Gabe finished the poem and returned to his place at the table to drink down the cold tea and devour whole the bit of cake, his face flushed with his triumph. Patiently, my mother turned to me to ask what would happen if a teacup shattered while my fingers were inside it.
Some neighbor or faceless relation was named, a silly girl who'd "sliced herself good" with her hand inside a glass while she was washing up. A suggested image of soapy dishwater darkened with blood following me to the bath, where I watched my mother's blurred red hand as it tested the seamless stream of steaming water.
I deployed all my excuses in a rush: the water was too hot, the house too cold, I'd had a bath last week, I had a stomachache, I was sleepy. But my mother had a grip on my arm, and my thin legs were all obedience. They raised themselves against my will, up over the cold rim of the high tub and into the steaming water, where the pain from the heat became a chill in my spine and my thin bodybright red to my calves but pale white, nearly blue, through my chest and my armsbecame no more than a scrap of cloth, a scrap of cloth caught and shaken and snapped by a sudden wind. I wanted to weep. I wanted to be sick. I saw for a terrible moment that my body was a scrap of cloth, that my bones were no more than porcelain, as were my rattling teeth and the china skull that contained them. I saw how a hoop of light, the water's shifting reflection, swung up to the top of the tile wall, and then swung down again, carrying me with it, nauseous and full of despair. I sat. The warm water covered my arms and touched my chin. My mother let go of my forearm, although the imprint of her grip lingered.
There, she said. There now. After all your fussing. You just have to get used to it.
* * *
In those days I still slept in the crib that had been my brother's, in a corner of the small room I shared with him. A peeling lamb painted on the headboard, a blurred line of grass and meadow flowers at the foot. Low light. Prayers. My parents' dry lips to my forehead and some single, barely whispered word at the end of the day that told me I was cherished above all things by these indistinct and warm-breathed shadows, leaning over me at the end of the day.
Gabe came in sometime later. Another blur of darkness and lightdark clothes and fair haircoming in to take the pajamas out from under his pillow. When he returned, he was a brighter blur because he was dressed in them. Through the bars of the crib, I watched him kneel to say his prayers and then pull down his covers and climb into bed. He slept on his back, a wrist over his eyes, like another picture book illustration I had seen, of a laborer resting in a field. The light stayed on most of the night, and this gesture, his wrist thrown over his eyes, was his silent accommodation to my fear of the dark.
I woke to find the light had been put out. There were only the soft-edged, geometric patches of streetlight on the ceiling, across one wall. I threw a leg over the side of the crib, fitting my toe into the space between the bars, and carefullyI was not an athletic childleaned to bring the other over. I lowered myself to the cold floor and then crossed it on tiptoe. Gabe opened his blankets for me in the same way he did everything: quietly, methodically, with a good-natured but stoic acquiescence to duty. A dutiful child. Wakeful himself at that hour.
I told him I'd had a bad dream, making it up as I went along: a terrible, white-fisted giant with swollen cheeks had carried me to a high, precarious place I could not climb down from, and Gabe listened carefully, commiserating briefly, marveling appreciatively each time I whispered, "And then," adding another horror. He said, I never dream. I never have a dream that I remember. His features were a blur, although our faces were only inches apart. And yet the handsome, high-colored, precisely featured boy who was my brother during the day, the brother I saw with my glasses on, was far less familiar to me than this one of uncertain edges and soft darkness, with a spark of wet light in his mouth or his eye when he said that if I was good and didn't kick, I could stay. I made my promises, and he accepted them, but he moved anyway to the far side of the narrow bed, all the way up to the wallthe wall we shared with the Chehabs' buildingturning his back to me and putting his hand on the cool plaster. The soft sheets retained their odor of sunshine against the warmer, closer scent of my brother's scalp and breath and skin. With his back turned, he told me to say a prayer to keep the nightmares away. He said if I prayed, the Blessed Mother would keep the nightmares away.
Excerpted from Someone by Alice McDermott. Copyright © 2013 by Alice McDermott. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
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