Father Pat made his rounds in the parish hall. He began at the doors, shaking the hands of an elderly couple. After giving them a few words of encouragement, he moved on to a younger pair — the parents of the two, screaming blonde girls running around the refreshments table. When he was done with them, he went on to a middle aged couple with their teenaged son. They held his attention the longest, but the priest never approached any single person — man or woman. A woman, roughly Amanda’s age, approached with her hands behind her back hoping to get a word in edgewise. Father Pat never turned around. He laughed with the couple and their son, and eventually the young woman walked away defeated.
Amanda’s parents stood across the room by the coffee makers, speaking with another man and woman around their ages that they had known indirectly for years. Janice Keefe kept nodding robotically, a smile frozen on her face; Norman Keefe kept his hands in his pockets and tried to check his watch. Amused, Amanda smiled into her cup of coffee, wishing she could hear the thoughts in her mild-mannered mother’s head. But Amanda made no move to get up and save them; she was perfectly happy enjoying her silence from a distance.
Fr. Pat was more than willing to break that silence. When she put her cup down, he was standing in front of her.
She swallowed and tried to smile. “Fr. Pat,” she greeted with a slight nod. “Lovely sermon this morning.”
He may have been smiling; he may have been trying to study her. She couldn’t tell. “How are you this morning, Amanda?” he asked, ignoring her forced compliment. “Enjoying your break for the semester?”
“I am, thank you.”
“Good to hear.” The two screaming girls darted between him and the table, hollering something. He took a step back to let them pass, patting them each on their heads as they breezed by. Amanda turned her coffee cup between her palms, waiting for him to leave.
“I’m happy you’re making more of a habit to come to church,” he said when the girls ran off again. “Which is more than I can say for your brother.”
Amanda said nothing.
“How is Colin?”
“He’s well,” she told him.
“I remember when the two of you were little.” He jabbed his thumb over his shoulder. “‘Bout as young as those girls are. You two used to run around here, too. Well, Colin did. You didn’t. You always sat politely with the adults and didn’t want to play with the other children.” His expression still unreadable, he went on. “You know, God welcomes everyone. Especially his lost sheep.”
“That’s…nice.” Amanda shifted in her seat. “I will tell Colin you asked about him.”
Fr. Pat nodded, his eye contact never faltering. “Have a good week, Amanda.”
“You too. Fr. Patrick.”
When he walked off, Amanda unclenched her fist.
Her parents kept their complaints about their fellow parishioners to a minimum during the ride home. Her mother got in a few sharp barbs about the other couple they were talking about (“They keep telling us they’re going to invite us to their country club, but they never do!”) and her father gruffly agreed with her. But the drive was forgettably smooth. Amanda replayed the odd confrontation she had with the priest and had to bite her lip to keep from laughing.
As soon as they got home, Amanda ran into the house like an excited 6th grader who won the science fair. She thundered down the hallway and beat on her brother’s bedroom door.
“Colin!” she said, laughing. “Colin, get up! I’ve got to tell you what Fr. Pat said about you this morning!” She banged on the door again. “Col, you up? It’s almost eleven o’clock!”
There was no movement behind the door, and Amanda took a step back.
She turned the doorknob, and it did not budge.
A slight panic rose in her chest as she rushed back into her bedroom. Perhaps too many episodes of her mother’s favorite crime procedural had shaken her, but she wanted to make sure. Their Civic was in their driveway. A friend had picked him up last night. But when did he get home?
She retrieved the spare key from her pencil box. If he was in his bedroom and alive, he’d be mad at her for bringing it out.
She unlocked the door and gently pushed it open. She clenched her stomach muscles, preparing for the inevitable bloodbath beyond it.
But Colin’s room was empty. She found the lamp on his nightstand, somewhere amongst the balled up pieces of sketch paper and wrappers. When she turned it on, she got a better look at the disaster area — more garbage and dirty clothes on the floor, balled up on the foot of his bed, under his desk. The closet, bed, and hamper all looked like they had regurgitated laundry. The only untouched, unblemished surface in the room was Colin’s bookshelf. He kept it with meticulous care, each well-read book in alphabetical order. Amanda spent a minute looking over the books and recognized a few of her own. Poetry volumes by Keats; heavy textbooks with World Literature written on their spines; tiny slivers of paperback novels she had read for freshman survey classes. Intermixed among those were aging, first-print editions of science fiction novels with authors she’d never heard of — Heinlein, Dick, Farmer, Leguin, Cherryh. Taken aback, Amanda sat down on his unmade bed.
She squished some paper under her. She reached back and pulled out a single piece of sturdy drawing paper torn right from a sketchbook. On it were stickmen and other doodles — her brother was never much of an artist. Neither of them were. On another piece of paper, he had drawn what looked like a cat trying to eat a dog. On another, a sailboat with a giant squid beneath it.
On another sheet of paper, he had drawn her.
There were three caricatures of her — she could tell, they had her bangs, style of dress, and wide-set ears. Each caricature was something different. The first was her wearing a flapping cape, standing on a hill — like a superhero. The second was of her in the jungle, swinging from a vine, wearing a tasteful leopard skin. The third was of her in a suit, chasing Alan Maynard (clarified by an arrow with his name near it) around a desk with a giant baseball bat. It was the only caricature of her with a caption, and one that read She Finally Gets her Revenge.
Something about that drawing caught her attention. Amanda squinted and brought the picture up closer — there were tiny marks on her caricature’s arms. Eraser marks. She blew on the paper and they disappeared.
The day she woke up in the hospital, head foggy with pain killers, antipsychotics, and antidepressants, the only face looking back at hers was Colin’s.
For a long time, they just stared at each other, his expression an amalgamation of shock, anger, and sympathy. Amanda had never seen him so riled before, not over her. Yet she couldn’t feel the muscles in her face to smile, frown, or grimace at him; nor could she summon the feelings to cry or scream. The last thing she had remembered was stumbling out of the bathroom, clutching her bleeding arm, and screaming for help. That night she lay strapped to a hospital bed, right arm bandaged from the crook of her arm to her hand. The offending appendage lay slack at her side, tingling like a phantom limb.
When he finally spoke, he asked only a single question.
Why do you do it?
It took an eternity before the words found her. “Have you ever had an itch that just wouldn’t stop itching?” she said finally. “You scratch and scratch until your skin finally breaks and bleeds. It hurts, but the itch goes away. It’s an itch you can’t scratch.”
He looked at her wrapped arm, noting the tiny cuts and burns near her fingers, the back of her hand. Maybe he understood. Perhaps he understood her a lot better than she thought.
Her father stood in the doorway with his arms crossed. He had changed into his Sunday afternoon clothes — a flannel shirt, some old jeans, and house slippers. With a frown, he peered into Colin’s room to survey the mess.
“Did your brother not come home last night?” he demanded.
“N-no,” she stammered, sliding the caricature drawing away. “Didn’t he tell you? He’s staying with some friends this weekend. To study for a final.” Lies took some time to craft, but once she got started, she couldn’t stop. “H-he’ll be home later tonight.”
Norman nodded, satisfied. “I guess I didn’t hear.” Then, to make the liar’s guilt even worse, he added, “He’s a good kid. You both are good kids.”
He smiled; Amanda froze.
“You doing anything this afternoon?” he wondered. “Seeing any friends? Co-workers?”
“No, I’m…” As soon as the words left her mouth, Amanda wanted to smack her own forehead. She knew exactly where Colin was. The liar’s guilt melted off her; any anger her father felt towards her for lying would be dwarfed by the anger he felt toward Colin if he found out where Colin had gone. It wouldn’t be the first time she covered for him or lied to her parents for him. It would be the last time. “Yeah, I’m going to Ann Arbor.”
“I want to pick up some forms.”
“Oh. Oh! For grad school?” He tried to hold back a grin, and she nodded sullenly. “Well good for you, Panda. Does your mother know?”
“I was going to tell you both later. I didn’t want to get anyone’s hopes up.”
“You’ll get in. I just know it.” Her father’s stomach growled. “Mm. Well, I’m going to get some lunch. Are you going to make it home in time for dinner?”
“I should, yeah.”
“Ok. I’ll tell your mother to keep a plate warm for you.” He smiled, and Amanda almost faltered for a moment. “Drive safe, sweetheart.”
“I will, Daddy.”
Amanda took a short detour by the campus, so she could ease her conscience a bit. It was only out of her way by a mile. She only allowed herself a wistful look at the buildings when she stopped at a redlight. She allowed herself another glance at the students, shouldering heavy backpacks and wearing maize-and-blue jackets, passing in front of her car.
Her destination was easy to find: a relatively small Craftsman on a sidestreet. At one time, she had passed it every single day on her way to class. In warmer weather, the house stayed hidden behind untrimmed bushes, grass, and trees. A heavy snowfall had obscured most of the overgrowth today. Amanda parked at the curb and got out, stepping through a tall snowdrift just to get to the sidewalk.
She also navigated through the tetanus brew pot on the front porch: several rotting two-by-fours with long, rusted nails lay in a heap beneath a torn tarp. The old-fashioned tricycle — once scarlet red — had been tossed over the rail and lay submerged in a prison of ice and snow. Amanda briefly considered looking for the remains of the old swing set — it had been functional the last time she was here.
As usual, both the screen and storm doors were open.
She crept inside, whispering a polite hello? as she stepped over the fake trip wire near the coat closet. The house, dark and cold, whispered nothing back to her.
“Colin?” Her own voice echoed off the empty, dilapidated walls.
Two young men lay prone on the floor of the living room. Both were shirtless, despite the lack of heat in the house. One of them still had the tourniquet wrapped around his arm and a hypodermic needle in his hand. Amanda paused, watching their chests rise and fall, while both of them muttered incoherently. She held her breath and stepped over them.
“Colin!” she called again, this time louder. “Colin, you’ve got to come home now.”
She waded through the old dining room. A girl, no older than sixteen or seventeen, sat on a plastic rocksalt bucket with her underpants around her ankles. The bucket was face-down. The girl didn’t acknowledge Amanda, but Amanda quickened her pace.
“Colin, dang it…”
She found him in the kitchen, slumped against the hollowed out cabinets, surrounded by mice feces and his own vomit. He wasn’t moving.
She dove to her knees and began slapping his face.
“Colin! Oh God, please…Colin!” She slapped him again, and his eyelids fluttered. “Oh thank you, Jesus! You’re alive! Oh thank you Jesus…”
He raised his arms and tried to shove her away. His fists felt like weak pebbles against her coat. “Get out of here, ‘Mander,” he slurred. “Go home.”
“I’m not leaving without you.” She jerked him against her and squeezed him tightly. “I’m never, ever going to just leave you.”
“Get out, Amanda…” He pushed himself away, but she held his arms.
“No,” she told him, tears stinging. “I’m taking you home with me.”
“Goddamn it, Amanda…”
“Hey….” Amanda jumped when she saw the junkie girl from the dining room staggered toward her out of the corner of her eye. “You heard him — get out of here.”
“Stay away from us,” Amanda warned, trembling. “I will call the police on all of you!”
“You fucking little…” The girl lunged. It was more like a trip.
In a flash, the junkie tackled Amanda and tried to bite her arm through her coat. Shrieking, Amanda fell backward and tried pulling the girl’s hair. It didn’t work. Whatever drugs she was on made her almost impervious to pain. The junkie clung to Amanda, her cracked lips leaving bloody imprints on her sleeve.
“Don’t touch my sister, you cunt!”
Suddenly, Colin was pulling her assailant off of her. Using a violent strength she had never seen from him before, her brother shoved the junkie against the wall, letting her head bang into the old plaster. Again, she wasn’t deterred — she caught her balance and threw herself on Colin, sending them both grappling into the dining room. Amanda climbed to her feet to scream again, just as both Colin and the junkie tumbled against the nailed-shut window against the far wall. Glass breaking grounded the scuffle to a standstill.
The junkie bounced backward. Colin withdrew his arm. Dozens of bloody shards peppered his flesh from the elbow down.
“Colin!” Amanda screamed. At once she had her coat off in attempts to wrap his injuries. He held her at distance with his good arm.
“Stay back, ‘Manda.”
“You need to get to the hospital!”
“Stay back!” Blood ran in rivulets onto the floor, his white Oxford shirt.
“You’re my brother!” She tossed her coat over his shoulders, even as he struggled to keep the bleeding away from her. Then, letting him lean against her, she lead him through the body-draped living room and out the front door.
“I can’t believe you’re doing this to yourself!” she berated, her voice shrill as she raced through yellow lights and rolled through stop signs. “You promised me you were never coming back here again! You promised!”
“Where are you taking me?” he asked, holding his bleeding arm as far away from both of them as he could.
“University,” she told him. “St. Joe’s will just call the cops when they find drugs in your system.”
“No one’s going to find anything in my system but a lot of fucking alcohol,” he wheezed. “I didn’t shoot. I didn’t. I just had too much to drink, and I got into a fight. Happens all the time in college towns.”
“You’ve figured everything out,” she said, glancing at his arm. “And what am I going to tell our parents?”
“That I got drunk and got into a fight.”
She sighed. “Why are you doing this to yourself, Colin?” she demanded. “Huh? Why? Do you want to die?”
He laughed cruelly. “We’re all going to die, Amanda! Some of us sooner than others, is all!”
“Don’t you talk like that!” she scolded, her voice breaking. “I don’t want to hear that out of you.”
“Oh, poor Manda-Panda with her delicate little heart!” he sneered. “Can’t handle anything too sad or too mean because she might fall apart all over again! Jesus fucking Christ, Amanda — I’m not always going to be here for you. Find someone else to co-dependently leech off of, because I am damn sure tired of it.”
The sting of his words washed through her.
He said nothing more. He just kept his arm out, watching blood stream through his fingers.
The next few hours flew by — even in the urgent care waiting room. Amanda sat in her stiff-backed chair, surrounded by coughing children and vomiting elderly women. No one bothered her, no one tried to make conversation. Perhaps it was her bloody coat clutched against her lap. Perhaps it was her hollow-eyed expression. Whatever it was, she sat in silence as the minutes ticked by, and the hours slowed down around her.
When they called her name to come get her brother, the clock on the wall above reception said 8:00 sharp.
The triage doctor gave Colin a stack of prescriptions, which he promptly threw away as they left the hospital. They had wrapped his injured hand in thick gauze — all in all, he had over a hundred stitches, and refused to stay overnight for observations. He limped his way to their car and climbed into the back seats. He said nothing about the massive bloodstains on the floorboards, dash, or passenger’s seat. But neither did she.
It was a long, silent drive back home.
Their parents opened the door for them as soon as Amanda pulled into the driveway. Janice Keefe stood in front of her husband, her arms crossed over her chest and frowning.
“Commencements were on Friday,” she said. “Why did you lie to your father, Amanda?”
“I would expect that behavior out of you,” he said to his son. “Where were you both?”
“And no more lies!” their mother demanded. “Were you getting drugs again? Did you…oh my God!” Her hands went to her mouth as Colin tried unsuccessfully to hide his bandaged arm. “What happened to you?”
Amanda slithered into the living room and dropped her ruined coat at her feet. Colin took far too long to answer.
Their mother’s face darkened. “What’s going on?”
“I went to a party in Ann Arbor. I got drunk and passed out. I called Amanda to come get me, and I got into a fight.” He held up his arm. “But I’m fine.”
“Is this true, Amanda?” He father asked.
Amanda couldn’t look him in the eye.
“Goddamn it,” Colin muttered.
“Col, you have to tell them the truth,” she breathed.
“I’m sorry!” her brother exploded. “All right, fine. I didn’t call Amanda — she just knew where to find me because she found me there many times before!”
Amanda clenched her stomach. “Colin…”
“Shut up, both of you!” Norman Keefe roared. “I told you, boy: you live here in this house — my house — rent free, so you abide by my rules. That means you stop doing that shit. Do you want to be thrown out?”
“Those parties you go to are dangerous!” Janice Keefe exclaimed. “You could be mugged or killed! Is that what you want?”
“Are all three of you in cahoots now? Asking me about what I want?” Colin swung around, his eyes flashing. “What I want is for the three of you to butt out of my fucking life!”
“That is strike two!” their father said, holding up as many fingers.
“Two, huh? Well, I’d better go for the hattrick, I guess.”
“Colin…” Amanda pleaded.
“No, ‘Manda — Mom and Dad need to hear this.” Colin suddenly burst out laughing. “It wasn’t just any party! It was a sex and drugs party!”
“Colin!” their mother admonished, horrified.
“And I had sex!” He went on. “With another guy!”
Amanda sunk into the couch cushions as both of her parents exploded in rage. Her father began pointing and threatening; her mother buried her face in her hands and muttered a prayer. Amanda’s ears started buzzing.
“We’ve told you not to bring that behavior into this house!” Norman Keefe shouted. “You want to live that lifestyle, you do it away from your mother!”
“You promised us!” Janice Keefe railed. “You promised me that you weren’t going to do that!”
“I should throw your ass out right now!”
“Wonderful — just wonderful,” Colin said. “So being gay gets you thrown out of this house, but carving yourself up like a Christmas ham is fine?”
He flung his arms toward Amanda. Both of her parents turned.
Bile rose in Amanda’s throat.
“Amanda…” her mother gasped. “Are you still doing that?”
Her father just stared.
Colin’s expression changed then. In an instant, he went from defiant to contrite.
“‘Honey–” Janice Keefe stepped forward, her arms out. “Why didn’t you tell me? How long have you been keeping this a secret?”
“Do we have to call Fr. Pat again?” her father finally asked.
“What else have you both been keeping from us?”
Amanda swung her vision up to her brother.
Defeated, Colin sagged against the front door. “I’m positive.”
Her mother glanced at him over her shoulder. “Positive about what?”
“Mom, I’m positive.”
“Positive about what?” Janice Keefe glared at her son. “About your sister’s…” A second later, her face fell. “Oh my God.”
Amanda gripped a handful of a throw pillow beside her.
“I’ve been for about a year. Amanda knew and begged me to tell you guys. It wasn’t her secret to keep — don’t get angry with her.” Colin hung his head and rubbed his bandaged arm. “If you get mad at anyone, get mad at me.”
He looked so small then, in his bloody shirt and jeans. He slumped backward, against the wall, and began a slow slide to the floor.
“How…” Norman Keefe began, his voice hoarse. “How did…?”
“I think you already know the answer to that question.” Colin replied.
Their mother buried her face in her hands and sobbed.
Amanda wasn’t sure how long had passed before her father spoke. When he did, he took a step forward, placing himself before his wife and his daughter. He pointed at his son. “I want you to get your things out of my house,” he ordered, “and be out of here by tomorrow morning.”
Colin raised his head.
“I mean it. I want you out of here.”
With her hand raised, Amanda squeaked, “Dad…”
Her brother sighed and got to his feet. “Fine with me.”
Amanda turned to her mother. “Ma!”
Janice Keefe turned away.
She opened her eyes at the sound of a car trunk slamming. Her brother’s shouting followed.
Amanda rose from the couch and rubbed her eyes.
Sliding the curtains back, she could see Colin standing in the driveway, shoving a suitcase into a friend’s idling Prelude. He had no jacket on and he hadn’t changed his bandage, but he wore clean clothes, a stocking cap, and a scarf slung around his neck. His friend behind the wheel leaned over the passenger’s seat to yell something, and Colin yelled right back. Puffs of smoke and steam wafted off the hood, shards of melting ice slid down the windshield.
Both Colin and his friend looked up from their argument, noticing Amanda noticing them. She held her breath, waiting for him to direct his screaming at her.
He didn’t. With a sad smile, he raised his bandaged arm and gave her a hesitant wave.
She pulled away and yanked the curtains shut. The room fell dark again.
Her phone went off not long afterward. She retrieved it from her purse on the floor and shut it off. It was still early. Too early. Only six o’clock, and she had beaten her alarm awake as usual. Head heavy, she sank into the couch cushions and tightened the throw around her shoulders. With both her parents still in bed, the house felt colder.
Some time had passed before her mother appeared in the living room, awakening her from her slumped dozing. Startled, Amanda bolted awake.
“I’m sorry, sweetie,” Janice Keefe said ruefully. “Didn’t mean to wake you up.”
“I’m awake.” The clock on the mantle read 6:25. “Colin is gone.”
“I heard.” Her mother pursed her lips. “Would you like some coffee?”
“No thanks. I think I might go get a shower and go back to bed.”
“Ok.” She looked at her slippers. “I’m going to call Fr. Pat this morning. And I am going to ask if he can fit you in before Christmas.”
Amanda didn’t respond.
“I mean it, Amanda. Enough is enough. Alright?”
When her mother slipped away into the kitchen, Amanda collapsed on the couch.
Suddenly, she was eighteen and back in Fr. Pat’s office.
He sat in front of her, at his desk. His thin, wiry fingers pressed together, though not in prayer. He lectured her, chided her, reminded her of the virtues of forgiveness. “God always forgives,” the priest reasoned. “Why shouldn’t we?”
Behind her, her mother and her aunt sniffled. The priest handed both women napkins from his pants’ pocket. Her father, a pillar of stoic reason, did not move.
“Amanda,” Fr. Pat instructed, “I want you to look at your cousin. Right now. See the anguish in his eyes?”
She reluctantly turned her head. To her left, Jason slumped in the chair. His face was red and splotchy. He wiped his eyes with the back of his hand.
“Jason, say what you told me earlier.”
He cleared his throat.
“I’m sorry, ‘Mandy. For hurting you. I didn’t mean — I mean, I didn’t know…” He trailed off with a sigh. “If I could go back and change everything, I would.”
Fr. Pat smiled. “And Amanda? Do you want to respond to that?”
The room started to spin as the dream faded.
“Amanda? What did you want to say to Jason?”
She opened her eyes.
After brushing strands of damp hair out of her face, Amanda rolled to one side, facing her nightstand. Bobo had tipped over at some point in the night and landed face-down on her pencil box — a valiant, but futile effort on his part. She cracked her knuckles and turned him upright, patting his raggedy head with a smile.
When her fingers brushed against the lid of her pencil box, her phone rang.
Amanda froze, hand hovering between the blinking phone and the lid of the box, unsure of which one to touch first.
She shut her eyes.
What did you want to say to Jason?
Eyes open again, she picked up the phone, flipped it, and pressed it to her ear.
“Hi,” she breathed. “Thanks for calling me back.”