Authors: Jonathan Bernstein
To the Bernsteins of Glasgow
hen I fell asleep last night I was still twelve. A child. A barely formed person. A blank slate. Now I'm awake and I'm thirteen. I've changed. I can't put my finger on exactly how. I just know I feel different.
Maybe it's the confidence that comes with age. Maybe there's something special about me that's always been there but is only now ready to emerge like a butterfly crawling out of its cocoon.
I wonder if my family will notice. I wonder if they're
as excited about this big birthday as I am.
Wait, that's my brother's voice! My older-in-years-but-not-maturity brother, Ryan. Is he outside the house and waking me up to sing “Happy Birthday” to me?
I grope for my glasses, roll out of bed, and yank open the curtains to see my brother, my unshaven, disheveled brother, perched on the top rung of our rarely used ladder. He's grinning at me like waking up to find him inches from my window ledge is an everyday occurrence. He gestures to me to open the window. I peer at the clock. Six fifty-five a.m. I ought to jump back into bed, pull the covers and possibly a pillow over my head, turn on the radio, and leave him out there. But it's six fifty-five a.m. and he's standing on a ladder outside my bedroom window. I must know why!
I open the window and the gangly idiot crawls in. He goes to pat my head and I recoil in horror. He smells like old wood, rust, and paint. It's the smell of our dank little garden shed, where we keep the ladder. I want to be cool here. I fold my arms, shake my head slightly, and let the hint of a smile play across my lips. I want him to understand he's the screw-up and I'm the awesome sibling. The one who's wise beyond her years.
“What are you doing? You're grounded,” I squeak,
sounding every bit the freaked-out little sister. He just gives me his signature stupid grin and a half-asleep look. “You can't cage the kid,” he yawns, dragging a hand through his unruly black hair. “Try to cage the kid, the kid'll break out of the cage.” Then he tracks dirt across my nice clean room and tumbles onto my bed!
“Ryan, get up!” But he doesn't get up. He rolls into a ball with his dirty sneakers on my actual comforter.
“The kid needs his sleep,” he mutters.
“Of course the kid . . . of course
sleepy,” I reply, trying to keep my voice low and unsqueaky. “You were out all night. What did you do? Where did you go? Who were you with?”
“I'll tell you when you're older.”
older.” I wait for this to sink in. I wait for the look of realization. I wait for Ryan to be the first to congratulate me on my special day.
older,” I repeat.
Nothing. He just lies there infesting my bedsheets with fungus and mold.
“Like how you used to be fifteen and then you turned sixteen?”
More nothing. Just the sound of his congested breathing. Is he messing with me?
“Are those Christmas lights?” he suddenly says.
I follow his baffled gaze to the strings of colorful bulbs framing my door and windows.
“What's up with that? Christmas is seven months away.”
Now it's my turn to look baffled. “Have we been formally introduced? You know I like them on all year round. It's my thing. One of my things.”
But even as I'm saying this, I'm thinking,
Ryan never comes in here. He doesn't know what my things are. He barely knows me.
Which is why he chose my room to sneak back into the house. Anywhere else he'd leave a dirty trail. His own bedroom window has long been superglued shut in a futile effort to keep him from doing whatever it is he keeps doing. But no one would ever think of looking for him in here. Ryan shakes his head and favors me with a condescending smirk. “That's a little bit disturbed.”
“You stole a car. You've got the disturbed category all sewn up.”
a car that was stolen by someone else,” he says, all innocent. “I was a victim.”
“You drove to Vegas.”
“I was a victim in Vegas.”
“Mom and Dad have talked about sending you to military school. Dad bookmarked the home page.”
“Awesome. Teach the kid hand-to-hand combat. Give him access to loaded weapons. Dream come true.”
Then we both hear it. Loud. Harsh. Painful and sustained. Dad's first nose blow of the morning, echoing around the house from three rooms away. We lock eyes. This could go several ways. The nose blow could lead to a bout of hacking coughs, which could lead to a visit to the bathroom. A visit to the bathroom inevitably leads to a shout of, “If I'm up, everybody's up!” Which means a thump, or group of thumps, on the door.
Ryan puts a finger to his lips. He slides off the comforter and attempts to squeeze under the bed.
We wait in silence, anticipating the follow-up cough. An eternity passes. But there is no further phlegm to be expelled.
“Ryan,” I whisper. “The mole is back in his hole. Repeat, the mole is back in his hole.”
In reply, three sharp high musical notes sound from under my bed.
For a second I think,
He's playing along. He's whistling like it's our secret code.
Then there's a bunch of tuneless peeping and I realize the worst thing that could possibly happen has happened.
Ryan has found my flute.
Sure enough, Ryan rolls out from under the bed with a delighted look on his face and my silver-plated
closed-hole C flute in his hands.
“Put that back,” I demand.
“What's this?” He laughs.
I could remind him. I could say, “Remember I was in the school band last year? Remember I played at the Christmas concert?” I could go on, “Oh no, you don't remember. 'Cause you weren't there. That was the night you got caught trying to abduct a red fox from the zoo. Which meant that Mom and Dad weren't there, either.” Instead I say, “It's not yours. Put it away.” I can feel my face reddening. He does not do as I ask. Instead he wheezes into the flute some more. I make a grab for it. He holds it up over my head. “You want it back? Here it is,” he says. I'm not going to jump up like a dog trying to grab a Frisbee. I'm not going to do it.
“I thought you wanted it back. Look, here it is,” he says. He lowers the flute. I try to take it. Once again, he holds it out of my reach. I jump.
“I hate you so much,” I seethe.
My scarlet face and furious words only seem to make him happier. And then we hear music. Not terrible flute music. Actual real melodic music. It's coming from a few rooms away. It's that Katy Perry song where she asks if you ever feel like a plastic bag.
Ryan tosses the flute onto my bed. “The little sister
machine is up,” he says. “Which gives the kid thirty seconds to beat her to the bathroom. Thus creating the impression he's in a hurry to get to school. 'Cause the kid's a reformed character.”
Ryan holds out a hand to be high-fived. When he sees I have no intention of congratulating him for his web of lies and deceit, he
! And with that, he's out the door and gone.
A matter of seconds later, I hear his feet pounding on the carpet. I hear a high-pitched voice wail,
I hear Ryan's voice shout, “Kid's gotta jam.” And I hear the bathroom door slam shut.
annoying,” sighs my younger sister, Natalie, as she walks into my room. Her eyebrows shoot up when she sees the flute lying on top of my bed. “You've got a flute,” she says, gazing at me with big blue eyes. “Why didn't you tell me? We can play duets. Woodwind sounds beautiful with acoustic guitar.” I say nothing. I don't have to. Natalie picks up on my reluctance (although she doesn't pick up on my fear of being upstaged). “I understand,” she says, nodding. “Music's so personal. But I can't wait to hear you play. I just know it'll be beautiful.”
You know when you see a parent who's totally lost control of a kid? Like in the street or in a supermarket and the kid's all red-faced and screaming and the parent's
shushing the kid and apologizing to everyone who passes and the kid's only getting louder and more obnoxious? You know how there's always
kid, across the road or in the next aisle, who's perfect? Quiet and calm and well behaved. An absolute angel. And the flustered parent sees the perfect kid and then looks back at their own howling monster and thinks,
I want that one. I want to change my bad kid for that good one.
Natalie's the good one. Look at her now, heading toward me with a smile on her cute little face, holding a pink envelope in her outstretched hand.
“I was going to slide this under your door,” she says. “But that didn't feel right.”
This is how my special day was supposed to start. I thank my lovely little sister, open the envelope, remove and unfold the contents, and read about the dance charity marathon taking place in two weeks. I guess I was dwelling on the lack of birthday card or gift and missed the part where she stopped talking because Natalie's staring at me with a quizzical look on her face. “So, what do you want to do?” she says. “How do you want to help?” Without waiting for my response, she carries on. “You could sell T-shirts or man the refreshments table. But it'll be fun. And I bet you'll make some friends.” I don't even flinch as the dagger of sympathy slips between my
shoulder blades. “Thanks,” says Natalie. “You're the best.” And with that, the sweetest, most caring and compassionate eleven-year-old girl in the entire state of California leaves me alone.
Okay. So, no birthday acknowledgment from older brother or younger sister. Two more family members to go.
“The locking tab” are the first words I hear my mother speak as I make my appearance in the kitchen. She rolls her eyes at me and gestures disgustedly at the phone. “I'm talking to someone in Bangalore,” she groans. I linger by her side for a moment in the hope my presence will motivate her to hang up and devote all her attention to me and my once-a-year celebration. Speaking slowly and patiently, my mother tells the customer service representative on the other end of the phone, “The locking tab didn't lock. Which meant the processor didn't work. I sent you back the locking tab. You sent me the replacement. But it didn't come with the feed tube. Without the feed tube, the new locking tab is as useless as the old locking tab.” She makes a claw of her hand and mimes a throttling gesture.
I give up lingering and pour myself a bowl of Frosted Flakes. And because I'm a year older, because my tastes are changing and maturing, I decide to slice up some strawberries and add them to my cereal. “One, two,
three, four,” I say as I cut up the first strawberry. “Five, six, seven, eight.” I drop the next bunch of sliced-up fruit into the bowl. “Nan, check this out,” yells my dad from the living room. “Nine, ten, eleven,” I continue, raising my voice as I slice and plop.
“Come and look at this thing,” Dad says, entering the kitchen.
Mom waves him off. “I've already given you the serial number,” she says into the phone.
“Twelve, thirteen,” I say, as loud as I can without actually breaking into a shout. “
slices.” Mom makes a shushing gesture. “Is thirteen enough?” I ask. “Is that a good number for me?” Dad reaches into my bowl and grabs a handful of sliced-up strawberries. I stare at him in horror.
“Gross and rude!”
“I know,” nods Dad as he crunches dry cereal and swallows my carefully calculated strawberry slices. “Learn by example. Never behave like that. It's unacceptable.” He gives me a big stupid grin that is
like the big stupid grin Ryan uses to get away with everything.
“So,” I say, putting my hands on my hips. “Do you have anything else you want to say to me? Anything that might make today even more special than it already is?”
He thinks about it for a second.
You actually have to think about it? You're either an award-winning actor or an unfit father!
Mom drops her phone on the kitchen island and exhales in frustration.
Dad stops thinking about my very important question and grabs her hand.
“Come and see this,” he says. “It's an infomercial for that thing Harmon in Accounts was talking about. The thing for his back. The inversion table.”
“Did you just hear me on the phone? That's going to be you. Don't order anything with parts.”
“Harmon said it saved his back. You know the state my back's in. It needs to be saved.”
Mom allows herself to be dragged from the kitchen. I am once again alone. Well, not totally alone. The kitchen cabinet door nearest to me swings open. “Kitchen ghost,” I mutter to myself. That's what we call the errant door that randomly flies open of its own accord. There's no name for the burned-out light inside the fridge that's never been fixed. Or the faucet that keeps dripping no matter how tight it's squeezed. Or the rattling sound from the stove. They're just facts of life. I think I might miss them if Mom or Dad ever got around to fixing them. I almost feel like they're part of the family.
I look around the kitchen. Pictures of the Wilder clan from Reindeer Crescent, Sacramento, are taped to the fridge door and nailed to the walls. The parents seem like a fun, pleasant-looking couple. The older brother is making the pretty younger sister laugh in almost all the pictures. And then there's the girl in the middle. The one they adopted when they found out the mom wasn't going to be able to have any more kids. They obviously liked her. They wouldn't have put themselves through the whole adoption process otherwise. Or maybe they just didn't want to be stuck alone with Ryan. But then, much to the astonishment of modern medicine, Natalie, the completely unexpected miracle baby, fell out of the sky and into their lives. Which doesn't mean they cared any less for the girl they'd adopted. It just means there was more of a demand for their attention.