My older sister Nan and I climb up our makeshift tree house armed with our latest swiped goodies. Vienna sausages. Saltines. Sardines. Plastic Merlot bottles. The Sutter Home brand, not anything fancy, but durable. Plus, it’s enough to give you a good buzz, but not enough to get truly, raging drunk. Not like Mom.
“Sweetness for bitter nights,” Nan says, navigating seas of boards, horizontals and verticals clashing and jutting out.
“I’ll drink to that,” I say. “We’re high society.”
“Getting there, little brother,” Nan says, a smile escaping. “We have work to do still.”
Mom made the tree house for us and sewed the makeshift navy blue and gold flag, the emblem of our little kingdom, she said. The kingdom of Botkinistan. This was when Mom worked as a waitress at The Dirty Flame Café, down by the railroad tracks and the sugar beet factory. Before the drinking, the overdue bills, before she smashed a jukebox, before she abandoned the stove to conflagration. Before the world took her somewhere, anywhere, six months ago.
“You did good, little brother,” she said, her owl-like eyes fluttering with energy. “Next time we should snag the higher end booze. Not beer. Too trashy. Let’s say champagne. Think you can do that?”
“Sure,” I say. “Hell, I’ll smuggle packs of steaks if you want.”
“It’s not like your books,” she says, her voice cracking a little. “There’s no deus-ex-machina swooping in when you fuck up. You have to know how to stash the stuff so it doesn’t weigh you down. Give yourself the space to run. They cannot catch you.”
I sit down on the sheets that comprise my bed, white, ragged, and odious. I shiver thinking of the consequences. Juvenile homes, orphanages, what sharp words, like Mom’s old knives. Nan drapes her ragged gray sweatshirt over me, the one that smells of swiped Camels and onions. She pats it down, trying to banish wrinkles, a tender movement. Pat, pat, pat.
“Here,” she says. “I’m sorry, Nicky. I know you love it.”
“I don’t want you to be cold, Nan.”
“Your sister’s immortal,” she says, arching an eyebrow and raising her arms to the world. “You see that. I’m immortal. Bring on everything.”
“Don’t die on me, Nan.”
“Never, chucklehead.” She punches me in the shoulders. “Your sister knows what she’s doing.”
I can’t argue. We’ve fought plenty because I’m too loud. Joke too much, especially on anniversaries. Our birthdays or Mom’s birthday or what-have-you. And sometimes I still cry. I also love to read and Nan thinks there’s no use, especially since I read the darkest stuff I foist from the library, stories where families hate each other and end up falling apart, the causes of decay outlined with subtlety, yet a darkly soothing precision. Cause, effect, explanation.
But Nan’s also taught me the art of swiping, of distraction, taught me to run, run, run. She’s never left, not once. And she still calls me Nicksie, like Mom used to, as small and insignificant as it seems in the wideness of the world.
Below, a rabbit stares with wide almond-like eyes. He is frozen and I give him a little smile. Such a tender creature, who can hop with ease. He has seen so much. Perhaps he also saw our old shack burn too. Perhaps he watched the flames lick and dance, creatures extinguishing histories, beams collapsing, windows and worn-out history shrieking as fire ate them. And maybe his almond eyes caught Mom running away, not looking back, not watching history burning, old futons, cupboards full of Jim Beam and Wheat Thins. She was just running, running, running like fucking Forrest Gump. Maybe he is wondering our next moves, wondering if we will be here through winter, into spring, or if the inevitable will come and take Nan and me. Or at least me, anyway. I’m only fourteen and she’s seventeen, after all.
I take a step. A board creaks.
I almost trip, imagine the board giving way altogether, the motion of a body plunging beneath a tree, the tall grasses concealing things. For a moment, I imagine Mom returning to the scene, but that passes just as fast.
Nan catches me. The wind whistles around us, red and gold leaves shifting. So fragile and beautiful. I trip again. And once again Nan catches me, her grip a little more fragile. We both tip this time, the wind whooshing around us, the ground taunting, the tall grass and mud, the hole where home once was. The rabbit scurries into the world, where people move and don’t look back. I feel the motion of Nan’s breath, raspy, steady, the scent of sweat, sourness, Camels, something beautiful. We don’t fall. We never fall.