SOMEDAY STAY, THEN WINTER
2012 Innovative Fiction Contest Winner
"Someday Stay, Then Winter" is a brother and sister fairy tale—and a heartbreak. To read this story is to be its weak twin; you speak its secret language and you suffer a failure to thrive. The writing is just so sad. "Kill me if you see me in here again," says the customer. "Don't tell me twice," says the Chinese woman. I guess this story killed me. I read it and then I read it again. Its poetics know something bad.
The customer asks for five Mild Seven Lights. Outside is snowing because it's been that kind of winter. She rings up pack by pack, she has all the minutes of her lifetime, doesn't she? She counts: smoking kills smoking kills smoking kills smoking kills smoking kills.
"They're talking about you," says the customer pointing to teens blowing cool their ramen.
Around here, the stores are spacious. They look like galleries no matter their interests. Some are real galleries with hanging art. Few people walk, streets likely deserted. But when they do, the people—they are pale and graceful.
"Wouldn't you?" she asks.
And already he's saying, "Let me tell you one thing—"
So eager is everyone—the skinny liars, many guessing mothers—to tell you how to live your life. It must be the transactions, exchanged hands and touches returned, the proximity with heartache and money.
"You sound confused," she says.
The time is late, almost time for the Chinese woman to come and take over.
She takes out a mirror and angles it to her window reflection and watches herself looking at herself. She remembers she is young. One of the teens belches. Everything else is just about quiet.
Later, but not much later, the Chinese woman appears half-sleeping.
"How many children do you have? And jobs?" she asks.
"Thanks for asking," says the Chinese woman, "but I don't feel like answering."
"So long," she says. She unzips the Family Mart vest and opens and closes a few doors. She gets on the subway smelling like pork and drink and gets off and buys a bouquet of flowers glittered blue by the man with no legs. Here her neighborhood the side of a sloppy hill, the snow inspires a rare ease. She takes her time climbing the stairs.
At home, she finds her brother seated in front of the mirror.
"I'm home," she says. She takes off her red hair to reveal under the real one a shade lighter than midnight black. "Your favorite blues." She kneels and chins his knee, and the flowers at his lap are easily depressing.
The brother stares into himself. There are things about him not quite right.
"My one, useless sister," he says.
Once, when the sister was a sisterette, she told her brother: "I need you more than anything in my life."
The brother fingered the shore of receding hair. He asked, "Does this make me old-looking?"
And also, "Who told you that? Do I look old enough to be your father?"
The sister was born without a nose, ears, or a mouth, said the brother. Her face looked like the bottom of a foot. The first two days out in the world and she was squirming in the valley of the brother's thighs. With a microscope and rolled-up sleeves, he used his fingers to make hers look like a face.
A face that recalled his, people told to her face. His which was loveliest to her before he began to take it apart.
She fitted her fingertips in the fresh grooves of his cheeks and asked again and again why he was crying.
"I'm a fly!" he screamed mornings when spilt coffee alarmed a day of misery.
Still a child, she said, "You're a butterfly," and fashioned herself wings to flutter about in their dinky apartment.
When the sister shows up for weekend shift, a customer is demanding money back. She says the tuna salad rice ball made her sick. She says not the kind of sick from drink but the kind of sick from bad tuna. She says she knows very well the difference.
The sister guesses she is not from around here. She guesses this customer to be someone from a neighborhood like hers, out of place in a clean one like this. It is so easy to tell who doesn't belong. The Chinese woman opens the register and counts the coins.
"Kill me if you see me in here again," says the customer.
"Don't tell me twice," says the Chinese woman.
It's still snowing.
The sister tags her name to the green vest and resumes post behind the register. Weekend shift requires two workers and the Chinese woman is working a double. She plays digital mahjong on her phone. And the sister imagines art lovers rubbing glass and steel inside galleries. She imagines a husband sliding a hand up a leg not his wife's. She imagines sticking her head out the window of a car for the wind to cut open her face. Then she imagines summer.
"What's there to look forward to?" asks the Chinese woman. "You have your letters at least, and some kind of youth!" She points to an envelope behind the cell phone chargers.
The sister sticks it in her vest pocket. "I have enough for a contemporary eco coffin from Home Shopping."
"For my brother."
"Is your brother dying?"
"It doesn't always turn out that way."
A customer walks in. He lingers in energy drinks.
"Can you tell one from the other?"
"I can tell who belongs," says the sister. "My brother taught me."
Cars the value of homes pass by. Some pause nearby and movie stars get out then disappear. Everybody is a movie star.
"It helps to believe in stuff," says the sister.
"Sometimes I sing, you know."
"I like to sing, but not in front of my brother. You should hear my brother sing."
"Do you see the way they look at us? Do you?"
"It's not the same."
The Chinese woman goes out and comes back cold and trailing cigarette smoke. "What names have you been called?"
"By my brother?"
"Do you ever get out of control?"
"On and off."
"How old are you?"
"I was twelve when I fell in love."
They met in front of the movies. She had been waiting for her brother who was watching one not appropriate for a child of twelve he said, arm around a woman who received compliments with fingers examining her mouth. There used to be a time like this, when he was okay with people seeing him. She didn't mind the wait, loads of couples tangling by. Mostly she passed time picturing the spectacle from above, a knotted mass of black hair. Then he came up to her. His eyebrows up close appeared more one than two emerging. She peeked. She felt him sit, felt his eyes following the objects of hers. Until her brother showed up absent of the woman but fluttered and excited still and took her away. She wanted to look back to see if he was there and she did. And he was. He found her the next time and this time, he watched her watching. She had timed the minutes of the movie, the minutes that were long and short with his watching her. Then he gave her a pen and she did with it what she thought he meant, which was to take his hand and write her address on its vast back.
Would you believe she has never heard the sound of his voice?
A voice she hears spilling at once in those hours when dreams are hard to come by.
She reads the letter after work inside a bathroom stall of the subway station. It is not really a letter. It's a set of directions the sister has already memorized over and over. A place she has imagined a thousand different ways, coarse sand and women with loose teeth, dotted over by homes from different times. She has never left the city. This place is a village at the edge of land far east of here. A place said to be ringed by water, the ocean, too, she has never been, seen, smelled. She doesn't know what he does there, something with his glacial hands maybe. It doesn't matter. The directions conclude, always, with the line: See you in the summer. Every letter, every year. He waits.
She used to draw him. There weren't many distinctions but for the unibrow. If she could figure out a way to draw smells, she would have. The smell of sweat, the smell of coffee, tart, honeyed, seeping from the theatre cafe when the door opened and closed. But she couldn't, so she drew the eyebrow thickly. These the brother found one afternoon, the brother in his stage of decline sprawled on her bed. He said, "Unibrows know where to bite a woman to make her bleed." He tore the drawings. A few bits clinging to her clothes she left the apartment on impulse that surprised her. She walked and walked into neighborhoods where she was embarrassed to be who she was. She hid inside a telephone booth and stood still for a long time because really, there was no one to dial. Her knees—then—pressed into her brother's lap, the times she climbed his legs to pick out the grays on his tilted head all she wanted or knew. She looked around and there was nothing glamorous, the business of city and heels sadly unremarkable. She was back in front of the apartment, counting the ways to make him happy again. He was on her bed still. The only way she knew he was laughing at the sight of her was by the sounds he made, his face incapable of expressions by then. Then she thought he was crying, so she went to him and held him until he stopped. He said, "I'll kill you if you leave me." Her heart rising and falling to the rhythms of his as she counted, remembered the times she had dreamt—so sweetly—of killing him.
She folds the paper and manages to lick shut the envelope. On her walk home, she drops it into a mailbox to be returned to the one waiting so he knows she has read it. This time and every other time.
Before she opens the door, she senses it's been a bad day. The way you smell the rain coming. Even the silence taut, embarrassed to break.
Inside is shattered glass. There are torn photographs. She finds him dripping wet, slouched on the bathroom floor. He is snipping away at the better leg with a nail clipper. She grabs the clipper and throws it out the bathroom window. "Why are you doing this?" she asks.
The brother pinches his face. He pulls at his hair. "It wasn't looking right," he says.
The dead leg is sprawled to the side like a gutless carcass. He is drooping, the skin under his eyes, the shrunken thing between his legs. "What am I supposed to do with this?" he asks.
She says, "There is nothing wrong with you."
She bends to pick him up and he pushes her away. "Sssh," he says. "The next-door dog is laughing at you. Do you hear that?"
Outside were blown-up photographs of faces, before and after, and the words: It Is Better To Be Better Looking Than Not. The place was in the basement of a building in an alley of a district known for its Taiwanese restaurants.
The brother was there to get taller. An inch was likely, but two was pushing it, said the doctor who asked to be called Specialist. "Whatever," said the brother. "I'm here to grow." Because, according to him, the brother was shriveling already. He took off his boots to show the specialist the foamy pads that disguised his shrinking. "See?" he said.
The operation involved a steel rod. The legs would break given the heft of the specialist's shoulders. Then they would heal, generating new tissues to be pulled and lengthened. "No lopsidedness to worry about," said the specialist. He was precise in his aim.
The sister handed cash to the nurse who counted the bills a few times.
The brother was wheeled and the sister waited. There were magazines but she chose prayer. The clink clank whirl of the operating room something of a construction site, she prayed for her brother's growing.
The legs didn't look right when she brought him home. When she pulled at the legs, they went rubbery. Couple months after, one leg got mangled on its own and she saw that this one was longer than the other one still working somewhat. Longer and twisted by the day until the brother had to drag it around like a dead python.
Everything was gone by the time the sister showed up with a written list of complaints. The doctor's office folded wontons now.
The snow turns icy then black slush before melting. Then comes spring and in some areas of the city, the cherry blossoms appear overnight. It happens every year but each year brings a sobering calm. For these short weeks, the blossoms are lighted at night from below and take on different colors and shapes. So that by night, they are something else, a beautiful thing still warped from its original.
They go to a decent place near a nuclear power plant. The street is lined with cherry blossom trees. They sit outside, it is that warm of a night. The world smells dirty.
"We are deserving," says the Chinese woman. "Not everyday, you know, but once in a while."
They share plates of salad and fried rice. They order beers and then beers.
"Tell me about the hair. It looks so heavy on your head."
"I know people talk about me. My brother told me. That's why I wear the wig."
"How can someone trust you if he can't even trust your hair?"
"Do you trust me?"
The Chinese woman smiles like she doesn't feel like smiling. The sister believes they've come to care about each other.
"Don't you want to be somebody?"
"Like an elevator attendant?"
Long ago, the brother took her to a department store. There was a duo of elevators. And inside were attendants who managed with white-gloved hands. She stared at the doors opening and closing and people getting in and out the only way a child can, consumed and dumbly. The announcements—welcome, what floor?—confirmed that a greater something existed. Like the universe being there.
"Isn't that funny?"
"I don't really know how to answer that."
"And the letters?"
Much later, someone says, "I can't feel my lips."
"Do you want one?"
"There is lipstick on this."
She points to the sky. There are no stars. Sometimes a blinking light or two, moving or climbing higher up.
"I heard near the ocean, the stars are so close you can reach out to grab them."
"Fuck the lights!"
"It's supposed to make things clear."
"It makes everything inky."
"Does any of this make you cry?"
"Sometimes I cry, but not that often."
"Does the crying make you sadder?"
"Have you heard of the dog that searched his way back home for a whole month to see the owner who gave him away in the first place? That sort of thing makes me sadder."
"I want to believe in the power of small satisfactions."
The air is heavy with smoke rings of O's.
"Can you feel them now?"
"How come you're always the one asking questions?"
"I don't know how to stop."
The sister paces the living room. If memory serves her, the brother has not left home in a year and more. She admits it was her idea. He had refused food. He had broken the mirrors. She had found a knife underneath his pillow and she feared in nights her brother coming to her and chopping off some limbs. So she offered. Suggested. The contemporary eco coffin will have to wait.
When he comes out, she catches herself from looking away. She says, "The color is good on you." He puts the whole of his weight onto a cane as tall as he and drags his dead leg to the door. He generously allows the sister to handle of him what he can't.
On the street, inside the cab, during the walk to MVP Aesthetic Clinic, he keeps his head down. She tells him what color the sky is. She says the people aren't that attractive. She assures him that nobody is staring, though it is a lie.
In the waiting room are patients with blue faces wearing surgical masks. Identical in want and pain and now sawed and chiseled to one ideal. No one is unbeautiful. A nurse shows them to a separate room of round white furniture. The sister can't figure out which are chairs, which tables.
They are taken to another room.
The doctor is handsome, of course. He takes a short look at the state of the brother and recommends that he not receive any more procedures. He spreads out brochures called The Beauty That Counts Should Be The Beauty On The Inside. Inside are photos of ugly people living satisfactory lives. She feels the brother angering. But this is not the sort of place that needs their business. She smiles guiltily and says, "This will be his first of this kind."
"My first," says the brother.
The brother takes off his pants on cue. The doctor examines his penis. In the meantime he asks whether the brother has tried safer options. The brother lists tried and failed options like pump and vacuum and pills. He claims he is not impotent and insists on surgery. A surgical procedure, says the doctor, turning from brother to sister and sister to brother, involves risks.
"Length and girth?" asks the doctor.
The brother nods.
The doctor says there will be incisions to the shaft. There will be injections of fat. There is no guarantee. The result may be a lumpy penis.
It is unseasonably hot for May the day of the surgery. The MVP Lounge, as it is called, is cool and silent. The sister can't hear the goings-on. Not the incisions and injections of operating rooms, not the movements of the city below. She tries to fix her mind on prayer but prayers are scams and she is without sympathy today. Her eyes wander from the white walls to the perennial ceiling of sky outside. She is almost certain that the blue remains blue elsewhere in the world. In the village at the edge of land east of where she sits, where the unibrow is possibly handling equipment, possibly thinking of her. In the summer, he may work with a hat on. If so, will she recognize him? He will have something to say about her hair because everyone does. It will take her time to adjust to the real one, but she will have to try. There will be much to catch up on. She will tell him of her friend, the Chinese woman, and the customer who complained of bad tuna. She will tell him of the galleries and how once, she went inside one and learned that art is a dead rabbit covered in marbles the color of cat eyes. If the mood strikes, she will tell him of the movie stars, as gorgeous as the ones whose photos her brother posted on the walls of their dinky apartment. Her brother. Her brother who named her after a beloved TV actress. What he sees in the mirror that is so hideous, I'll never know, she might say. No. Not that, actually. Because here, far from the city that contained her life, she can pick and choose her pasts. She can excise her brother from history.
Even with the heat climbing, she wears an extra layer of shirt and pants. She is discreet in case the brother notices, though he is busy these days marveling at his improved penis. She peels the extra clothes off at Family Mart and folds them into the plastic bag in her locker. She doesn't know what she'll need by the sea. So far, she has a set of silver chopsticks given to her by someone she can't now remember, peach lipstick, earphones, and tops that cling and blue jeans.
Crates of new stuff need stocking. Packages within packages within packages. She slides the older stuff to the front and fills the space with newer stuff with later expirations. Her shift is half over. Time flies when you have something to look forward to.
She makes up her mind to tell the Chinese woman her plans. How excited her friend will be, maybe throw her a high-five and consider changes to her own life. Outside thanks to the warm weather pass beautiful people living beautiful lives. Nice to see you, she thinks. And you. And you!
The Chinese woman is late five, thirty minutes. The sister gets a text from the manager telling her to work a double.
The next day, a short man shows up in place of the Chinese woman. He is well-versed already in Family Mart dealings. He says he doesn't know what happened to the employee he's replacing. He says nice to meet you, let's get along.
The neighborhood is a step down from hers. She knows this because the homes are slanted and more broken.
When she knocks on the door, a girl answers without asking who's there. She's a smaller approximation of the Chinese woman, oddly accessorized around the wrists, the morose mouth.
"I wonder if your mother is here."
"She left last week."
"I don't know."
"Are you alone? Where's your father? Do you have siblings?"
"Who are you?"
"I'm a friend of your mother. We worked together."
"You don't seem to know anything about her."
"I know," says the sister. "But we cared for each other. I answered a lot of her questions."
"Whatever," says the girl. "I'm not that sad. She wasn't a really good mom."
"She worked really hard for you. She worked doubles and lost sleep because of you."
"I don't think good moms run away."
"I don't think it was an easy decision."
The girl is distracted by noise—babies and kinky strays. Nearby are adults leaning left, then right against standing walls.
"Anyway, I figure I'll survive," she says. "I've heard of worse stories."
"Worse than this?"
"This girl in my class? Her dad literally sold her to a whorehouse."
"How old are you?"
The girl looks suspicious all of a sudden. "You're weird," she says, and closes the door.
That night, the sister cries. It just happens. Maybe because she's lost a friend, or because the friend wasn't really a friend. Maybe she cries because she was the one who was supposed to say goodbye. Whatever the case, the crying makes her sadder, and she cries well into the night.
This, she thinks, will be the last time.
She opens the door with the bucket of chicken and the bag of fish the store gave her because she ordered one whole chicken. It is a living fish, very small. The brother is in front of the new mirror she purchased for him. She takes off her red hair. The sound she hears is coming from her brother. He really is a lovely singer.
"What a strange thing to give away," she says holding up the fish.
He drags himself to her and peeps into the bag. He drags himself to the kitchen and takes out a vase. She pours in the water and fish.
"It's the kind that dies after a day," she says.
They eat the chicken on the floor like they used to. She mentions something about a drunk man who slept with shoes and socks off on the stairs of the subway station. He mentions something about hormone injections.
Yellow was her favorite color until her brother called her too yellow and bleached her face.
That first time—she found she could fall asleep counting the men she wouldn't mind being kissed by.
Then there is the hum of cars.
The hum of cars, to a pair of ears equipped for survival, sounds like the waves of a sea.
"Who taught you to lie like that?"
She stood where her friend the Chinese woman might've stood and called out her name. The daughter looking out, loopy bracelets hitting the sill of the window. Or maybe she was looking somewhere else, at someone behind her.
After, she remembers telling herself something, or it was the man with no legs who said something like, "Don't be ashamed."
Another day it was: "Aren't you smart."
There is glitter on the man's hands and across his nose are flecks of blue. She watches him turn colors of flowers because her name the same as the one belonging to the beloved actress rhymes, beautifully, with a blue flower.
I'm all you have in this world little girl so dance to keep me less blue.
Some lullaby sung to her when he tired of misery and the sister—yet a child—crumbled at his feet, the fashioned wings long tired.
In fact, every scar on his body broke her tiny heart.
The watch is a slap-on kind. Whenever she slaps it on her wrist, it leaves a remarkable red. This way, she can keep track of time.
Because it happens every year, doesn't it? So why is it that she knows what time it is only as she's passing it?
The fish was called Fish because it died before being named. It died on the third day, two days longer than it should've lived, which made it okay not to cry.