The Vegetable Game
There’s no time to stop and tell my brother what’s wrong as we walk down the street away from the home we grew up in. I place one shiny buckled shoe in front of the other and try to concentrate on the pain. I don’t ask my brother if he thinks my shoes look nice with my skirt. I know he will laugh. I don’t want to hear laughter. There’s no time for laughter during hitchhiking.
When I was five and he was three, I talked for my brother. He did not talk to adults. I told them what he liked to eat, drink and play. He talked to me though. We were best friends. In the mornings we’d at sit the little table in the kitchen and read the backs of small sugary cereal boxes. He taught me what calories were. Calories were what made you fat. They swelled your fingers up and made them stupid at catching balls. Made you stupid at sports.
He wants to know why I wore these shoes if they’ve already given me blisters. He asks in the big brother tone he always uses even though I’m older. I’m bigger. A car passes without slowing but I see the passenger turns and watches us walk. We must get small pretty quickly at the speed they’re travelling. We must look like ants by time they reach the corner. It’s my only opportunity to look like an ant.
My brother explains to me that no one but him will ever be in love with me. I’m too fat. I hate my brother and I believe him. He squeezes me too tight when he tells me this but I let him. I let his bony fingers dig deep into my flesh, sometimes hard enough that when I lift my shirt later, his marks are still there.
Now I’m the one that does not talk.
I don’t tell him I found the shoes in his room. They were still in the box our mom had given to me on the night of my first dance I didn’t go to. There were more dances I didn’t go to after the night my shoes went missing. But this was the first one I cried over with my face in my pillow while my brother rubbed my bare feet and told me my dress was too puffy anyway.
He sticks out his thumb and a station wagon slows.
I get in the back. I always do. The brown panelled Chrysler is familiar. The guy driving has picked us up before I think. This how we get to school when we’ve missed the bus since Mom died last May.
I let my brother do the talking. The High School on Woodland Street, he tells the man. The man nods. Turns the radio up. “Don’t Stop Me Now” by Queen. I fantasize I’m on stage. I’m dancing with skinny girls. Mom used to want me to go to her aerobic classes with her. Said it wouldn’t hurt to get my heart rate up. I didn’t know what that meant but now I wish I’d asked.
I see a baby fawn out the window. I remember mom’s voice in the kitchen. “It’s Bambi!” She shrieked with a youthful enthusiasm that I’d never seen in any other woman. My brother ran to her side and I stood in the background opening and closing the fridge instead of looking at the woods behind our house.
My brother misses her more than me but he still does the talking when the man whose name might be Dan, or Dean asks how us kids are holding up. When he asks about the mottled bruise on my arm, my brother tells him I’m clumsy and then laughs. The laugh echoes around the car and I look at my feet. My blisters have burst and there is clear fluid running over the back of my patent heels.
My brother is still laughing when we pull up on Woodland Street. The man turns and smiles at me but the muscles at the top of his lip stretch like his face hurts. The car rocks a little as I heave out and my brother thanks the man for the ride. Dan or Dean does that funny smile again and tells us to take care of each other.
We wait, like we always do, until the car turns the corner. Then I follow my brother away from the school towards the woods.
We sit under the tree with the most comfortable flat ground and take our books out of our school bags. I am reading a book my teacher gave me called, “Life After Loss.” He is reading Lord Of The Rings. I am not reading though. I just stare at the pages without retaining any information. When my brother turns a page I turn a page.
Sometimes he’ll slap his book shut and say, “Do you want to play the vegetable game?”
“That’s a fruit, fat ass.”
I bite the insides of my cheeks.
“Fuck you,” I mumble.
“You lose.” He says.
I never win. I slip off my shoes and my heels are raw. Small twigs and leaves stick to them where the blisters burst as I stretch my legs out. The book slides off my lap and opens to a page where the five stages of grief are. Each one has a little stick man acting out the stage. The depression one is my favourite. He’s crouched down and looks like he’s about to take a dump. My brother stomps through the brush to find a stick. He comes back with a good one. So fresh that it still has bend in it. It’s weeping sap just like my heels.
He lifts my school skirt to where the top of my thighs bulge around my knee.
“Okay?” He asks, and I nod. The whipping sound cracks across the clearing sharply. When I open my eyes, his are still closed but he is smiling too. He tells me that no one will love me the way that he does and I pick my book up out of the leaves and know that it’s true.