My sister, Greta, and I were having our portrait painted by our uncle Finn that afternoon because he knew he was dying. This was after I understood that I wasn't going to grow up and move into his apartment and live there with him for the rest of my life. After I stopped believing that the AIDS thing was all some kind of big mistake. When he first asked, my mother said no. She said there was something macabre about it. When she thought of the two of us sitting in Finn's apartment with its huge windows and the scent of lavender and orange, when she thought of him looking at us like it might be the last time he would see us, she couldn't bear it. And, she said, it was a long drive from northern Westchester all the way into Manhattan. She crossed her arms over her chest, looked right into Finn's bird-blue eyes, and told him it was just hard to find the time these days.
"Tell me about it," he said.
That's what broke her.
I'm fifteen now, but I was still fourteen that afternoon. Greta was sixteen. It was 1986, late December, and we'd been going to Finn's one Sunday afternoon a month for the last six months. It was always just my mother, Greta, and me. My father never came, and he was right not to. He wasn't part of it.
I sat in the back row of seats in the minivan. Greta sat in the row in front of me. I tried to arrange it like that so I could stare at her without her knowing it. Watching people is a good hobby, but you have to be careful about it. You can't let people catch you staring at them. If people catch you, they treat you like a first-class criminal. And maybe they're right to do that. Maybe it should be a crime to try to see things about people they don't want you to see. With Greta, I liked to watch the way her dark, sleek hair reflected the sun and the way the ends of her glasses looked like two little lost tears hiding just behind her ears.
My mother had on KICK FM, the country station, and even though I don't really like country music, sometimes, if you let it, the sound of all those people singing their hearts out can bring to mind big old family barbecues in the backyard and snowy hillsides with kids sledding and Thanksgiving dinners. Wholesome stuff. That's why my mother liked to listen to it on the way to Finn's.
Nobody talked much on those trips to the city. It was just the smooth glide of the van and the croony country music and the gray Hudson River with hulking gray New Jersey on the other side of it. I kept my eyes on Greta the whole time, because it stopped me from thinking about Finn too much.
The last time we'd visited was a rainy Sunday in November. Finn had always been slight - like Greta, like my mother, like I wished I was - but on that visit I saw that he'd moved into a whole new category of skinny. His belts were all too big, so instead he'd knotted an emerald-green necktie around his waist. I was staring at that tie, wondering when he might have worn it last, trying to imagine what kind of occasion would have been right for something so bright and iridescent, when suddenly Finn looked up from the painting, brush midair, and said to us, "It won't be long now."
Greta and I nodded, even though neither of us knew whether he meant the painting or him dying. Later, at home, I told my mother he looked like a deflated balloon. Greta said he looked like a small gray moth wrapped in a gray spider's web. That's because everything about Greta is more beautiful, even the way she says things.
It was December now, the week before Christmas, and we were stuck in traffic near the George Washington Bridge. Greta turned around in her seat to look at me. She gave me a twisty little smile and reached into her coat pocket to pull out a scrap of mistletoe. She'd done this for the last two Christmases, carried a piece of mistletoe around to pounce on people with. She took it to school with her and terrorized us at home with it. Her favorite trick was to sneak up behind our parents and then leap up to hold it over their heads. They were not the kind to show affection out in the open, which is why Greta loved to make them do it. In the van, Greta waved the mistletoe around in the air, brushing it right up into my face.
Excerpted from Tell the Wolves I'm Home by Carol Rifka Brunt. Copyright © 2012 by Carol Rifka Brunt. Excerpted by permission of The Dial Press, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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