Michelle dried her hands on her apron and took it off, while her brother Eugene remained ensconced in the living room and was probably glancing at his watch every few seconds. His fourteen-year-old son Andre was nearly an hour late.
“Where’s Andre?” Eugene asked from the kitchen door.
Michelle’s grasp on her apron tightened. Outside sheets fluttered in the breeze. The day looked close to rain, but she knew it would hold back for another hour or two. When had she gotten so good at reading the weather? A lick of her finger and it was raised to measure dampness; no, she wasn’t that bad. But was it when she was twenty-two and Eugene nineteen that she started to think about rain? Did it come between the secretary job and taking care of her younger brother who was lost after their parents’ accident?
He was not lost, she thought now, not helpless either, like she’d assumed, but bloody spoiled.
“Michelle,” Eugene said with impatience, and Michelle wished her husband Ron would come home.
She turned from the window and darkening sky. Her brother took up the doorway, tall and wide. His dark hair was cut short and there was hardness around his eyes that had only come in the last months. Maybe not hardness she thought, but reserve, similar to their Dad when his mood dipped and he sat in his chair by the fire listening to no-one.
She asked, “Do you remember when I told you to iron your own uniform? You must have been 13. I don’t know. I’m pretty sure I was in my last year at school. You were in here.”
She glanced at the far corner, opposite the door and saw a younger Eugene, thin and loose of shoulder, serious-faced, as he tried to get his sweater to lie flat on the ironing board.
Eugene said he had no idea what she was talking about and his frustration caused a ripple in the room. They could have gone for a swim on the tension. He asked again where Andre was and she had to bite her tongue before she stepped away from the sink. The rim might have left an imprint on her back. She felt as if there were imprints all over her. The apron was in her hands and she had to fight the urge to throw it at him and scream. “You’d nearly finished your sweater when Dad came in. Don’t tell me you don’t remember?”
She saw a loosening around his eyes, a relenting that came in the shape of a shrug.
“That was years ago,” he said.
She said, “Dad was raging. He said he never wanted to see his son ironing again.”
It had been years since, yet she still felt the sting of the slap and remembered the smell her father had brought from the pub.
“You laughed,” she said.
“I did not.”
“Yes, you did, you laughed and you left the room with your sweater half-done and by God I wanted to burn the thing but I didn’t. I did my duty and I did it again when they died.”
The front door opened. They heard it through the cracks of their silences, the places where they had fallen away from each other and Ron’s humming was there too.
“He’s just lost his mother,” he’d said about Andre weeks ago. Michelle had wanted to ask why that was suddenly her responsibility and when was the choice given to her, not when Eugene phoned her and said, “Andre wants to stay with you,” or later when he sat at the kitchen table and said, “Andre needs you.”
“Is everything alright?” Ron said.
“No, everything is not alright,” Michelle said.
“We don’t know where Andre is,” Eugene said.
“You don’t know where Andre is.” Michelle didn’t mean to shout but she felt better for it. The men were looking at her, Ron surprised and worried. He would have liked to tell her to calm down. She could see it in the wide probing eyes, but he was smart enough not to. Eugene’s blank expression infuriated her further. She would have liked to poke his shoulder with a sharp finger or hit him, which made her afraid to move.
“He is your son. Why do you think you can just give the job to me?”
Michelle glared at Ron and said, “Don’t Michelle me,” before turning her attention to her brother.
She said, “I should have burnt that uniform. I should have left the iron on it until the whole house went up in smoke, but I didn’t, and God help me but I’m not going to make the same mistake twice.”
The tap dripped behind her and it felt as if it was her own blood draining out. A cold had settled inside with the look on her brother’s face, not so much bewildered as indifferent. His dark eyes took her in for a long silent moment before he turned away. There was the sound of him stepping into the living-room. The television was turned up and it threw out voices that were impossible to understand.
“Are you okay?” Ron asked and Michelle hated her temptation to glance at his feet. So many times she’d had to badger him to leave his muddy shoes at the front door and she didn’t want to care about dirt today.
“No, I am not okay.” Michelle threw her apron on the table. Eugene was sitting forward on the couch, but she didn’t look at him on her way to turn off the television. The dark screen showed her rigid reflection. Eugene had risen behind her. The silence was heavy and made her aware of the drumming in her ears. She would not serve dinner, she decided. She would leave this room and go up the stairs and lie down and not answer to any of them, but first she had to turn around.
L.M Brown’s stories have been published in numerous magazines such as Eclectica, Litro, Fiction Southeast, Review Americana and more. “A House Up in Smoke” is drawn from her novel Debris which was recently published. Her short story collection The Village is forthcoming from Fomite Press. She has a Masters of Creative Writing in Emerson College and resides in Massachusetts with her husband and three daughters, but she grew up in Ireland.
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