Quiet Game
Annabel Graham

 

Who can stay quiet the longest?

My brother always wins this game, but today I will win. We huddle together, surrounded by our mother’s clothes. The pressed skirts and blazers collecting dust. The blue suede heels that always look a little wrong on her feet. The worn-in lace-up boots I love to try on. The faint smell of her perfume. White musk, pepper, moth balls, a hint of cigarette smoke.

I imagine I can see my breath, like you can in movies when it’s cold. I blow out a little puff, pretend I can see it swirling like steam in the dark. I think of a color. Pale green. My mother’s jade beads. The sound they make: high heels on a tile floor. The underside of a leaf, twisting in the sun outside the bedroom window. The spark of my brother’s iris like a chip of sea glass in the stripe of light that falls across his face from the slat in the wooden closet doors.

My brother’s eyes turn down at the corners so he always looks a little sad, even when he’s smiling. Like now. I know without looking at him that he is making funny faces in the dark, trying to make me laugh. I poke him, the hard muscle of his scrawny arm.

I press my face as close as I can to the wooden slats. I can see our mother’s bedroom in slices. The top of a lamp, a rectangle of wall. The edge of her dressing table. A coil of shiny beads. Perfume in its tall glass bottle, the one with the peppery smell. Underneath the table, a crumpled tissue smudged with fuschia lipstick. A laundry basket full of folded clothes, ours and hers. The stain on the carpet where her cat peed once, a few shades darker than white and shaped like a ragged heart. We don’t have that cat anymore. My mother says it ran away. My brother says he woke up once in the middle of the night on the pull-out couch and saw a coyote under the streetlamps outside the window, looking right in at him with black-rimmed yellow eyes. The coyote held my mother’s cat between its jaws.

My brother made me swear never to tell anyone this story. I am good at keeping secrets, but the image appears sometimes in my dreams at night. As if it happened to me instead of my brother, me instead of our cat.

Something is poking me in the back. I know by the size and weight of it that it’s the blue suede heel. There is a comfort in the feeling of this shoe digging into me. Like a thing reminding me I’m alive. My brother’s eye moves from the light, is replaced by his ear. I know he is listening, trying to make out a word, any word, from the other room. I can hear the edges of words, too. The words get jumbled and caught in our mother’s shag carpet before they can reach us. They are sounds, not words anymore.

There was an argument. In the car, on the way to our mother’s apartment. Our father and stepmother, pushing against each other, holding their mouths in tight forced shapes. My brother gripped my hand in the back seat and I tried to count the number of slug bugs on the highway, blurring my father and stepmother’s words with numbers and the chemical tang of a cherry Blow Pop. There were four. Yellow, blue, yellow, red. I hit my brother four times, gently, on the arm. No slug backs.

Quietness means being very still. When I am very still I can feel a spider creeping across the wall. Its legs like eyelashes, inching across the plaster. I can feel my breath coming out in a different way, short and hot. I can feel my mother’s hats in a faded pink hatbox on a shelf above me. Her favorite jacket. The pink and red flowers on this jacket. The scalloped collar.

She, our mother, is there, in the other room. The room beyond the closed door of her bedroom. The room which my brother is craning his ear towards, the room which must be full of words and sounds and smoke, the room which turns gold at night from the streetlamps that leak their light through the windows. We will sleep in the gold room on the pull-out couch tonight. Later maybe we’ll have ice cream.

What I am doing, now, in the closet, is listening. I can hear our mother: the clack of her platform boots, the click of her jade beads, the bright timbre of her voice, her hoarse laughter. The sound she makes as she exhales, thinking about what she will say next. There’s a lower voice in the room, too, a man she calls Tommy who is her special friend and who my brother and I don’t get to meet. When Tommy comes, my brother says, we get to play our special closet game. Why? I ask him one day. I’m tired of being quiet, I say. How can you be tired of being quiet, he says.

Tommy doesn’t know about us, my brother tells me. That’s why we play our quiet game, so he can’t find us. What would happen if he found us? My brother doesn’t know. Tommy brings our mother things. What kind of things? I ask. Stuff she needs. Her medicine, my brother says. What kind of medicine? And in the dark I can feel my brother shifting and biting his lip in the way he does when he does not feel like explaining something to me, and he sticks his sharp fingers into my ribs and under my armpits, tickling me too hard for me to laugh, but I do not forget my question.

Tommy: I have never seen him but I know him by the rough tangle of his voice. I can feel the weight in the apartment shift when he is here. The way our mother seems sadder and happier after he leaves. The way she moves, like she’s on fast forward.

There is the noise of the door being pushed open: the door to my mother’s bedroom, the door to the room we are inside of, the door that always sticks. There is the noise of my mother saying a word she taught us not to say, kicking the door open with her boot. And then I can see a slice of our mother through the wooden slat: thin arms in a tight black tank top, long hair like shredded sunlight. I want to call out to her. My brother feels this and squeezes me tight with his strong skinny body. Shhh, he whispers, just barely, but enough so that I can hear it. He smells like a boy.

Our mother is making the sounds of someone who is trying not to cry. Aching, shivering sounds, like something is stuck in her throat. She opens a drawer in her bedside table, fumbles inside of it. I can hear a crinkle of plastic. She turns and I can see a wedge of her face. Makeup running down in two black streams. She is shaking.

 

My heart as a fist, opening and closing. My heart as a shell underfoot.

 

My brother wins the game.

 

I open the closet and step out, feeling the squish of shag carpet under my feet. Our mother turns, sharply, as if she had forgotten about us until now.

A moment. Her green eyes. Her hands twist themselves into different shapes. She holds out her arms and crumples into me, laugh-crying. We fall on the bed.

My brother edges himself from the closet. He stands in the corner of the room, full of not-knowing, his mouth tight. He rubs his nose, then stoops down and pulls an armful of folded clothes from the laundry basket, flings them over us.

My babies, our mother says. My babies, my babies.

And the ceiling fan pirouettes above us. And the laundry rains down on us, the different colors and weights of our clothes, like something magic. And the room smells like our mother. Pepper, smoke and musk.

I hear the engine of an old car revving, the tick tick tick of a sprinkler, a whisper of ants beneath a magnifying glass. And the leaves outside the window shudder silently.

My brother pulls the window shut.

 

Annabel Graham is a writer, photographer, filmmaker and artist. Her fiction has been published in Eunoia Review, CutBank, Cosmonauts Avenue, Atticus Review, No Tokens Journal and others. She was a finalist for the 2015 Montana Prize in Fiction, and for the 2015 SLS-Disquiet literary prize. She is currently in post-production on her first short film, The Ravine, which she wrote, directed, co-produced and starred in. She lives and works in Los Angeles.