Short Story by Latifa Sekarini (The Jakarta Post, July 10, 2017)
Eight is an age too young for anyone to know the different shades of “normal.”
The day you came home from school to find all your Crayolas snapped in half, your piggy-bank smashed too early, colored dust and peach ceramics littering your desk like the aftermath of a childhood memory that didn’t happen but exploded anyway, was the day your universe changed its course and your sun set in the east on gloomy mornings.
On my eighth Christmas, which was two weeks after my eighth birthday, I’d received a postcard and a songbird necklace. I managed to fish the postcard out of the bin, but Jo had taken away the necklace and now it had become one with the bushes and the shrubs in our backyard.
On my ninth Christmas there was no postcard, just a small statue of a fairy with wings the same color as sunset.
On my 10th and 11th Christmases, Gia had sent me ridiculously long letters and it was a surprise that Jo had left the envelopes untouched, although I was sure she did not fail to recognize the spidery writing scrawled on the envelopes. Amara Brinkley-Cook, it said, in Gia’s signature handwriting. 76 Springfield Mount.
On my 12th birthday, I received a miniature replica of the Tower of Belem, which was located in Lisbon, the capital city of Portugal.
After rooting around in one of the boxes in our shed that contained Gia’s things, I found a stack of photos from when she and Jo went on vacation to Portugal.
I am almost 13 and since Christmas is drawing nearer and nearer, sitting on the top of the stairs while pretending to do my homework when I am actually waiting for the mail has become a tedious routine that Jo despises. She has told me numerous times that there is no use waiting for someone who has started another life without us and I have paid no attention to what she says.
“Aren’t you supposed to be at school today?” Jo wants to know, peering over my shoulder as I begin to write my essay, the one about family that is supposed to be due today.
Jo’s question is more like a demand than a question and I shrug.
“They canceled school because of the snow.”
She does not look convinced at all, but holds up her hands in surrender and before I know it, she has disappeared up the staircase.
It is easy when you are Madeleine Gellberg-Stowell, whose father owns multiple mansions all over the country and spends most of his time outside of the house going to parties and auctions.
It is easy when you are Marjaan Roufi because you’ve got loving parents whose affection toward you will not lessen, no matter how many brothers and sisters you have. It is not easy when you are Amara Brinkley-Cook, a scrawny 13-year-old kid with a single mum who works the cash register at Tesco’s.
Out of the three members of my family, Gia has the loudest laugh, I begin to write, but a tinge of guilt creeps in and I rip out the page loudly because it feels disloyal to Jo.
No, not because it feels disloyal to Jo, but because those memories I have of her are the only proof I have of the times when we used to have pancakes on Sunday mornings, of the times when we spent our summer days sunbathing and swimming, of the times when we were happy.
Our life wasn’t perfect but we were happy and happy was enough.
Gary Graves knows all about Gia.
He’s been my social worker since I was 8 and now that I’m 13, I can assure you that some things will never change. A framed photo of his daughter, who is probably 8 or 9, still sits by the computer, three cans of Heinz baked beans are still on his window ledge and he still keeps several pairs of footwear underneath his desk.
“Why do you think Gia is coming back, Amara?”
“I don’t think she is coming back.”
“But you’d like her to come back.”
Gary sighs and writes something down in his notepad, while I pick the grit out of my nails and brace myself for another question.
“So, what did you do this week, Amara?”
I shrug. “I went to the movies.”
Gary’s eyebrows practically hit his hairline. “With a boy?”
When I shake my head, he makes a deflated noise, like a balloon losing air, and I take that as some sort of permission to slump and fidget in my seat for the rest of the meeting. It is a relief when the alarm beeps, bringing an end to our weekly meetings. As I gather my things he gives me a small, sad wave and I wonder if he is spending Christmas with his daughter this year.
“Merry Christmas, Amara.”
“Merry Christmas, Gary.”
I walk past the people waiting on the plastic chairs who probably have things to do that are so much better than waiting around at a social worker’s office.
I hop on the tube and catch sight of those expectant faces, those people waiting in the snow, people who are looking forward to spending Christmas with their families. Some of them are carrying presents for their children. Some of them are carrying food from McDonald’s or Wasabi’s and are holding hands. Some of them are empty handed and look incredibly lonely.
Perhaps loneliness is inevitable. Perhaps it is something that is trapped inside you and is trying to find a way out. Perhaps loneliness is something that you caught, like the flu, or maybe it is a separate entity of its own that manages to latch itself onto you.
Nearly all my memories of Gia are blurred around the edges, like an image you cannot conjure up in your mind because you do not have all the pixels you need to compose it.
Sometimes I’d be able to hear her laugh, or the sound of her footsteps. Sometimes I’d be able to remember what it was like when she held my hand, because her fingers were long and dainty, and she had grown out her nails, unlike Jo, who has always kept hers short and neat. Sometimes I’d hear Jo call for me in the morning and for a moment my mind would play tricks on me because I’d think it was Gia, calling my name.
But we were happy and happy was enough.
I find Jo crying, so I clamber onto the bed and wriggle underneath the covers. I cup her face in my hands and wipe away her tears, the way I used to do when I was younger. She wraps her arms around me and it feels like the world stops spinning for a moment because the two of us are still trying to hold onto something we cannot hold onto.
Jo curses under her breath and tightens her hug. “I didn’t think it would hurt this much.”
To distract ourselves, we decide to put on a DVD and a strong memory resurfaces. A plate of gingerbread cookies that we’d been fighting over and Gia, in her satin nightgown, doing lazy pirouettes around the bed.
“Merry Christmas, Amara.”
“Merry Christmas, Jo.”
Jo pats my hair and closes her eyes. I do the same, willing myself to fall asleep.
“Ho ho ho!”
I nearly fall out of bed when I hear the faint sound of knocking. I have just enough time to shake Jo awake and rush downstairs.
Latifa Sekarini has previously published her short stories in The Jakarta Post. She is 15 years old.