Next to me, Dog sighed. His breath smelled of old raincoats, and, out of contrition, I vowed I would make him happy. I pressed my cheek against his velvety nose. After all, he had no one but me in the world.
Lack of sleep made me giddy, but more than that, it imbued all my good intentions with a certain feverishness. Every night I would come up with some new resolution, something big and momentous, like the one about Dog, though in the light of day I never managed to carry out any of my objectives. Every day I disappointed myself all over again - I couldn't even keep my stick-insects alive by remembering to supply them with fresh ivy leaves. I kept finding them lying dead in their glass tank, and then I'd quickly cover their eggs with warm sawdust.
When the time finally came for Carlos to come home, I had no nails left to bite and my lips were chewed to shreds. It was June, the hydrangeas were in bloom, cream cakes had been ordered, but I was not happy. The fact that my little brother was still alive only meant that I could lose him all over again, a thousand times over, in a thousand diabolical ways. All things considered, it was better not to have a little brother at all.
When I made these thoughts known, Kes said I was well on my way to becoming a Buddhist. Billie thought I was just being a negative creep and twisted my arm behind my back to make me repent. Then she let me try on her new nail polish: "Miss Helen," a lurid pink, in a little potbellied bottle she'd stolen from the drugstore. Carlos was supposed to come home sometime midmorning. Mama and Dad had gone in a taxi to fetch him. Billie prepared a pitcher of juice made from greengage plums and set it, together with six glasses, on the table in the garden. Skin transplants, she informed us, pulling up one of my socks and tucking Kes's shirttail into his pants, took time to heal. Seeing Carlos might give us a shock, but we mustn't let it show.
The weather was odd, oppressively warm and yet windy. It got to be noon, and a couple of drowned wasps were already bobbing in the pitcher among the melting ice cubes when Kes suggested, "Do you think they could have had an accident?"
Billie said if he didn't shut up she'd flip her lid; I went to the far end of the yard and plonked myself down on an upside-down bucket. Oh man, I kept saying to myself, oh man. That usually helped. Oh man: you could pretend to be Trini Lopez or John Wayne. Their faces were familiar to us from the clippings, and nothing ever seemed to bother them, ever. I liked Richard Burton; Sean Connery too, I really dug him. Kes and I would interview each other in English with an empty toilet paper tube. "So, Sean, did you like being double-oh-seven?"
"No, actually, Ellen," Kes would answer, poker-faced, "to be quite honest with you, I hated every minute of it." That would set us off; we'd be doubled up with laughter, literally doubled over, the way I was now from lack of sleep.
At two o'clock a taxi stopped in front of our house.
Our parents had taken Carlos into town for ice cream and they had bought him two boxes of Legos. The sun made them squint as they clambered out of the car, Dad carrying Carlos in his arms, followed by Mama and her fat belly - as if they were emerging from a different, more intimate reality and now had to reconcile themselves to the fact of our existence, a fact which seemed to take them by surprise, to put it mildly.
Dad carried Carlos to the largest wicker armchair on the terrace and carefully lowered him into it. Our brother was smothered in bandages from his chin to his waist, which made his shirt bulge all the way around.
"Hey, Quasimodo," said Kester. Then turned crimson.
I was such a bundle of nerves that I burst out laughing. Dog started to bark, loud and shrill, as if to make me behave.
"Welcome home, sweetie-pie," said Billie. She rushed up to him in her bell-bottoms, which she'd made herself from an old pair of Levi's that she had ripped open along the seams to insert triangles of fabric printed with forget-me-nots. She hunkered down beside him and grasped his naked little knees, which looked so pale and defenseless. They should have been sunburned and covered in dirty scabs. Oh man. Without warning I was suddenly that close to tears. A little boy of three with spotless knees, didn't that just blow your mind?
Reprinted from A Heart of Stone by Renate Dorrestein by Permission of Viking Books, A Member Of Penguin Putnam Inc. Copyright (c) 2000 Renate Dorrestein. All Rights Reserved. This Excerpt, Or Any Parts Thereof, May Not Be Reproduced in Any Form Without Permission.
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Southern Gothic fantasy with a contemporary flare set in Savannah
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