"Watch out!" I screamed.
But in his wild rush Carlos had already knocked into the stove where the kettle was whistling up a storm. It capsized. Boiling water gushed over my little brother and poured, steaming, down his neck and chest. He opened his mouth wide in pain and disbelief; he gasped for air, and he roared.
Billie pushed my mother aside and flung herself on top of him.
"Sybille!" my father cried. "Under the cold shower with him. Hurry!"
We all ran after them, Kes and I ahead of the others. Carlos's screams echoed through the stairway. At the top of the landing, through the open bathroom door, we could see Billie crouching next to him under the shower. She was trying to hold the thrashing little body under the ice-cold jet; the red embroidery on her dress was beginning to run and her bra-strap showed through the wet cotton.
"Charlie!" I cried. "Know what? You can come with us to the movies this afternoon, OK?"
"Billie looked up. Her wet hair was plastered all over her face. In a muffled voice, she was saying something inconceivable. She was saying, "Sorry, Ellen. I'm so sorry."
I shoved my hand into Kester's palm. I had bitten my tongue: my mouth was flooded with the coppery taste of blood.
"Call the ambulance, Kes," Billie said calmly.
"His neck is coming off," my brother stammered.
"Shhh. It's only his skin."
On the landing we bumped into our parents. My mother was asking something in a worried voice, still clutching her belly. Under that stretched skin of hers lay Ida. Lay Ida plotting even more mischief.
Without bothering to answer my mother, Kes and I stormed down the stairs. The muscles in my fingers still ached days later, that was how tightly I was hanging on to his wrist. We had to toss a ton of clippings off the little hall stand to find the phone, but somehow the ambulance did get there, complete with its team of spirited paramedics. They stuck needles into my little brother, slung slippery bags of fluids over sharp hooks, and rushed him to the hospital. And from that moment on, it was as if Carlos had never existed.
The thought that he might die was so unbearable that I couldn't stand to think about him. So I just canceled him out altogether; I scrapped him from my memory banks, him and that little voice of his always asking questions, and that grubby teddy bear he used to suck on so noisily in bed. The ambulance hadn't even turned the corner before I had forgotten all about my little brother. Everything was right as rain with me. I was the only one who didn't walk around with red-rimmed eyes. My only problem was that I couldn't for the life of me figure out what to call my dog. Instead of the endearing little puppy I had anticipated, for whom I had composed my list of forty-six promising names, he turned out to be a great big black brute from the pound. A secondhand dog. Seeing that he must have noticed my disappointment, I had quite a job reassuring him. "You're fine just the way you are, really you are," I swore. He wagged his tail glumly.
Since there was no way I could fall asleep anymore, not even after chugging down twelve gulps of gin, I'd often go out to the garden at night with Dog. We got into the habit of lying facedown in a hollow under Kester's treehouse. There we would lie side by side, motionless, listening to the lupines sprouting, the earthworms and the slugs grubbing. We could hear moles burrowing and the loathsome bishop's weed sending out new, furtive roots into the flower beds my mother had planted with larkspur and columbine. Underneath us, some sort of colossal peristalsis was at work, an unstoppable force driven by nothing but the need for survival. The fact that life went on was a given, but that didn't mean you had to expect it to make any sense or expect it to be fair.
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.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
- PW Starred Review
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