Fiction First Friday: “Summer House” by Sarah Griffin

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Molly stares out the bathroom window at the girls in the garden next door, long, soft figures in the sun. They’re older than she is, her own body still uneventful as a Tuesday morning, still flat, still bony. She wonders will she ever be as beautiful as they are – will she ever meet girls like them? Molly leans on the windowsill. She is sure she knows what love is, sure that it is the yellow day on Shannon next door’s hair. She is sure it is her freckled shoulders. Molly is sure, but won’t find the word love in her mouth for years to come (it will be Natalie she says it to, and Natalie will not say it back, but will kiss her, regardless).

Molly’s braces are still new, and she runs her tongue over them and winces, same as always. She hates them. Ciaran sometimes laughs at her new lisp and she hates that too, his laughter so cruel lately, something new in him. She tells him every time that she’d rather have braces than spots, all cackling comeback at the fresh acne dappled across her brother’s once clear skin.  They’d looked so alike until recently – only lately stopped murmuring their coded twin-speak to one another. She is taller than he is now – she is sure this has something to do with it.

Their mother had warned them that things this year would be different. They wouldn’t be as close, she’d said, brushing Molly’s hair in the evening. ‘You’ve to be patient with him,’ she’d said, ‘You two won’t grow up at the same rate, or in the same ways. He’ll be wanting to spend more time alone.’

The slight twelve-year-old girl understood this, the soft hairbrush sounded like a whispering ocean against her head, her wild curls tamed at the tender hands of her mother.

This spring it had started. Molly hadn’t quite managed to put her finger on it, the disinterest that had fallen on her. Her ponies had been stacked in their plastic stable for months. Her dolls had not gone to the nightclub, or the palace, or for any picnics lately. She’d been playing with stickers, sure, because stickers were cool. She’d been using all her markers, but more to write things than to draw things. They were the only things she’d really brought to Great Aunt Rita’s.

Great Aunt Rita was a ballet teacher in her youth, and is presently a lady-about-town. This means that she leaves Molly and Ciaran alone from the morning until just before dinner, when she comes home and boils them a heap of pasta in shapes Molly never usually gets at home: little bows and spirals – sometimes they’re even orange, or green, as well as just white.  Great Aunt Rita sits and eats water crackers and drinks a cup of strong, milkless tea – Ciaran and Molly heap grated sharp cheese onto their mountains of tendrils and tubes. Molly can smell the drink off her – Ciaran can too. When they turned in the first night Ciaran and Molly arrived Ciaran whispered across the guest room to his sister did she think Great Aunt Rita was a drunk and Molly said for sure she was yeah and they laughed a little – Molly is sure they have not laughed since. It has been awfully quiet.

Great Aunt Rita got her some bright purple mascara in the chemist’s yesterday. It made her green eyes huge and she’d sit in the bathroom, dragging the tiny brush along her eyelashes, staring at herself in the mirror, edging herself towards transformation.

Molly sits clutching the tiny purple tube in her hand, staring out from under her lashes through the open window at the girls next door, her pulse beating through her body. Love, this is love. The light almost falls like amethyst through her new gaze – she feels like this might be the beginning of becoming beautiful.

She knows this will be a long fortnight, waiting for her and Ciaran’s parents to get back. It has been a nice couple of days so far but the wait was already starting to sprawl ahead of her. Sometimes the anticipation of being bored is almost worse than feeling the boredom itself. Molly knows that if this had been last year, her and Ciaran would be colouring in or playing Lego or make a fort, something, anything. Now she hasn’t even an idea where he is.

She considers for a minute inviting him to peer out at Shannon next door and her friends but thinks that maybe that might be weird. She tells him everything, usually. Ciaran knows what she is most afraid of, and she knows all his fears too. When his night terrors walked him all over their parents’ house a few years before, Molly would trail after the sleeping ghost of her brother to make sure he didn’t fall down the stairs or climb out any windows.

In the morning before school he’d tell her about what happened in his sleep: the rushing steel things that felt like trains but looked like cats, the spiders that turned his body to chalk. She’d hug him with her arms around his shoulders like a clamp as Ciaran sobbed it out, snot and horror and I don’t know why it is like this and she’d tell him if she could take them off him she would, she would, she would. They know one another like this: what the inside of one another’s minds looks like. When a single hair appeared under Molly’s armpit earlier that year, she lauded it over him like a tiny trophy, rather than some strange bodily shame. (It was still there, just the one. She loved it.) Ciaran had howled with jealousy, how he longed for a beard. Molly said that he would NEVER HAVE A BEARD and they laughed and screamed until their mother told them to stop, stop, get ready for school.  They tell each other everything, don’t they? So why shouldn’t she invite him to look at Shannon next door? Now that she thinks of it, Molly doesn’t feel like that is weird at all – but she still doesn’t know where he is.

He’s not in the garden. Just the couple of chickens Great Aunt Rita keeps, pecking around in their run. Molly hops down from her perch and takes a final glance in the mirror. Her eyelashes are five yards of purple ribbon, her eyes are emerald hearts singing Shannon Next Door, Shannon Next Door in the sunlight. She thinks that later she will write her name a thousand times in her notebook, she will write it in all the colours she has in her markers box, Shannon, Shannon, Shannon, she will put stickers all around it, an altar to the glowing late-summer miracle of the body of her next door neighbor.

‘Ciaran?’ Molly shouts, stepping from the bathroom into the long landing of Great Aunt Rita’s home. It half-echoes, hitting the texture of the old wallpaper, the unusual height of the ceiling. This house was not like her house, her poky house attached to a row of other poky houses in the almost-din of the city. This house was like her house stretched taller, grander, only attached to one other house – Shannon’s house. All around them was houses, then the forest and the motorway, then the forest again.

‘Ciiiaraaaan?’ she shouts again, it carries further, but no reply comes.

She potters down the stairs hollering his name in silly voices, laughing over syllables thinking why is he hiding? What’s he even up to? Ciiiiiiiiaraan, she pulls out the i’s of his name, Ciiraaaaaaaan, she drawls the a’s out long, almost musical. Nothing.

Great Aunt Rita’s house is all textured pink wallpaper, all dense carpet. Large glass bowls of deeply scented dried flowers are on every small table (there are seven small tables). Molly and Ciaran were told explicitly not to touch them, or eat them. There are thirty five globes in varying shapes, sizes and colours. There are forty four statues of Holy Mary, sheathed in her blue veil, pious and eternally virgin, her feet a bed of roses. Molly and Ciaran are not allowed touch any of the globes or the Marys. Molly is always tempted, like tiny vengeance, to run her hands down the side of one of the Marys’ white, noble faces. Just to see what would happen. Though nothing would happen. Nothing ever happens.

The house is a museum of tiny statues, all dust and silence and Molly’s footsteps fall on the carpet a-thud, a-thud – Ciarraaaaaan, Ciarraaaaaaaan. She pads through the lino of the austere kitchen – tiles and floor yellow, too yellow – she opens the fridge and inhales the cold, ‘You’re not in here, Ciaran,’ she murmurs. She removes a single slice of orange cheddar from a packet, folds it into four, then pops it into her mouth. This is the kind of thing her mother would go through her for, picking food out of the fridge and eating it there in the cold thrumming glow – but Great Aunt Rita wouldn’t even notice. Holy Mary Statues and globes and potpourri she would notice, but nothing from the fridge. Great Aunt Rita, to the best of Molly’s knowledge, only eats water crackers.

Ciaran is not in the floral living room, or in the too-hot conservatory with wicker chairs and photo albums in a shelf. Ciaran is not under the stairs where all the dusty bottles of beer for Christmas day are stored. He’s not downstairs at all, Molly realizes, the silence of the ground floor of Great Aunt Rita’s house suddenly becoming unpleasant, rather than comforting. Her footfalls seem louder now, they carry further. She wonders if he can hear her – and why he isn’t replying.

Molly ascends to the top floor of the house with more caution now, each step exhaling their creak, a note minor now, rather than the clattering major scale they were when she first thundered down the stairs, singing Ciaran’s name expecting to find her brother hunched over a book or flat on his back in front of the old television. Something in the air feels thick now, like when it’s just about to rain but the sky hasn’t broken yet. The thickness is on Molly’s skin and it makes the fine white hairs on her pale arms stand on end. The thickness of it is more than her love for Shannon Next Door. She whispers her brother’s name as she reaches the landing.

‘Ciaran?’

His name is a question in her mouth now, her breath caught somewhere far behind her teeth, somewhere in the dark of her throat. She steps along the corridor which sprawls ahead of her, longer somehow than it was, lit with stripes of shade and bright from the venetian blinds. The Holy Mary on the hall table with dried flowers at her feet averts her gaze from Molly as she creeps past.

Ciaran is not in their bedroom, their single beds on opposite sides of the room, unmade. His sister kneels down and checks under them both and as she squats she can feel her heart become huge, menacing, beating too loud. There is nothing under either bed but the empty space of a room almost exclusively unlived in the other 50 weeks of the year.

‘Maybe you went around the shop.’ Molly whispers, pulling herself off the floor, her voice soft, ‘Maybe you went for a walk around the block, a run up to the cul-de-sac.’ She knows he has not left the house, the front door’s lock and latch announce themselves at volume if you so much as look at them.

When Molly steps back into the corridor she takes stock of the other two doors her brother may be behind. He’s either in the hotpress, a slim closet jammed with towels and neatly folded bedsheets that otherwise only houses the boiler for the house – or in Great Aunt Rita’s room. Suddenly laughing at her own paranoia, her own terror, she swings open the door of the hotpress and scans her eyes up and down the neat shelves of pressed linen.

‘You hiding in here between a couple of tablecloths?’ she laughs, too loud, too shrill. She slams the hotpress door shut, panic colouring her hysterical, cackling.

‘Come on out!’ she shrieks, ‘Ciaran! Ciaran!’

Molly is a tiny storm now as she stomps into the Great Aunt Rita’s bedroom, the carpet more lush here, her armoire a tower of delicate bottles and brushes, her bed enormous and quilted and made just-so, her writing desk neat, everything is lavender and mint and Molly wants to upset all of it, smash the mirror and knock the bottles, set fire to the bed and rip up the carpet.

Ciaran is not here and she screams ragged in frustration. She crumples onto the carpet. How did it get like this? How, the brother she came into the world a half of, the tiny boy she shared home in her mother’s belly with, the boy who understood everything, how is it that he is hiding from her when he knows, he must know she needs him. They feel the same things they are made of the same things and in all of this house she can’t see him, feel him, or hear –

Over her the sound of her heart and her breath, her face less than an inch from the carpet, she suddenly heard it. A low note on repeat. It was unsurprising in that moment, like she’d been unable to hear it all along over the sound of her own panic. A smile cracked over her face and she held that moment close before standing up and turning to the slim white door to Great Aunt Rita’s wardrobe.

Molly’s hand turns the glass knob on the door and swings open the wardrobe, like how obvious, like has’t it been calling her all along and wasn’t the sound of herself too loud to hear the thrum of it, singing ‘Ciaraaaaaaan, Ciiiiiiaraan,’ and there’s her sweet brother, lying in prayer on the floor of the wardrobe, low and flat and humble and before them, on the wall like a fist of sunlight or something more terrible than sunlight, is the eye. Lashes like sharp teeth and an iris that goes far beyond the wall, far beyond Shannon Next Door, far out past the woods and the motorway. It is beautiful.

Ciaraaaan, it says. Molly closes the door behind her with a click. Ciiiiiaran.

She falls to her knees beside her brother and his breath is soft and peaceful.

Ciaran, the eye says, blinking. Ciaran, it says, so tender. Molllllyyy. Molly.

Sarah Griffin is a writer from Dublin, Ireland, living in San Francisco. Her collection of emigration essays, Not Lost, was published by New Island Press in 2013. Her YA debut, Spare & Found Parts, will be published by Greenwillow Press in 2016. She tweets at @griffski. 

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