.”
We were lying on the grass just outside the forest, staring up at the summer constellations. The dirt beneath us was soft from rain and molded to the shape of our bones.
“Yes there are,” I said. “You just can’t see them.”
“So they don’t exist,” he said, plucking a blade of grass and holding it up to the sky like he was trying to measure the stars.
Maybe it was because he was four years older, but back then I always thought that nothing Tai said could be wrong, or a lie, or something that hurt.
“There are people like us in Boston,” my mom said, rolling up her window as we merged onto six lanes of highway. I wondered what she meant by that. I wondered if the people in Boston climbed trees and ate mooncakes, ran barefoot in cranberry bogs until the mud between their toes could never be washed away, or invited winter back every year to bury them under six feet of hard snow.
It turned out that she meant there were Asian people in Boston, but it didn’t matter because the kids in my middle school looked like me but spoke a different language. The guidance counsellor saw that my last name was Kwan and put me in the ESL class “with all the other Vietnamese kids,” even though I was born in Maine and spoke Mandarin. I didn’t talk, so they thought I didn’t speak English and I let them believe whatever they wanted. The teacher, Mrs. Sinclair, spoke so slowly you could taste the words, touch every crisp consonant and swim in every long vowel. In the first week, we talked about the active and passive voice in sentences with Sally and Sam Smith.
Sally and Sam loved each other. Active (the subject performs the action).
Sam was loved by Sally. Passive (the subject receives the action).
One day, Sally wanted to play with Sam like they used to. Active.
Everything broke because Sam was eaten by the dark places in the woods. Passive.
Sam was obsessed with finding the end of things. Active (even though it has the word “was”). When he and Sally were little, they’d press their noses to the porch windows until it stopped raining, then go searching for the place where the rainbow touched the ground. They’d run along dirt roads to see where they stopped, but they never got to the end because Sally got too tired and Sam wouldn’t run ahead without her. One day, when Sally was eight and Sam was twelve, they climbed the birch tree in the Wilson’s backyard and looked out at the place where sky touched earth, hidden by a jagged line of pine trees.
“Where does the universe end?” Sam said, running a finger up and down the grooves in the trunk. “The sky ends at the atmosphere, then space starts. But where does space end?”
“It doesn’t,” Sally said. A tiny brown spider crawled onto her hand. She watched it tickle up her arm and jump onto a leaf.
Sam shook his head. “Everything ends. If it didn’t, nothing would begin.”
That year, Sam wanted to find the end of Aurora. He said the northern lights were extra special because they were so hard to catch, like a silk scarf tossed around a windy canyon, always just past your fingertips. The colours carved roads into the sky, long rippling ribbons that all pointed to the same distant destination. What was at Aurora’s End, where all the colours finished and began again?
Sally and Sam planned the Aurora chase with a big dry-erase board where they wrote the weather forecast and moon cycles. They drew a red “X” through cloudy days, a red slash through days with full moons because there was too much light in the sky, and a horizontal line from Monday straight through Thursday because of school. Then they checked the three-day Aurora Forecast to see if the light storm would reach down and touch northern Maine on a good-weather day.
“What’s at the end?” Sally said one day.
Sam pulled a leaf from the birch tree and let it go. It spun down between the branches and disappeared into the black forest floor miles below. Sally forgot that he never answered.
The more important question was where did Sam himself end, and the darkness begin? But Sally knew the answer now.
Sam ended at the lake outside the forest in Augusta. Active.
Sam drowned in the lake in December. Active (the subject performs the action).
Sam was drowned in the lake in December. Passive (the subject receives the action).
In October, Tai became The Boy Who Doesn’t Go to School. We used to walk to school together every morning, but in September he started missing school every Monday, then every Monday and Tuesday, then every day. “I don’t feel well” were Tai’s magic words that made Mom and Dad stop yelling at him because they were already late to work.
The moms talked about it in the drop-off lane at school. His parents probably push him too much. You know how those tiger moms are. The dad’s an investment banker so he never sees his kids. The mom should stay home to take care of them. No wonder he cracked.
Cracked, I thought. Like the garage window when Tai threw a Frisbee at it and Dad made him put tape over it. Now Tai was fractured glass and eggshells and scotch tape but there was no reason for any of it. Nothing had changed but him.
It started snowing the week before Thanksgiving. Dad told Tai to get out of bed and shovel if he was going to stay home like a loser, so I shovelled it for him. Mom told Tai to make dinner for me since she had to work late that month, so I made ramen that Tai only touched long after it got cold and all the soy sauce sank to the bottom.
One summer before it all happened, Tai and I caught fireflies in jars by the cranberry bog. I forgot to poke air holes in my jar, so in the morning only one firefly was left, its light dim and flickering. Tai’s eyes looked like that in October, so little light that it almost wasn’t there at all. When I asked what was wrong he always said, “I’m tired.”
In November, I found a red butterfly in the garage, bright like all the cranberry bogs, hiding safe behind the garden hose where it was warm but not too warm. I grabbed one of the glass jars from the top shelves and gently led it inside, then wrapped the jar in my jacket and ran back to the house. I thought of last summer, when Tai lay in the backyard with orange slices on his forearms, so still that he was barely breathing, until one by one all the butterflies landed on him.
I found him in his room, looking out the window at the front yard, pulling the shutters up and down. I stopped in the doorway.
“Please go away,” he said.
“What are you doing?”
He let go of the cord. The shutters crashed against the windowsill. Dark inhaled the room.
“I don’t want to talk right now,” he said, slowly pulling the cord again. Light crept back in, so bright against the snow that it stung.
“I got you something,” I said, stepping forward and holding out the jar. “Look.”
The shades slammed down. Darkness. Light crept in again, bright enough to burn. Slam. Darkness.
He yanked the cord and it came loose, falling from the window into his hand. The shades were frozen halfway open, the room cast in grey. He sighed and rapped his fingers against the windowsill.
“Jingle Bell,” he said, and it had been so long since he called me that that I almost forgot who that was. “Please, just go.”
“Can you just look?”
He shook his head slowly and looked at the broken cord in his hand.
“When I look at you, I feel sad,” he said.
I hugged the jar tighter. The butterfly inside tapped against the glass. I felt like snow banks melting, all the cold water flooding the sidewalk and gushing into the drains.
When I went outside to put the butterfly back in the garage, it was dead. Must have been the cold.
When I got home, my mom was washing the same dishes she’d been washing that morning. Unlike my dad, she hadn’t found a new job in the city. She spent her days wiping fingerprints from the counters and washing color from all our clothes. The bottle of dish detergent that was full that morning was three-quarters empty. She stood barefoot in a small puddle in front of the sink, scrubbing a teacup.
“Can I help?” I said, kicking off my shoes.
She didn’t turn. The sink was clogged and white bubbles kept rising.
“No. Go study.”
I turned to go to my room.
“No,” she said. “Here, where I can see you.”
I dragged my bag to the kitchen table and pulled out my ESL folder, sharpened a pencil and broke the tip, sharpened it and broke it again. The bubbles were rising up to the lip of the sink.
“Mom, you need to run the disposal.”
“You need to do your homework.”
I sharpened my pencil again. Wrote my name on a piece of paper. Broke the tip.
“Can I just go to my room?” I said. “I’m tired.”
The bubbles started to climb onto the counter.
“You’re ‘tired’?” she said.
She flipped the switch for the disposal. It roared and shook the counter. The bubbles started disappearing, sucked into the vortex.
“I’m tired,” she said over the screams of the disposal. “Your father is tired.”
The sink inhaled the last of the bubbles, the disposal growling and chewing on dry air.
“There is only one thing I’ll ask of you, Jing, and the rest doesn’t matter. You get up every day and you do what you have to do. That means you go to school and do your homework. Do it every day and one day you’ll forget that you’re tired.”
She turned off the disposal, staring into the empty basin.
“You can go to bed when you finish your homework,” she said, softer this time. Then she turned and went to the bedroom to re-wash the sheets.
I did what she asked, but first I took $3 from her wallet, like I did every Tuesday, and put it in the butterfly jar under my bed. I felt a little bit bad, but I’d already taken away much more from her than $3, so I didn’t feel too bad.
Past and Present Exercise
Write 3-5 sentences about Sam and Sally Smith in the past and present tense, respectively.
For Sally’s tenth birthday, Sam hung jingle bells on all the trees in their backyard, so when the wind blew it sounded like Santa Claus was landing in the forest. Their parents hated it, said they couldn’t sleep at night, but Sam did it anyway. For Sally’s eleventh birthday, Sam bought one of those boxes of butterflies people use at their weddings and took Sally out into the fields, not telling her what was inside, and said to open it. All of them were different colours, soft when they fluttered past her cheeks and swirled around her hands, arcing upwards like watercolours against the white winter sky. That was what Sally dreamed about every day for the last three weeks, and she wished more than anything that the dreams would end.
Sally Smith is trapped in a feedback loop. She has to get up and shower, but getting up and showering requires thinking about getting up and showering, which reminds her of the cold water and the cold and that there’s no way to get warm anymore, not until she goes to bed and even under three quilts the cold still lives in her skin. She can’t get out of bed because the loop doesn’t release her, it just spins her around like the heavy cycle in a washing machine. Sally wonders if she is small enough to fit in the machine and drown in all the water and soap, but in the end she never finds out because that would require getting up.
One hour before the end, Tai and I stood at a tourist stop off the side of the highway in Augusta, fumbling with the cheap hot water dispenser and store-brand teabags. My hands were numb from the two-hour bus ride and I kept spilling water all over the counter.
“Here,” Tai said, taking my thermos. He handed me his mittens, filling the thermos with hot water and dropping two tea bags inside. “Wait till it cools down or you’ll burn yourself.”
I took the thermos and wished my hands were always this cold so he’d make me tea and wrap my scarf snug around my neck every day. That afternoon he’d let me pull him out of bed and onto a bus with less of a fight than usual. He stared out the window the whole bus ride and I wondered if he was looking at the grey snow or his own reflection but I didn’t ask, and he didn’t ask where we were going, just let me drag him around like my old stuffed animals.
The path marked in red Expo marker on my map took us along the highway and into the deep snow unbroken by footprints, out to a small lake where the trees parted and the sky opened up over the edge of a precipice. I crunched new footprints into the clearing and Tai followed silently behind.
I checked Dad’s watch and saw that we still had time. The sky was still empty but that was okay because soon the stage curtains would pull back and the colours would start and he’d understand, maybe even be a little happy.
“Guess why we’re here,” I said, pulling on his sleeve. His arm was limp, like it wasn’t even a part of him.
“I dunno,” he said.
A sharp wind ripped the map away and sucked it up into the sky like a crippled bird. Tai watched it go and even when it was gone he stared up at the black, snowflakes speckling his glasses.
“It’s a G5 storm tonight,” I said. He turned back to me like he’d just remembered I was there. “It’s the highest geomagnetic activity level in decades. I’ve been checking every night. It’s a new moon tonight, totally cloudless.”
He blinked and stared at me. Don’t wait for me to explain, I thought. You know what all of that means. I wanted to carve emotions onto his face, scratch him up like skates over fresh ice. Anything but that look he gave me, like I was someone he’d never met and didn’t care to know.
“We can see the northern lights,” I said, smiling even though I couldn’t feel my lips and didn’t feel like smiling anymore.
He blinked slowly, looking back up at the sky. His expression stayed frozen like the ground beneath us, his eyes as dark and vacant as the sky overhead. Wind brushed his scarf off into a snow bank, but he didn’t notice.
“Tai,” I said, “isn’t this what you wanted? Doesn’t it make you happy?”
He looked out across the lake and let his shoulders fall, stuffing his hands deeper into his pockets. I wanted to grab his face and make him look at me. I didn’t care how sad it made him.
“Jing,” he said, “what do you want me to say?”
I bit my lip and shook my head, shivering and staring at my snow boots, kicking at the hard snow.
How about “Thank you for staying late at the library staring at the Aurora tracker, even though you missed the bus and Mom yelled at you and you didn’t finish your algebra homework. Thank you for shovelling the driveway for me and not telling Dad. I’m sorry that at night you sit in the backyard and cry so Mom and Dad won’t hear you. I’m sorry I forgot your birthday, I’m sorry I don’t look at you anymore. I’m sorry that once you had a brother and now you don’t. I’m sorry I’m like this, I’m so sorry.”
“Nothing,” I whispered, watching the word disappear in a white cloud.
He zipped his jacket up tighter and walked forward toward the tree line, his gaze fixed on his feet, and I thought, This is how it will always be. For the rest of my life, he will drink all of my love like a black hole and then walk away from me.
Then the ice dropped out like a trap door. A quiet splash. Silence.
And the first thing I felt was relief.
Now I can love people who will love me back, I thought.
I jumped as a bone-white hand shot out of the lake and clawed at the ice, nails sliding uselessly across the glassy surface. Waves of ice water spilled over the edge and bled across the still-frozen ice to where I was standing. I expected the scene to move me somehow, make me cry, make me feel like a monster. But I felt nothing except the tightness of frozen tears stuck to my cheek and fingers so numb that they didn’t exist. I closed my eyes and tried hard to see nothing, not even blackness, just a nothingness so violent and vast that it obliterated everything.
I did not see my brother drown. I did not see my brother drown. I did not see anything at all.
When the splashing finally stopped, the most delicate, peaceful silence fell over the forest. For a single moment in time, the world felt balanced, like everything was the way it was meant to be.
That was the moment that Tai ended, because for that one moment I stopped loving him, and that was all it took. It only takes half a second of not loving someone for them to end.
Colon and Semicolon Exercise
Sally Smith woke up on Tuesday and felt an entirely new sensation: the desire to never wake up again.
It was because the car horns always fractured her dreams; in Maine, nights were silent and unbroken. Last night she turned like a sunflower toward the light beyond her window but it was only the streetlight; in Boston even the stars were fluorescent.
These were the biggest differences between old home and her new home:
- Her old home had three bedrooms and her new home only had two because there was one less occupant.
- Her old home had a fireplace that warmed the first floor and made the whole house smell like autumn while her new home had a thermostat that didn’t work and a landlord that didn’t listen.
So when Sally woke up on Tuesday from a dream cut in half, turned toward an artificial sun and shivered, she wished that she had never woken up in the first place. She thought of going to school and being a shadow stretched thin across the sidewalk, then she stared at the cracked off-white ceiling and understood why Sam always spent so much time staring at it; not because there was anything interesting up there, but because there was nothing up there. But she shouldn’t have thought of Sam because when she did that she felt like ice had opened up underneath her feet as well; maybe she wished that it had.
“Why didn’t you say something?”
My mom slammed a plate of orange macaroni in front of me. She slammed a glass on the table, slammed down a jug of orange juice, slammed the silverware down next to it.
“Why didn’t you tell them you spoke English?” she said. She pointed to my plate with her fork. “Eat.”
I picked up the fork and stirred the radioactive noodles.
“This is humiliating, Jing. You lied to all your teachers. Why would you do this to me?”
Because I was being who they wanted to see, I thought, stirring the noodles around in an orange whirlpool.
“I was scared,” I said. I’m not feeling well. Thank you for your concern. Just go away, shut the door, close the notepad.
“That doesn’t absolve you of anything,” she said, impaling three noodles. She slammed her fork down and glared into the food that she hated and never would have made before we came to this place. Her long hair was down for once, and it fell over her eyes and into the fake cheese sauce. She looked so much younger that way, with her hair hiding the harsh angles of her cheekbones. Then, as small and fragile as a single snowflake, she whispered one word into her plate:
The word floated above us for a moment, expanding like a cloud of vapour in the small room, then rose up to the ceiling and was gone.
She stood up sharply, glared down at the uniformly-but-unintentionally-orange meal as if it were the singular cause of all her shame, and abruptly swept everything off the table.
The plates burst into white ceramic teeth. The plastic cups bounced then rolled away, trailing orange juice across the linoleum. The noodles all stuck together in an orange clump oozing yellow water. My mom glared at the floor until the last cup had stopped spinning beneath the table and it was just another mess to clean up.
She turned to the sink and gripped the edge of the counter.
“Go to bed,” she said, her arms trembling.
“I can help clean up.”
“Just go, Jing.”
I backed out of the kitchen, then went to my room and lay in bed and tried to exist as quietly as possible so that my darkness wouldn’t touch anyone else. I stared at the ceiling and tried one more time to bleach my mind and do my homework and go to class and not care about things that actually mattered.
I got up and dragged my backpack to my desk, yanking the lamp cord and casting dirty yellow light across the carpet. You get up every day and you do what you have to do. That means you go to school and do your homework. Do it every day and one day you’ll forget that you’re tired. But I did my homework every day, and all I learned was that there was a difference between “drowned” and “was drowned” but no difference between “to let drown” and “to kill.”
I yanked out my folders, spilling papers about Sally Smith everywhere. Stupid Sally Smith, telling Mrs. Sinclair all of my secrets. What a stupid story about a stupid boy and even stupider girl. I thought about my butterfly jar under my bed and the $45 jammed inside and imagined that it was enough, that I had been enough. I wished I could be like Sally and only exist on paper where all my mistakes could be scrubbed away with an eraser. Sally would take the butterfly jar and buy a train ticket from South Station to Portland, Maine, even if Jing never would. Sally would board the train and speak to no one and be no one until she was back in that place where trees were for climbing and not just decoration.
And she’d feel the colors before she saw them, the greens and violets of summer spilled across a winter sky, splashed across the stars. She’d run toward the point where they all converged behind the soft slope of elm trees, the beginning and end of everything, the question he never answered.
And when she stopped running, Sally saw a frozen glass lake surrounded by maple trees and an empty black sky. She walked out into the snow and she wasn’t cold anymore, even though it was up to her knees and in her shoes and between her eyelashes. She stepped onto the lake, a clear and perfect mirror of the moon, and stomped her foot hard into the ice. She jumped and kicked but the surface was diamond strong and wouldn’t even dent. Too small, too little, too light, too late. She didn’t want to die but she wanted the ice to break, the whole world to break.
She imagined water so cold that it hurt to exist, and an unbreakable ice ceiling, and running out of air, and an off-white moon rippling above the water’s surface. She remembered for the thousandth time that this was the end she chose for him, and that she gave up the right to cry when she made that decision.
Then, at the other side of the lake, a girl with pigtails and a boy with glasses emerged from the forest line. The girl tugged at the boy’s arm and it fell limply to his side. A map fluttered up into the sky and blew beyond the trees. The boy turned and started walking toward the frozen lake.
Sally started running toward them, but her first step slid out from under her and she crashed hard onto her palms. The ice below her crunched and shifted. Jagged cracks slashed through the ice and started spreading across the lake, turning the clear glass to puzzle pieces. The boy kept walking closer.
“Stop him!” she shouted at the girl, but the wind ate her words and the girl across the lake just stared at her feet, so stupid and angry.
“One day, you’ll understand what it’s like to be a firefly trapped in a jar with no air,” she shouted. “You can spend your whole life looking for the place where the rainbows touch the ground and running on the dirt roads until you’re crawling and telling yourself that your love for him is over, but you’ll never find the end of any of those things because nothing ever truly ends.”
Then she looked up at the sky because she already knew how the story started, and like so many other things, there was nothing she could do anymore. She did not see her brother drown, because she was lying on her back looking up at a sky that was both stark and extravagant, a hollow infinity splashed with violet light that she would never be able to touch.
Kylie Lee Baker’s writing has appeared in Cleaver Magazine and Plain China. Originally from Boston, she will (hopefully) graduate from Emory University with a B.A. in Creative Writing and Spanish in 2017.