big sister

The scent of German chocolate cake always gave Erwin mixed feelings. He loved the exquisite taste of the blended frosting as it melted like crushed ice in his mouth; but it also meant that it was that day again, and not only was he a year older and no better off, but he would have to quietly endure the tired rituals of his mom's grief. Worse, he had invited his friend Geoffrey over, and he was going to bring his girlfriend along.

He had just placed a last-minute winning bid on a first edition of Kurt Vonnegut's Slapstick, and had won it for an alarmingly low $45 plus the shipping charge. Although the seller promised that the leather-bound Franklin Mint book was in fine condition, as tight and clean as if it were 1976 all over again, he never trusted online auctioneers with less than 100 positive reviews on previous trades. He sniffed a couple times and smelled the scent of walnuts and coconut, and he glanced up at the date and time on the upper right-hand corner of his 21-inch Sunray XT monitor: November 16, 10:10 a.m. He hadn't even had breakfast, and his mom had already baked the cake.

He pulled off his CCU shirt and dropped it on the floor. His grey sweatpants would have to go, too, but he had to find something with buttons and a collar first. His room had become like a squirrel's den full of anything it could gather to sustain it during the rough winter months. His friends joked that his collection, unlike a pile of acorns, would outlast his mortal coil by easily a thousand years.

He found a sky-blue oxford flattened under a stack of records Geoffrey had traded him for seven pristine issues of "X-Men," records he had forgotten to listen to, much less file with their 347 counterparts stacked in alphabetical order on the shelf in the second closet. He doubted that the stylus on his phonograph even worked anymore, as he was a CD and MP3 junkie--fully transmogrified, at this point, into a man of the digital age. He thumbed through the records for a moment, sniffing at the titles, and then reminded himself he had better get dressed. He had plans for the afternoon, but he knew enough to look presentable for his mom when he appeared downstairs.

He located a pair of slacks, wrinkled like the face of a Galapagos tortoise, and pulled them on. He needed the belt to keep them tucked under his stomach, but not to hold them up; by his estimation they were about two inches tighter than what one could reasonably call uncomfortable. As long as he was at it, he gathered up a few empty potato-chip bags and cups grown over with mold and--arms full--tucked an ice cream dish under his chin as he headed out of his room into the hallway.

He passed to the top of the stairwell almost without looking at the 100 or so pictures his mom had pinned into a rectangular collage onto the pink wall. She had tried to continue to keep Barbie's room holy, but he had won that challenge by threatening to move out when he was 14, and, with a few hazardous interior design changes, had added 180 square feet to his boyhood bedchamber to make room for his ever-growing stockpile.

He stopped, dish under chin, hands gunky with moldy glasses and potato-chip grease, and looked into the eyes of himself in one of the photos. He was a little boy, eight or nine, with his big sister a foot taller and at least thirty pounds heavier. He did not know when it was taken, but it had to be one of the last pictures if not the last of the two of them together. He looked happy, both his arms squeezed around his sister's voluptuous hips. She had what appeared to be a smile on her face, but it could have been a grimace. In any case, she looked embarrassed, too, but he saw that only in her poise: Her eyes, in contrast, seemed to look beyond the photograph right into his own.

His mom did not explain his sister's disappearance to him until he was much older, on November 16, of course, when he was a junior in high school. She didn't go into much detail, and he had already learned from urban legends whispered in the halls of middle school that there had been a full moon and that his sister and her boyfriend Brad, who had also disappeared, had not gone quietly while they camped in Cool Cricket Meadow. He told most people to shut up about the subject after his mom told him just because he was so embarrassed.

Of course he did not believe the absurd stories, and he never would. He had watched The Wolf Man and its sequels hundreds of times; he had a sepia still from Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man signed by Lon Chaney, Jr. himself, framed, somewhere. He had absorbed lengthy books about lycanthropy and pagan rituals and magic, but he never once believed his sister had died that way. He didn't believe in any of that stuff, but he knew his mom did. If she learned about some of the century-old tracts he had locked in a chest behind his bunk bed dealing with the occult, she would have a heart attack and die. Her superstitions were the glue that had held her together for the last 17 years, and he had never tried to challenge them, and he guessed today would be no different.

He walked down the stairs and found her in the kitchen, putting the last bit of frosting on the side of the big, triple-layered cake. The scent of chocolate overwhelmed the other smells and his stomach kicked into growling mode. She looked up and gave him a huge smile full of lipstick-smeared teeth. "Good morning, handsome."

"Mom, please."

"You're all dressed up. You remembered."

"I remembered because I could smell that cake, and I'm starving to death, thanks to you." He regretted the expression after he said it.

"Well, whatever makes you remember, I'm glad you did."

He almost dropped the bowl tucked under his chin as he spoke, but he caught it by letting some of the trash fall to the floor.

"Oh, Erwin!" his mom said.

"I'll clean it up."

"Famous last words."

"I will. Geoffrey and Michelle are coming over this afternoon."


"I'm sorry, Mom, but they're coming. He has a whole bunch of books he's going to trade me for the socks Alec Guinness wore under his cloak in Star Wars. I mean, they're probably not the real socks, but they're definitely old and stuff, and I want the books."

"You and your wheeling and dealing," his mom said. He knew he could say anything to her and she would believe him, mostly because she never really listened. Geoffrey was actually after the first-day-of-issue Voyager stamps Erwin had practically stolen from a guy on Yahoo.

"German chocolate again, huh, Mom?" he said as he put the cups and dish into the sink and turned on the faucet. He bent over and tried to pick up one of the stray potato chip bags, but his tight pants wouldn't allow it.

"It was her favorite."

"But it's not her birthday."

"I know, I know. I told you that when someone has died, you don't celebrate their birthday anymore."

He didn't argue with that, and he had given up trying to explain to her that it was even weirder to celebrate the day of someone's death. His mom still seemed convinced in the back of her mind that Barbie hadn't died--that maybe she was still out there running around old bluewood groves as a wild canine. His mom had kept working for a while, but soon enough poor Mrs. Baubles had been forced to give up her position at the lunch counter of the elementary school. Her dead daughter and her runaway husband had made her a little too loopy for the students, who only wanted their spaghetti or fried okra and not a speech about staying locked indoors on moonlit nights.

He walked to the refrigerator and opened it; there were boiled eggs in the door and he took two, then looked around the kitchen for the salt-and-pepper shakers. "They're by the mixing dish," she told him, knowing somehow without even turning around what he wanted.

"You put pepper in the cake?"

"No, Erwin, I did not put pepper in the cake, but I keep the salt and pepper together so they won't get lonely."

"That's weird, Mom."

"I'm just kidding, Erwin."

"Oh." He looked around for a plate, but she wiped her hands on her apron and opened a cupboard and took one out for him, then got him a glass of orange juice and made him sit. He watched her finish the frosting, then saw her put a white, round Tupperware bucket over the cake.

It seemed made for the purpose, and he supposed it was.

When Geoffrey and Michelle arrived that afternoon, he warned them that his mom was in a peculiar mood that day, but he did not tell them why. He didn't need to hear Geoffrey's snide ribbing or Michelle's new-agey sympathy. He liked her okay, but like all of Geoffrey's girlfriends of the past, her idiosyncrasies were only accentuated by her bookworm intelligence and therefore agonizing ignorance of the average everyday world. The thing that bothered him the most about the two of them was that her hairy, unshaven legs resembled in almost perfect size and shape Geoffrey's hairy upper arms and shoulders, and he could never get over how sickening they looked when they made out on the old couch he had dragged up into his room.

He shoved over a pile of clothes and made a space for them. They both crashed together, Geoffrey dropping the box of books carelessly on the floor. "Easy," Erwin said. He loosened his belt buckle and knelt down on the rug.

"It's okay. They're only paperbacks."

"Still," argued Erwin. He opened the lid on the box. Standard stuff, really: Harlan Ellison, Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, Ray Bradbury. "I already have all this old junk," he said.

"What don't you have?" Michelle asked.

"I know, but you can sell it on your computer," Geoffrey told him.

"Ah," Erwin lamented. "My secret portal is too well known." He picked up the books and breathed them in; they smelled of old paper and dust and probably dead mites, but he didn't care. The aroma was almost better than the cake.

"So is your mom--is she really off today?" Michelle asked.

"She's always really off," Geoffrey said.

"No," Erwin answered. "She's just a little more pleasant than usual."

"What do you mean, pleasant?"

She didn't have to wait very long. Mrs. Baubles knocked and introduced herself with the words, "You kids want some cake and ice cream?"

"Sure," Michelle said, before Erwin could say anything. "What's the occasion?"

"It's a special day," his mom said. "Barbie's Day."

"We'll come down later, Mom," Erwin said quickly. He got up and walked over to the door. Mrs. Baubles shrugged and turned around; she had added a string of pearls to her black dress and would probably have the gloves on any minute. She left the hallway and started down the stairs, and Erwin turned and cracked a smile. "Sorry about that," he said.

"It sounded good to me," Michelle said.

"Maybe later." He closed the door and looked at Geoffrey. "I suppose you want me to give you your stamps."

The afternoon went blithely by, and Geoffrey told some good jokes as they slogged around in the big room like happy firefighters looking for hotspots in a burnt-out warehouse. But Erwin could feel the pressure of the time. It was as if the clock on his computer monitor was ticking like the beat of the telltale heart, and at any second he expected his mom to come bursting in, veil and all, demanding that the three attend her usual funerary observance in the dining room. At one point he almost thought he should pretend to be sick so that his friends would leave, but he couldn't figure out exactly what disease he should pretend to have--there were so many real ones, after all, besides turning into a werewolf and consuming your teenaged lover next to a campfire.

On schedule, at 5:30 as the sun set outside and sent an orange glow through the window, his mom poked in her head again. "I have your cake and ice cream ready downstairs."

"Mom, I said later," Erwin protested.

"That was a few hours ago," Michelle said, ignorant as a bus driver of the X-rated comic book the children in the backseat have smuggled onboard. "We'll be down in a second," Erwin said.

"No, you have to come now," Mrs. Baubles exclaimed. "The ice cream is starting to melt. I heated up your cake for you, and it's awfully good. I stole a bite of my own."

Erwin sighed. Geoffrey and Michelle were already halfway out the door, hand in hand. Hadn't they noticed that his mom had put on a black hat with black lace and had made up her eyes with false lashes and was wearing a dress that looked like a Russian sturgeon about to burst with caviar? He buckled his belt and tucked in his shirt as well as he could, wiped his long hair out of his eyes and followed them, dreading what they would say when they got downstairs.

The candles were lit and the flames sent flashing shadows this way and that and reflected on the glass panes of the mirrored tiles on the wall and the TV screen in the living room behind them. Erwin could barely see at first, but he was soon able to focus his eyes, and he immediately recognized the large 16 by 20-inch photograph of his sister set in the chair at the head of the table. Michelle said, "Who's that?" but Geoffrey shushed her, knowing the story but never having experienced it firsthand, and sat her down. This isn't a seance, Erwin thought, but he appreciated his friend's politeness, if not his nosiness.

"Well, sit down, Erwin, and have your cake."

"Are we going to..."

"Not with guests here," his mom said. "But I didn't want to be rude."

"Don't mind us," Geoffrey said. "We don't bite."

Erwin winced at the double-entendre, but his mom seemed not to notice, and he sighed with relief.

"What's the occasion again?" Michelle asked stupidly.

Erwin wanted to smack her. "Just eat your cake," he said. "Mom makes the best German chocolate cake in Crooked Corners. You'll like it. Eat." He sounded like a blubbering fool, but it had worked, and Michelle took a bite, agreed wholeheartedly that it was terrific, and ate quietly from that point on.

Erwin kept eyeing the picture at the head of the table, and he knew Michelle and Geoffrey could see it. The girlfriend didn't ask, though, not then, but he was sure his friend would explain it all to her in the grimmest possible hearsay detail after they left, maybe while they were fucking that night on Geoffrey's futon or maybe while he spanked her with a paddle. Erwin didn't really see the appeal of Geoffrey's sex drive or why he found these pokey, lanky buck-toothed women so attractive, and he never asked about it because he feared he wouldn't be able to get the images out of his head. He would never have gone out with one of those girls, never in a million eons. He knew what kind of girl he wanted, and she didn't resemble Michelle. Not even close.

After they left he closed and locked the front door. His mom cleared the dishes and then took his hand and led him to the dining room. The candles had melted a third of the way, enough to build up pools of wax on the linen tablecloth underneath. She had bought the cheap kind again, and he couldn't blame her; aside from his auction sales and her social security check, they had no income. He had tried to look for a real job, but no one nearby wanted anyone with a Western Lit degree from a third-rate university in a backwoods county, even though all the businesses he'd applied to for employment were within twenty miles of where he went to school--and within twenty miles of home.

He let his mom hold his hand. He knew she didn't know she made him feel queasy, and he didn't blame her for her sadness, so he always tried to act as solemn as she did. She had lowered the veil over her face, but he could sense her tears, and he heard her sniffles. They sat silently as the candles dripped and the flames gently flickered, and he knew she was praying. He did not pray, for he did not believe, but he tightened his grip on her hand.

In twenty minutes or so she said, "Well, thank you for another year, Barbie." She took her hand away from his and got up and went upstairs, and he heard her close her bedroom door.

He continued to sit at the table, something he had never done before. He usually couldn't wait to get away from the morbid scene and get back to his books or his computer or his stereo headphones, but that night he stayed and stared at his sister. She was young in the photograph, he realized, probably seven or eight years younger than he was now. The picture had run in the yearbook separately along with Brad's, as if they had died in a car crash after the prom.

He had the yearbook somewhere upstairs, and he had studied the other kids' pictures, but none of them had her pretty face or her golden eyes. He knew she was beautiful--his mom always talked about it, and if he believed anything she said to be true, that was about it. His sister was beautiful, and she had a way of looking through a person that was wild. As he gazed into her picture that night, with the candlelight and the silence, he felt she was looking back. He wished she were really sitting there--he wished he could talk to her--because he felt so strange, as if his body didn't fit right, as if his mind belonged somewhere else. He never felt quite himself, and somehow she knew why.