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Brothers, Calendars, and Lies MAG
Lots of things in life tell lies. Ellie's Keep-N-Clean Spray bottle, for example, claims loud and clear that it is the “Best Brand of Cleaning Supply in America.” That's a lie; I have proof. It can't even begin to remove half the stains that Clean-a-riffic Cleaning Solution can. That's the truth. The ads for Nutri-Fast in my mother's magazines lie, too. I'm sure the people in the ads have never even touched a bottle of that stuff, let alone lost “Fifty pounds by drinking just eight ounces a day for only four weeks!” The problem is, though, that the one thing I wish didn't always tell the truth is constantly 100 percent dead-on – as long as someone remembers to flip the page every month, which is one chore that Ellie would never forget. Calendars, unfortunately, don't lie.
“Tuesday, August 15th,” my cell phone told me in its little automated voice. I glanced at my computer, and the bright display confirmed it. Only 14 more days until Sam would get into his car, and head off into the big blue world, leaving me alone in this empty white house with only Ellie for company. In 335 hours, 25 minutes, and somewhere around 50 seconds, the moving van would arrive, driven by strong men in Michael's Moving T-shirts. They'd carry all of my brother's stuff up that little loading platform, and then follow him across the country, covering miles and miles of highway. They'd go all the way to Dartmouth, never looking back, never even thinking about the girl at the window; the one who'd been watching, crying as they drove away.
I jumped, Ellie's voice pulling me out of my reverie.
“IT'S TIME FOR BREAKFAST!”
“COMING!” I called back, and then rolled off my bed. My feet hit the floor a bit harder than I'd anticipated, and I stumbled, catching a glimpse of myself in the mirror. I ran to the bathroom, and tried in vain to scrub the tear stains off my cheeks.
“YOUR PANCAKES ARE GONNA GET COLD, BARB! HURRY UP!”
I sighed loudly, quickly pulling a brush through my hair. Ellie always got so uptight about her cooking. It had to be the exact right temperature, not to mention fresh on the table, in order for her to be happy. She was a great chef, though, so I guess she had a right to strive for perfection. But I didn't care whether my syrup was room temperature before I poured it on my pancakes. It was still syrup, and they were still pancakes.
When I finally reached the bottom of the stairs, Ellie was just putting my plate back into the microwave. She looked at me and frowned as I slid into a chair. “That took long enough, Barbara,” she said. “Your breakfast dropped a full two degrees.”
“God, Ellie, that's practically ice cold.” I smiled a small smile, trying to hide the lingering sadness. I tried a giggle that sounded pretty real, considering.
Ellie didn't fall for it. She knew me too well. “Oh, Barb. Don't worry,” she said quietly. “Everything will be fine.” The microwave beeped, and she brought my plate over, sliding into the chair next to me. “You and me, we'll have a lot of fun together. Even without Sam.” I nodded solemnly, looking away. Of course she would say that; she believed it. Ellie was like calendars; she didn't lie. But how could it be true?
I fought back the tears that threatened to start again, and silently cut my pancakes into little squares. Ellie watched for a while, then started to clean the griddle, leaving me alone, just me, my thoughts, and my pancakes.
All of my life, Sam had been there for me. He'd always helped me with my homework, and played make-believe and dress-up when Mom and Dad weren't around. He was the type of brother who would invite his little sister to the mall with his friends, and make sure that they hit the pink, frilly stores as well as the hard-core guy ones. He knew that a kid needs attention, and since our parents weren't giving it to me, he took the job upon himself.
Ellie helped him, of course. She had come to live with us before I was born. My mother already had one child, and was having trouble fitting parenting into her schedule, packed with all the parties she had to attend. With a second baby on the way, she knew she would have even less time to play mother. So she hired Ellie. It's the best decision she ever made, in my book.
Officially, Ellie was our cook. She catered all of the fancy events my parents threw, and made up for what they lacked in cooking expertise. But really she was more than that. She acted as our replacement parent; she taught us how to walk, signed school papers, and attended dance recitals and sporting events. Sam and I, we loved Ellie. Maybe even more than our mom and dad.
At school, Sam was always popular. He was the captain of the soccer team, and everyone believed in the number one emblazed on his jersey. Sam got invited to every party. He had millions of friends. Every girl in the school wanted to be his. And then there was me.
Anyone who observed the lunchroom scene would assume that I was with the popular kids. I sat at the table where the kings and queens ruled. But I didn't belong. They put up with me because my father was a high-powered executive with a lot of money. He was like their fathers, so they thought I should be like them. They didn't seem to realize that I wasn't.
Really, I belonged with the literate, A-plus kids. I always had a book with me, no matter what. The problem was that the geeks didn't see the book under my arm. They only saw my dad's job, his salary, and where I sat in the lunchroom. Whenever I approached them, they turned away, usually with a very long word.
It wasn't fair that the kids at school judged me based on my family, since my parents were a pretty bad example. Sure, my dad had a lot of money, but he was not much of a father. He never took Sam fishing, or read me a bedtime story. He was never home in time to eat the dinners that Ellie cooked. He was always at the office, a meeting, or visiting a client. He was a name, “Mr. Williams,” nothing more.
Except to my mother. She worshipped my father, always giving him lavish gifts on their anniversary, even when he forgot the day altogether. But he always took her to fancy parties, and bought her anything her heart desired. My mother was the opposite of Ellie and calendars. She lied. She said she loved my father, but she really loved his money. She said that she loved Sam and me, but when dealing with less-than-truthful people, you never know for sure.
On the wall in our foyer, in plain sight where no one could miss it, our family portrait hung. My parents had it done professionally. The four of us are sitting in our matching blue outfits, with fake smiles. Anyone who saw it said that it was “lovely,” or “charming.” But it wasn't. Not really. It wasn't my family. It was the people who pretended to be. That picture was a lie.
In my life, I had Sam and Ellie. That was it. No friends, no parents, no one else. That was why I couldn't bear the thought of my brother going off to college. Without him, only Ellie would be there to pick me up when I fell down, to help me when I needed it. Ellie was great, but I wanted Sam. He was the only person who understood me head to toe, inside and out. He was my brother. And that was something Ellie couldn't replace.
My pancakes were getting cold. I could hear Ellie in the kitchen, pretending to wash dishes while she fretted about me getting tongue-freeze. I stabbed a couple of syrupy pieces with my fork. No good ever came of making Ellie worry. Plus, she already had enough to sweat over, what with Sam leaving and all. Sam. God, I was going to miss him. I chewed and swallowed, but I couldn't really taste anything.
From its spot on the wall, the calendar mocked me. “Look at me,” it seemed to say. “I'll show you just how long you have until Sam goes away.”
I frowned at it. Stupid, truthful piece of paper. The date of Sam's departure was ingrained in my mind, always at the front of my consciousness. I sat there for a minute, staring at August 29th and beginning to wonder just how long it would be after that before my brother would come home.
I stood up, went over to the calendar, and started counting days. He was scheduled to fly in the day before Christmas. I flipped past September, moving on to October. As the number grew higher, the sadness in my heart swelled.
In the end, the total came to 132. One hundred thirty-two days from now, Sam would be back home, having experienced all the freedoms of college. I sighed. More than a third of a year. And of course, I was stuck with the calendar to remind me. It felt like a double-pinky promise, knowing that the date was set in stone. Thanks, Mr. Calendar. Thank you ever so much.
“Barbara? Are you done with breakfast?” Ellie appeared in the doorway, hands on her hips. “I'm about done with the dishes. I just need yours to finish.”
I looked my plate. It was full of little pancake squares. Little uneaten pancake squares. Ellie saw me glance down and followed my eyes to my breakfast.
“What? Is it too cold?”
“No, it's not that. I guess I'm just not hungry.”
Ellie sighed. “Okay, then. I guess I'll just throw it away.” She picked up the plate.
“I'm sorry, Ellie.”
“No, no. It's fine, Barb. I understand you don't have much of an appetite. A lot's going on these days.” Her smile held a touch of remorse. She obviously realized that I wasn't exactly up to talking about the Sam thing. “Anyway, your brother's in the backyard. He might like some company. Is there anything you need?” She turned to leave.
“No. I'm fine, Ellie. Thanks, though.” She nodded and left the room. I was alone, and suddenly all by myself was not what I wanted to be. I decided that I'd take Ellie's advice and go talk to Sam. Maybe if I started saying good-bye now, it wouldn't be so hard when he actually left.
It's funny how everyone looks forward to summer, thinking about all the days off from school and swimming in the ocean. Then, when it actually comes, all they do is sit around and complain about the heat. Not that I blame them. It must have been a hundred degrees.
Sam was lying on a beach towel in the middle of the yard, drinking Mountain Dew and aimlessly flipping through the latest issue of Sports Illustrated. He looked laid back, the opposite of how I felt. I walked over, kicked at the grass until it looked like a decent resting place, then sat, leaning back on my elbows.
Sam lowered his sunglasses to look at me, secret spy-style. Apparently my entrance had been amusing, for a small smile tugged at the corners of his mouth.
“Can I laugh?” That was my brother for you: Mr. Polite, with Dr. Tease always right alongside.
I opened my mouth, some smart retort on my tongue, but he was already chuckling.
“Ugh. You ask me for permission to laugh at me, then don't pay attention long enough for me to say no. Nice, Sam.”
“What? You're the funny one. I have every right.” He smiled at me full out, his laughter flaring again. I rolled my eyes, then stared up at the sky, and began counting the sheep-shaped clouds while I waited for him to get over it.
A few seconds later his shadow blocked my view.
“Okay, Barb. Sorry about that. I'm ready now. What do you want?” His expression was totally sincere, but I ignored him. I came here to tell him how much I'd miss him, and he wasted almost a full minute laughing at me. I hated him. And I wasn't even all that funny.
Sam looked at me, concern now touching his features. “Barbara, what is it? You aren't usually so sassy.” He spoke softly, gently. He really wanted to understand.
I sighed. “You know what my problem is, Sam.”
He looked at me some more, trying to read my face. I stared back, pain obviously the dominant emotion.
When he spoke my name, I broke down. The tears I had been hiding from Ellie started to flow, and strange sobbing noises escaped my lips.
“Oh, Barbara. Don't cry. Shh. It's okay.”
Unlike most brothers, Sam knew me well enough to know exactly what I needed. He pulled me into his arms, and just held me. That was all. And that was enough.
A little later, after I had shed enough tears to fill the Atlantic Ocean, Sam shifted me to the side, and stood up. He extended his hand, pulling me to my feet.
“Come on, I want to show you something.” He led me into the house.
I'd been in Sam's room bazillions of times. The navy blue walls, chunky carpet, and faded bedspread were like a home to me. I knew all of his stuff by heart, from the old Peyton Manning action figure to the ever-present pile of dirty laundry in front of the dresser. But as I walked through the door, I got this odd feeling that told me something was off. I looked around, wondering what had changed. A poster was missing, and all of his soccer trophies.
“Where's all your stuff?” I asked him, perplexed. Had some crook come and stolen all of his prized possessions?
He smiled a small, sad smile at my horrified expression. “I've started packing, Barb. It's all in boxes.”
I found myself jealous of Sam's junk. “Can you fit me in one of those?” I asked. “I think they sell big ones at U-Haul. You could bring me to college with you!”
Sam laughed, and the sorrowful atmosphere lightened just a bit. “Sorry, but I kind of think not.” He glanced at me. “Hey, don't look like that. Sure, I'm leaving, but it's not that bad. The world isn't coming to an end.”
I shrugged and looked away, feeling sad again. “So, what did you want to show me?”
Sam picked up one of the boxes. He dug through it, looking for something. “Aha! Yup, this is it. Come here, Barb. Look.” He patted the bedspread beside him. I peered over his shoulder, curious what he wanted to show me.
Gingerly, my brother pulled out an old photograph from the box. The edges were ragged, and the once-vibrant colors were fading. It looked like it had been handled a lot. “Here, look. It's you and me when we were little. And Ellie, of course.” He handed me the photo.
It had been taken years ago, when I was three, and Sam eight, but I remembered the day like it was yesterday. Ellie had decided we needed to get out of the house, and dragged us to the Toledo Zoo. Sam and I had loved the animals, but they had not loved me as much. Sam had wandered off to find a bathroom, and Ellie took me to see the lions. When the leader of the pride growled, making me cry, Sam reappeared out of nowhere. He was there, ready to hold and comfort me, to make his little sister all better. Ellie had snapped a picture of that moment. He was standing, arms open, and I was running into them.
Ellie is not a photographer, and her angle was off. She managed to leave her left foot in the picture – who knows how. Looking at it, I realized that this, not the framed knock-off on the wall, was my real family picture.
“See, Barb? You're my little sister. I'll always be there when you need me. Even when I'm all the way in New Hampshire.”
I looked up at him, tearing my eyes away from the photograph. “You promise?”
In just 332 hours, my brother was going to leave me. I knew it for a fact. But I also knew that he'd be there whenever, however, I needed him. He'd be there on the other side of my cell phone, just ten numbers away. Besides, he was coming home for Christmas, which was only 132 days away. I was relying on that number. Sad, but true.
I was planning on circling December 25th in bright red, so that I could watch it get closer and closer. I wasn't worried, though. I knew that the day would come right on time, because calendars, just like my brother, keep their promises.