Issue 13

Blue Whale

 · Fiction

I used to wait up for him, listening for the latch on the front door to catch, and for Mama to turn over and sigh in the next room. Maybe she waited up, too, with whatever sixth sense she devoted to burglars, or neighbors snapping tomatoes off one of our spindly plants.

I would shove off the blanket and listen from the sofa as my brother rattled the milk out of the fridge. When the mad pulse of his throat had stopped, I crept into the kitchen. There he would be, scrolling through texts and tapping replies in a sticky march. He never muted the sounds: even the sleeping and the dead respected a good mobile phone.

I’d slide in across from him and wait till his thumbs were done twitching like a cockroach you’d flicked kerosene on. Eventually, he’d speak to me, leaving behind the underworld of his jean-jacketed friends and slinking, tube-topped girls. Of course, my brother was the reason for the slinking: out of their houses, into his sight, and back out again. And the reason a couple of girls in his class had stopped showing up. Or still came, but hunkered in the back with vials of glue up their noses.

This was their last year, their mouths already set for grim adulthood. I was barely visible to them, a waste of time: a baby in his second year of primary school.

He would show me his new pictures: a nipple sharp from cold, a neon thong, a sucked-on neck, grainy and raw as a chop. The girls’ heads were always turned away. Everything else about them was identical. You couldn’t identify them by their underwear, which all came from the same Mongol vendor, or the fatless horseshoes of their hips. I imagined my brother running wild in some warehouse, tearing open pallets of necks and breasts.

“Here’s O—,” he’d say, tapping a fall of straightened hair, spread across someone’s lap as if she’d been sick. “And M—.”

And I stared, trying to recognize the pale, catatonic girls who walked through me in the daylight hours, at the bus stop or in the school yard.

“Do they want to?” I asked, testing the words. “Or do you make them?”

He took another pull from the milk bottle, his throat making a noise like a drain. “Both,” he said.

* * *

On snow days, he shuffled through his phone for a while before bundling up to clear the walk. He bore the shovelfuls like a patient ox, muscles invisible under layers of knit and quilting. I followed him with the broom — a skinny bird picking the ox’s teeth. The landlord gave Mama a small discount for our work.

The night of the first snowfall, he nodded at me before ducking out in his coat. I could smell it as he brushed by, still musty from sweat and melted snow. “I’m meeting someone.”

“But—” I strangled the protest in my throat. And even though Mama would be home in a quarter of an hour, I locked the door.

* * *

Mama was already snoring when the latch snapped open again. It was sleeting, and it took my brother a minute to peel his nylon jacket off his sweater.

I was wide awake, upright on the sofa, but I knew not to ask him anything. He would tell me what he wanted me to know.

Sure enough, after he had thrown down his soaked woolens, he came over and opened his hands. I stared at his turned-up palms dumbly. There was no mobile, nothing to see.

I looked up, shy, eyes afraid to land on his face.

“Dumbass.” Whatever had happened was written in invisible ink.

He held two fingers under my nose, and I inhaled seawater, kefir — a tangy culture from some remote, airless planet. I had known about interlocking parts called male and female. But girls weren’t just a vacant space: they made something. Like spiders. Or silkworms. It made me like them more.

* * *

Most nights, he stayed in, contented by the swoosh of sent messages and the quick arpeggio of new ones arriving. Mama sat between us in the evenings, and we shared bread and cheese. And soup, when she made it. We scooped from the pot all week, till the vegetables got tangy. After we ate, we huddled under the afghan and watched the news.

“More propaganda,” she’d say, about a murder in this province, an abduction in another, vote or pension fraud in the capital.

Later, after she had shut herself away in her cupboard of a room, my brother would hang his legs over the sofa sidesaddle and hunch over his phone.

* * *

He stopped showing me pictures. He barely looked up now, in the evenings.

“Love.” Mama rolled her eyes, but she was smiling. When she talked about our father, she said, I was stupid or I should have known better. Only once had she admitted, we were in love. The lined edges of her eyes had softened on the word love.

None of the adults I knew were in love. The women were always asking the men for money or blocking the door to keep them away from the bar. The men yelled at the women. Or stayed out all night and pounded on their own locked doors in the morning.

I wanted to know which girl my brother had chosen. Our grandfather — Mama’s father — had taught us how to shoot into the air and find your mark. Maybe girls were like ducks, and he’d flushed out the one he loved from all the interchangeable pictures.

If I sit here long enough, I told myself, maybe he’ll say something. And he did, at last. I must have fallen asleep, because his voice cut through the misty underworld of some dream.

I sat up. “What?”

He sighed, preparing to be patient. “You know A—? With the—” He drew a swizzle from his left temple to his shoulder.

I nodded, glad to know something. So it was A—, who wore a pink streak clipped to her scalp. It looked like the tails of the plastic ponies the neighbor girl always left in the vestibule.

He tilted his phone so I could see the blue banner announcing A—’s name and her status. It was some somber quote — from a song, maybe.

“She’s up right now. Watching —.” And he named a film so gory I’d had to look at the poster with one eye covered.

“Isn’t it late?”

He expelled a quick puff. “Do you see the time, or what?”

I squinted, trying to force the tiny, even sticks at the top of the screen into numbers. Ever since I’d started reading, text seemed like it was at the wrong end of a telescope. 4:41 a.m.

“I dared her to stay up.” He laughed and clicked again, reloading. He flashed me a new picture: A—, grainy and wide-eyed in the red glow of the TV screen. Her pink streak looked like a sliver of the film slicing through her face.

He refreshed, and there was a new photo. And another.

I had never thought about what girls did after they disappeared into the high-rises and squat blocks by school. Of course they went on living. They might even fix snacks and watch reruns, like us. Knowing A— was up, wrapped in her afghan, made the room feel less drafty. Like we were all throwing logs onto the same fire.

* * *

He sent her videos, too. “Listen to this,” he’d say aloud, as he typed the words. And she did, always pulling a line from the song to post as her current mood. He played one of them, and the haunting swell went on and on through the tinny speaker of his phone.

I pulled the blanket over my face and thought of my grandfather, dead more than a year already. Of Mama’s broken posture when she came home, wilting into the sofa like a lady sinking into a hot bath.

Every night he set some new task for A—: wear dirty clothes to school, wake up at three a.m., break off with your best friend. All your friends.

“Flirting.” Mama smiled, ruffling his hair. She didn’t make him join us at the table the way she usually did.

One night, in the middle of some jangly game, he laughed aloud. The game sounds stopped, leaving the room close and airless as a covered bowl.

“Go…lie…in…the…snow,” he pronounced, tapping hard with his thumbs. The message swooshed away. He tapped some more and added, “Naked.” Swoosh.

My heart lurched. The pictures were one thing. I knew that boys his age — that men — liked looking at girls who didn’t have much on. They wanted to do things with them, things that left the girls bitten and crumpled. Like the girls in my brother’s phone, if they still had a home there. But it was nearly midnight. No one would be around to give A— a jacket or take her inside. And the meteorologist had just predicted a cold spell. An even colder spell, he’d joked.

“Isn’t it — cold?”

He snorted and turned back to the screen. “No, idiot. It’s warm.”

“Ha.” I had to acknowledge the joke, even if it was on me.

“It’s just a game. Like this.” He held up the screen, and a black-caped avatar scuttled into a rotating castle.

“Cool.” I shrugged, the way I’d learned from him. But I worried, hovering until I saw him load her page again, and reload. Relieved, I fell asleep.

* * *

The nights were stretching out, miserable and howling, like the picture of the man on a rack in my encyclopedia. I frowned at the picture but didn’t understand: stretching didn’t seem so bad. Under the afghan, I tried it, anchoring my hands to the cushion on one end of the sofa and extending my feet all the way to the other. My spine gave two agreeable cracks.

It was still early. There were seven more hours to be gotten through until morning.

I won’t bother him, I thought, reasoning with myself the way I did before I walked through a dark room. I’ll just take Volume 6 and look at the pictures. Pictures were enough at night. My eyes got tired after looking all day, scanning the dirty horizon on one side of the window and the dirty walls on the other.

I stood, refusing to see my texting brother, and fixed my eyes on the bookshelf.

He glanced up as I passed, grinning. “Check this out.” His voice was lighthearted, like a boy inviting his friend to play.

Volume 6 disappeared from my sight. I was entirely my brother’s creature.

He showed me his screen: another picture posted by A—. It was her forearm, the shape of a whale carved into it. You could tell it was fresh: there were no scabs on it yet. The style was square and geometric, as if she’d copied it from graph paper. I pictured A— frowning over a needle, pink streak falling over her face as she connected the dots. Like the drawings of constellations in the encyclopedia. You’d need a good imagination to build all those animals and gods around a few scrawny stars.

He was watching me, a rare smile still lighting his features.

I needed to say something. Something that showed that I knew I was lucky to be part of this secret night world, full of music and dares and no adults to supervise. Kids were supposed to like freedom. Especially boys.

“She — likes whales?” My voice was piping and high, a panicky flute.

He laughed. There was a mean sound to it, now. “You know whales kill themselves?”

Why would they do that? I thought. They were huge engines, fast and slick and powerful. And free. They could swim anywhere; they just had to come up for air.

He sanded a narrow scab off his knuckle and shrugged. “Girls like sad animals.”

It didn’t make sense, but I nodded.

“Like Eddy,” I offered. I’d felt sorry for Eddy, my grandfather’s old plow horse, who moved like it hurt: all hard knots. I remembered patting him as I ambled around the yard on his back. Sorry, sorry, I had whispered, trying to make it better. I didn’t know what had happened to Eddy after Mama went and sold everything.

“Eddy was fine.” He had been younger when my brother rode him; maybe he was faster then.

He yawned, attention receding. I had to catch him.

“Is she — okay?” I blurted. I tried to sound neutral, but my voice was still nervous and high-pitched. You could hear that I wasn’t entirely for this.

He took back his phone and started swiping away. “It’s like a tattoo. Lots of girls get them.”

But those grainy blue scratches seemed terrible, too: always a man’s name, sometimes in a heart. One girl had beaten another unconscious in a park for having the same name on her arm. I remembered the newscast: the victim had ended up in the hospital, brain damaged, eyes swollen shut. When they interviewed the man, he’d laughed and said, they’re both crazy.

* * *

Something had changed. My brother only came in after Mama had already shut herself away, and he didn’t sit on the sofa with me. He sat against the wall, in the draft.

We were on a school holiday, so my hour in front of dinner and the TV with Mama was my only time with another person. Not that I was sociable at school: I just churned out compositions, and the teacher handed them back with comments like “spelling” or “penmanship.” I missed the hot meal we got at lunch.

After days of staring at the same grey news, repeated by the same grey newscasters, and the crisp grey page of my encyclopedia, my brother was as loud and colorful as a pinball machine. I watched him through the holes in the afghan. Even from here, I could see the soft look on his face as he hunched over his phone. Almost rosy, like a painting of an angel.

“You can do it. Come on.” His voice was coaxing. Gentle. He had talked to me like that, once: Come on, I’ll take you. I had been crying, not wanting to go on the swing.

Here was my chance to get him back. I disengaged my fingers from the holes in the afghan and crept toward him.

“Hey.” He was still laughing, still a boy. “Look.”

I grinned, half chuckling already. I was a cool brother; he would see.

He turned his phone to me, and I squinted, the way Mama didn’t like me to. An image of A— came into focus, eyes downcast, her streak almost white in the light from the flash. My eyes darted all over the image for the source of my brother’s laughter.

He watched me, eyes, shining, waiting for me to get it.

“She looks pretty.” It wasn’t the right answer, I knew. But she did look pretty, all shadows and angles against the blank concrete background.

“Look.” He thrust another image in front of my face, a video: a pair of boots marching up to the edge of a building, toes hanging over. Whoever was behind the camera panned over the radio tower, the church, the empty playground lit by a single glowing floodlight.

“She’s on the roof?” I sucked in my breath. It was windy out. Icy, probably.

He ducked his head, playing modest, so I knew she was up there because of him. For him.

“I dared her.”

I grabbed the cuff of his sweatshirt, soft and chewed at the edges. “She could fall. The wind—”

“Relax.” With his free hand, he ruffled my hair, making it crackle.

My throat constricted. He didn’t understand. “I’ll tell Mama,” I said.

He jerked away, looking at me as if he needed to spit. “Little bitch.”

I had never heard that word said to a boy. It was what you called a woman who didn’t laugh when you teased her, who shoved past the drunks on the bus. It was worse than being a girl, because girls were good for something. It meant I would never reach the top shelf or lift anything heavy or save a life. I would never make ladies nervous when I walked into a shop with my hood up.

I was an outcast. But I was also free.

“Mama,” I hollered, leaning into the yell the way my brother leaned into a shovelful of snow. I ran into our tiny hallway and rattled her doorknob. It spun in my hands, loose and useless. “Mama!”

Stunned, merciful, she opened the door. Her room was so small, the size of a vending machine, that she could open it by sitting up in bed.

“What, what? Is there a fire?” Her eyes were hollow, already burnt out.

“A—’s going to fall,” I cried, throat tearing. “She’s on top of some building.” I climbed up onto her bed. She raked through my hair, petting me.

There was my brother behind me, smirking. “He’s confused. It was on the news.”

“No, Mama, he—”

“What is it?” Mama’s voice struck my brother between the eyes.

He flinched, as if he felt the dart. “Some girl in town. She jumped.”

He held up his phone. I squinted at the rooftop, empty now, the concrete stained and pitiless. Smoke wafted from a pale chimney. Maybe it was A—’s ghost, already wandering.

Who had taken the picture? I wondered. A friend? The one she had broken off with?

Mama tsked and shook her head, still stroking me.

I thought about falling past the columns of windows with their shades pulled down. I tasted the ends of my dinner, too far down in my stomach.

“I’m going out.” My brother gave the door a gentle swat before disappearing from view.

“Mama,” I mouthed, tugging her sleeve.

“Shh,” she warned, barely any breath in it. She held up her index finger, and neither of us moved as we waited out the small-animal shriek of pulled zippers in the next room. Dawn trickled in through the curtains, half warm already, spilling its violet sick.

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