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Edward Alderson pushed his son out his bedroom window.

He was angry because his son had broken the silence about his leukaemia. He could not overlook such a betrayal of trust. He grabbed Elliot by the shoulders and shoved him against the glass with such force that it shattered.

Elliot fell through the frame and landed on his back atop the snow, surrounded by bloodied shards. His arm felt like someone had just taken a knife to it.

****

Someone is stabbing the kitchen table.

Darlene thinks, the table hasn’t done anything wrong.

Their mother is yelling. Elliot is beside her, rigid as a statue. They’re in her bed. Darlene leans in, close but not touching. She turns her head, traces with an imaginary finger her brother’s forehead, the crest that is the tip of his nose, his lips, his chin.

Each apex is accompanied by a dull thud in the kitchen. Their father argues, reasons, pleads by turns. Rinse, wash, repeat.

It’s pathetic.

Darlene turns back and faces forward, listening to the sound of her brother’s breathing. She can feel the panic rising within her, like a familiar friend, its vice-like grip a handshake around her heart. She tries to slow her breathing to match her brother’s; they sound like strangled gulps, the kind that a fish might make if it had a voice.

In the dark, Elliot’s fingers find hers, and hold on tight.

****

Dad pushed me out the window.

Elliot tried saying that out loud. It sounded wrong, like, the sun rose in the west, or there’s a seventh runlevel in Linux. Lying on the hospital bed, he gazed up at the ceiling. His sister was at home, seething. He ruined their afternoon, she insisted. Kevin McAllister had melted slowly in the rising temperatures of the afternoon. He didn’t even get a funeral. Darlene had refused to speak to him, storming up to her room and slamming her door. That was before they rushed him to the hospital.

His arm felt like it had been bludgeoned by a baseball bat.

Still, Elliot tried giving it voice, for his sister’s benefit. Dad pushed me out the window. Dad pushed me out the window. It’s okay, don’t worry. It’ll mend just fine. It almost sounded true, this time.

****

Even in the dark she can make out her brother’s jeans, his jacket, his favourite hoodie, a meagre stack of shirts. She inhales through her mouth, exhales. Her heartbeat thunders in her ears. Darlene is in Elliot’s closet. She tries the door but it refuses to budge. Elliot has locked her in. He had told her to hide in the closet.

That phrase doubled as a codeword for their mother’s imminent arrival.

She had obeyed. Darlene trusts her brother. She trusts her brother with her life, even when his eyes had that crazed feverish look in them and his voice was two tones too high and his grip hurt her when he grabbed her shoulders and shoved her backwards, slotting her in between the clothes and locking the closet door within seconds.

Darlene peeps through the louvres. Her brother paces, like a tiger in a cage. The tension is palpable. Darlene tries the door again. Negative. Outside, Elliot has stopped pacing. They can hear their father taking the stairs two at a time. Darlene calls out, “Daddy, Elliot is-” but stops short when she sees Elliot wrap his fingers around the handle of his baseball bat. His knuckles whiten. For one second, Darlene imagines him letting it go and collapsing to the floor in a fit of tears. Then, it begins. Elliot takes a baseball bat to everything in the room. Bookshelves, the table, the lamp, his beloved computer. Everything is smashed to smithereens, item by item. Elliot’s face is calm, the eye of the storm. Darlene watches.

****

Her brother jumped out the window.

Darlene watched as he clambered up the ledge. He wouldn’t do it, she convinced herself. He wouldn’t. Eventually, he would lean in to that pleading voice of their father’s and fall back into the safety of their house. That scant provision of safety that it offered did not pull Elliot back the way she had imagined. Instead, he deliberately went the other way. He wrung his self away from the window, limbs flailing wildly as he plummeted. Stupid Elliot did exactly as he had threatened. He hurled himself onto the snow, the little sucker.

Their father’s face crumpled.

Darlene felt cheated. It was just like Elliot to do something like that, a signal flare for attention, a stab to the heart. She pounded on the closet door, begging to be let out. Their father ran past her and flew down the stairs. Darlene was mad but there was nobody there to be mad at. What’s the use of a tantrum if you don’t have an audience? She could hear Elliot moaning in the snow. She hoped he had broken all his bones. It was a stunt, that’s all it was, a trick to cement the point that he was special.

And that she, by extension, was not.

****

They are at Coney Island. Elliot and their father are having a whale of a time on the roller coaster. That is, Elliot is sitting in the carriage with his face arranged into a somewhat impassive expression, while their father is whooping with delight. All the riders raise their arms and let out soundless yells as the roller coaster rockets towards the sky. Darlene cranes her neck and watches in envy from the ground. She also eyes their mother carefully, alert to any fluctuations in mood or behaviour, the harbingers of the inevitable storm later on.

Their mother takes another long drag on her cigarette and folds her arms.

Darlene is bored. She’s finished that sickeningly sweet candy floss and one of her hands is wrapped around that sticky, naked cone dotted with pink sugar. She pushes her heart-shaped sunglasses up and sits them atop her head before surveying the crowd. Submerged in the teeming mass of cheerful fairgoers, all she sees are the back of legs and wobbly, misshapen bottoms. She wrinkles her nose in disgust and makes her way to the nearest bin to throw away the paper cone.

The journey to the bin takes an eternity. Perhaps Darlene wants it that way; the longer she spends on this mission to keep the grounds clean, the longer she can stay away from their mother. However, no matter how small she makes her footsteps, they eventually lead her there and back again, like a boomerang that returns however hard you throw it.

Then, the unexpected happens. Suddenly, Darlene can see the top of heads. She spots a clown wearing a rainbow-coloured wig, juggling a dozen balls while balanced on a unicycle. She feels a set of arms around her and hears a whisper of a voice asking her which ride she wants to go on next.

Darlene waits for the familiar panic to set in. She stares into that pleasant, plastic face and wills herself to scream. To her surprise, she finds herself grinning instead. She aims for guileless but ends up with a smile that toes the line between awestruck and winsome. The wrinkled, old lady who holds her aloft keeps that smile in a bottle, along with many others. Darlene’s hand rises unbidden and points to the exit, that one ride to nowhere, and the woman nods.

****

Elliot Alderson jumped out the window.

One could posit several reasons: fear of abandonment, overwhelming uncertainty, a cry for help. All inane causes.

init 1

To return to the most basic runlevel meant to pare the situation to the bone. With a few keystrokes, Elliot Alderson tore apart the social networks in which he was enmeshed and answered to a new facet of himself. In one leap, he communicated his particular rage, helplessness, and terror. He jumped out the window because it seemed to him the only conceivable cause of action in the face of their father’s imminent extinction. From that singular will came a multiplicity of identities. Because of that one act, the self shattered. The doctor fixed a splint to Elliot’s arm but overlooked his fractured psyche. And so, while Darlene was waiting at home, alone, wishing to be alone and wishing to be with Elliot, wishing to be someplace else and someone new, wishing almost to take her brother’s place and be a recipient of something more than passing disgust, Elliot inched just a little further away from his sister.

That kiss decades later should not seem unexpected if you had taken this into consideration.

****

Darlene is whisked away from her drab life to another world. Along the car ride, she lets her hand dangle out the window and dances it along to the thumping bass on the stereo. She is worldly enough to know that the house they are heading towards will not be made of gingerbread, though there will be treats, for sure. The woman takes one hand off the wheel and pats her knee affectionately. Her gnarled fingers feel like tissue paper and Darlene does not push them away.

They walk up to the house hand in hand at a snail’s pace. As Darlene has expected, there are chocolates, cookies, and an endless supply of ice-cream and attention. She gorges on it and deliberately makes a mess on the table to test the waters. The woman traces a line across the crumbs and licks her finger. Elliot would have pulled a face and whispered to her how gross that was. Darlene giggles. Where’s Elliot now, she thinks, huh? Her heart skips sideways but she shushes it. Here, she is queen.

When night falls, there is a huge poster bed with curtains hanging from the frame, plump pillows, and pink pajamas. Everything is completely singular, and yet at the same time, all of it is a series of items in a repetitive set. 

Darlene is undressed. The woman draws circles in her hair and tucks her into bed. Snuggled under the covers, Darlene conjures up Elliot beside her for a second, then realises that he has no place in this fairytale.  

The rest of the night passes in a haze that she cannot remember.  

****

That's not what happened.

Trust me, I remember. You took your baseball bat and you smashed the window, and then you kept telling Dad you were gonna jump. Elliot, you weren't pushed. You jumped.

I don't remember any of that.

Well, I'm here to remember for you.

****

Darlene is at Cisco’s apartment. It terrifies her, this surfeit of love. Cisco is all curves, pancakes and kisses at dawn, while she is all angles, sharp wit and barbs for words. It’s not that Cisco isn’t smart (he is, unassumingly so), but it just grates on her nerves sometimes, how he’s so nice.

It’s a lot easier to let cigarette butts be stubbed out on your skin, to let yourself be slapped across the face, over and over, than to have someone lean in and nibble on your ear, and whisper that they love you to the moon and back.

She wants very much to return that love, but in place of a heart she has a cavernous gaping vacuole. One reason why it’s a lot easier to be with Elliot is that he takes that lack for granted.

The pillows want washing and yesterday’s dishes are still clogging up the sink. Darlene imagines her mother stepping into this apartment and throwing a fit. She barks a little laugh, waking Cisco, who stirs by her side. That woman has no place in this sanctuary. Half-asleep, Cisco leans in and digs his chin into Darlene’s right shoulder. She contemplates shrugging him off, then thinks better of it and sighs. She feigns fatigue and rests her head lightly on his. Cisco mumbles something inaudible, but it doesn’t seem necessary to clarify exactly what it is he is saying.