My older brother’s bedroom door was locked. It usually was, but I always liked to rattle the knob to check before knocking. Each knock varied in strength and landed on a different part of the door. I thought of it as a sisterly tap code, and it only ever conveyed one message: “Come out, Douglas. I’m lonely.”
That night, Douglas didn’t respond to my knocks by screaming at me to go away. He didn’t invite me inside either. From his room, I heard nothing.
A few weeks earlier, he had covered the top half of his door with an illustration of a demon stuffing a young girl into its slavering mouth. The girl’s face wasn’t visible, merely traces of her white-blonde hair and a purple sneaker poking out of the demon’s fist.
Uncoincidentally, I had white-blonde hair and wore purple sneakers.
The child-gobbling demon had kept me away, until my loneliness overcame my fear. I missed Douglas, the old Douglas who had been nice enough to play board games with me and sometimes watch a movie we would both like. He had been replaced with a rageful and melancholy version of himself. I knew that knocking on his door would do nothing but anger him, unless I could tell him something that would tempt him into a conversation.
“Doug!” I called. “Dougie,” I added, in the hopes of annoying him into a response with a hated nickname.
Two hours earlier, at dinner, we had sat three feet apart at the kitchen island eating microwaved pizza. Our parents had fluttered between the living room, the kitchen, and the first-floor master bedroom, adding layers of fancy evening clothes to themselves and pausing frequently to peer at their phones.
Our dad had spoken to us once, to chide us about our poor performance at school. Douglas was in ninth grade, and his test scores and homework in all subjects had recently become abysmal. As for myself, I made an effort with my work, but other problems weighed on me. My fourth-grade teacher had complained to my parents about my absent-mindedness, a tendency to get tangled up in imaginative threads. “Imagination is wonderful,” Mrs. Carron had remarked at the parent-teacher conference, “but even good qualities need moderation.”
Or, as my dad had put it, “You need to grow up, Emily. Your behavior is getting ridiculous.”
After dinner, the babysitter had turned up. She was a sullen college student who lived two doors down. Douglas had insisted that there was no need for a babysitter, because he was 14, but my parents hadn’t known how late they would return. They hadn’t wanted to give my brother the responsibility of looking after me for so many hours.
Whenever the babysitter was over, she left us alone. As long as the house wasn’t burning down around her or getting burglarized, she would stay squashed up in an armchair in the living room. She would ignore my requests for games and tell me to feed myself if I wanted bedtime snacks. Although my parents always offered her the use of a spare bedroom, she would fall asleep in the armchair in a cloud of soft snores. Even though she was in the house that night, I was essentially alone with my older brother.
I pressed an ear to his door, at the spot where the demon’s clawed foot was embedded in a gray and brown scree. I imagined I could hear the scratches of colored pencils through the door and the puffs of my brother’s breath.
“Douglas!” I nearly whined. “I need to show you something!”
The crack of the lock and the door flying open arrested my speech. My brother didn’t look surly or furious. His cheeks weren’t blotchy with frustration. Instead, he looked as if he had fitted a tight, pale mask to himself, from which his eyes, dark and frantic, sought escape.Read more