Air – a short story
I have this thing, this strange thing that happens to me. I only discovered it a year ago when I was fifteen and have never told anyone. No-one would believe me anyway.
It starts the same way each time. I close my eyes and stay very still. After a while I feel myself start to drift, my limbs feel floaty and everything becomes light. Then it happens. I become transparent, I become papery thin. I start to vanish, become a part of the air.
The first time this happened was an accident. I was half awake and lying in my bed. I was ill, I had been for some time and at first I wondered if my illness had made me imagine it. But as the months went by and I felt better, I realised I could vanish whenever I wanted, just by simply closing my eyes on the world for a few minutes. I don’t know if my illness made me like this or if this happens to other people too but I don’t really care. I think it’s the best thing ever.
I wanted to teach my little brother Daniel the same trick but knowing him he wouldn’t be interested. Probably wouldn’t even try. He is only twelve months younger than me but he acts like he has the problems of the world on his back. Some days he doesn’t even get out of bed, so we usually talk at night. I think he prefers to talk in the dark, things are easier to say when you cant really see who you’re talking to.
‘I wish you’d leave me alone.’ he tells me.
But he doesn’t talk to anyone else, I’ve noticed this. ‘I’m only trying to help.’
‘Don’t need help.’
‘So stop acting like you do then.’
Everyone knows Daniel has got a problem but no-one wants to talk about it. Mum and Dad whisper about it, as if talking in whispers make it less real. His friends know too but they don’t like to discuss it. I’ve followed them, after I’ve vanished and listened to them talk about my brother.
‘Seen Daniel lately?’ one of them will ask.
‘No, not for a while,’ another will reply.
Then they’ll stay quiet as if they’re thinking something they don’t want to say. After a moment someone will change the conversation to football and Daniel will be forgotten, like an old secret.
There are too many secrets in our house just now. Like Daniel’s problem and the other secret no-one will talk about. I’ve sneaked around the house several times, in my transparent state and listened. Mum and Dad snipe at each other, and it’s this other secret that seems to be the problem. They never say what it is. Even when they think they’re alone. It’s like some sort of unspoken curse.
‘Daniel hasn’t eaten all day.’ Dad said today.
‘What am I supposed to do?’ Mum sniped back. ‘Force food down his throat?’
‘What do you expect? At least he’s still here, at least he’s not…’
‘Don’t.’ Dad glared. ‘Don’t say it. Don’t ever say that.’
Say what? I wondered while following them around silently, hoping to hear a snippet of the secret. But they won’t say.
So I spend my time with Daniel. Mum and Dad mostly ignore him now anyway, scared of what to do with him. They sit in the living room staring at the TV while he sits in his bedroom, staring at nothing.
‘You should talk to them more.’ I tell Daniel but he just pulls a face.
‘They don’t want to talk. If they did they wouldn’t whisper about me like I can’t hear them.’
I sit on the bed next to him. So he’s noticed it too.
‘I hear them.’ Daniel tells me. ‘They think I’m asleep during the day but I’m awake. And I hear them arguing, in whispers like they’re trying not to wake me up.’
‘So when do you sleep?’ I ask because I already know he sits up all night.
He looks at me with haunted eyes. ‘I don’t.’
I frown at him. ‘Well that’s no use. You’ll make yourself ill.’
He stares at me for a second then turns his back. ‘So go away then.’
‘You’re telling your only sister to go away? I’m only trying to help you.’
He mumbles something into the pillow but I can’t make it out. Then he starts singing something. A horrible prayer. ‘And if I die before I wake, I pray the lord my soul to take…’
‘Shut up!’ I stand up and stamp my feet. ‘Shut up, I hate stuff like that. Freaky, stupid stuff. What’s the point in saying that? Do you want it to be true or something?’
Daniel falls silent but I’m sure he’s laughing softly, into his pillow. ‘Goodnight, sister.’
I glare at him for a moment. Maybe I should vanish right now, really freak him out. I’d love to, I really would. It would serve him right. But then again, it might just tip him over the edge. So I leave him and find a chair to sit on in the dark kitchen. Slowly, I start to drift away.
I should really try to talk to Mum and Dad about Daniel, I’m thinking as I drift around the house feeling the air flow through me. I should, but I know they wont listen. They seem scared to do anything. I wonder what they’re scared of? Perhaps its this secret again.
I sit on the end of their bed, hoping one of them might talk in their sleep and give a hint to what the secret is. But they don’t. Finally I retreat to my own chilly room, pull the curtains shut and lie on the bed. But I cant sleep. That pest Daniel has passed his insomnia onto me.
I lie there until morning, and I forget that I’m still in my vanished state. Its only when Mum opens the door and looks around the room I realise she cant see me. I don’t want to freak her out by re-appearing so I continue to lie on my bed, very still and quiet. I watch her as she scans the room like she’s looking for something. Of course, she’s looking for me. She must wonder why I’m not here in my room at this early hour. She crosses the room to the window and yanks the curtains open. Her eyes search the room again, searching for me, as though I might be hiding behind a chair or something. As if, I want to shout but I continue to lie there, afraid to move.
Finally she leaves the room and I breathe a sigh of relief. Instantly, I hear her kick up an argument with Dad. He starts yelling back at her and I feel like yelling at both of them to stop. Daniel’s probably listening too, they just don’t seem to care.
‘Are you trying to say I’m imagining it?’ Mum’s shouting.
‘I’m trying to say you probably forgot.’ Dad replies.
‘I’m telling you those curtains were closed again, are you calling me a liar?’
‘No, like I said you probably -’
‘You are, you think I’m making this up!’
God, the things they argue about! Its getting worse. I really should run down there and tell them it was only me who closed the curtains. Why is Mum being such a freak-out? No wonder Daniel is the way he is.
Mum is still nipping Dad’s head. ‘Why can’t you face up to it? To the … you know …’
They fall silent for a moment. Ah, the secret again. It’s at the centre of everything, this unspoken secret.
‘You know what’s going on,’ Mum says, whispering now. ‘We both do.’
‘I don’t want to hear this.’ Dad replies.
I sneak past them and re-appear just before I slip into Daniel’s room. He’s sitting on his bed, head in hands.
‘I’ve had enough,’ he whispers, ‘I’m coming with you. I hate it, I can’t stand it…’
I say nothing as he weeps softly, something in the air makes his pale sounds seem quieter, as though the air is muffled, as though the air is thick.
I slip out of his room and disappear up to my room, my bed. I’m tired now, I’m tired of this family, this secret that no-one will say.
I sleep, drifting in and out of dreams and when I wake Daniel is sitting on my bed, smiling. I can hear Mum and Dad downstairs, crying with a new freshness, like some new pain had just cut them.
‘I took them all,’ Daniel says.
‘All what?’ I ask from the bed. I wonder how long I have been sleeping.
‘The sleeping pills.’
I sit up, look at him. He has become a part of the air too, I can tell just by looking at him. How did he learn to do it without my help?
Mum and Dad are still crying. For some reason the house downstairs is full of people.
‘It’s the secret,’ I say.
‘Yeah, the secret.’
‘They won’t talk about it.’
‘No.’ Daniel says. ‘They won’t.’
I lie back on the bed and gently touch my brother’s back for the first time in months.
‘They never do.’