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Authors: Jacqueline Sheehan

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BOOK: The Center of the World
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“What are you watching, Dad?” She was a little afraid of the new dad, as if he was half dead, quasi-zombie.
“I'm waiting for the local news,” he said, without saying hello. The Phil Donahue Show was on.
“What's for dinner?” she asked, just in case they were going to have dinner, just in case they could go back to how their lives had been before.
She was afraid that her father was not enough, that whatever constitutes a family unit was beyond his ability now.
In the spring of her sophomore year, just days after turning sixteen, Kate felt old, gutted by her mother's death, stripped of who she had been before.
In May her father forgot her birthday. Trent was not home, but Kate found a bottle of vodka in his house. She mixed it with orange juice and drank it in two large glasses while the rottweiler sat at her feet. After dark she walked to the high school. A cop had found her walking, stumbling really, in the parking lot. She had fallen to one knee and was trying her best to act as if she had dropped something. She was not able to get up without his assistance.
“I can drive you to the police station over in Amherst, or I can drive you home,” he said.
She chose home, because in either event the cop would talk to her dad. Kate held on to the pitching sea of her stomach as she rode in the backseat of the cruiser. She didn't know where her backpack was. Her mother had been dead for almost a year and she didn't know if she could go on.
At the simple Cape Cod home on Meadow Road the cop got out of his car and walked to the front door. He knocked and stood back. It was hard for Kate to focus that far away. Her father, backlit from the living room lamp, appeared at the door. He put one hand on the doorframe, head tilted down, as he listened to the details of her debacle. The two men walked side by side to the police car. The cop opened the back door to the cruiser.
“Get out of the car, Kate,” said her father. Even drunk, she felt his sadness and tried to pull away as soon as her feet touched the driveway. He put a firm arm around her, squeezing hard on her shoulder.
The porch light was not kind to faces, and it created deep gouges of shadows and dark hollows around the eyes. Kate and her father watched the cruiser pull away. When she turned back to her father, expecting the husk of the man who now lived in their house, she was startled to see him fitting back together like puzzle pieces magnetically forming a whole picture. He opened the door and moths that battered the porch light surged inside.
“Let's go in,” he said. Even his voice was finding its way home again.
Kate stepped inside. She did not deserve the house, the father (or what was left of him); she had become a criminal. The entire center of her body heaved. “Daddy, I'm going to throw up.”
They stumbled together to the half bath on the first floor. This was something that her mother would have helped her with: a sickness of any kind, anything to do with the bathroom. She couldn't remember being in the bathroom with her father in years. Kate knelt in front of the toilet, raised the seat, and puked hard.
“I'm sorry, Kate,” he said. In between heaves, his warm beer scent surrounded her. They were both drunk; this is what they had become together.
He gave her a wet washcloth for her face, then a drink of water to swish out her mouth.
“Have you ever been so drunk that you threw up?” she asked him. She closed the seat and sat on the toilet. She was a little less drunk; the walls weren't swirling as much. The bathroom was small; only a toilet and a sink. A border of roses ran along the wall. They had not been this close since the funeral.
“In the army,” he said. “We weren't exactly social drinkers in Nam. We drank to get annihilated. The body can only take so much alcohol. I'm familiar with bowing before the porcelain god.”
He leaned against the wall, taking up most of the space in the room.
“You need to go to bed now. We'll talk tomorrow.”
She left her bedroom door open for the first time in months. The soft light from downstairs filtered into her bedroom, the way it had when she was nine or ten and she went to sleep listening to her parents' voices murmuring below her.
Daylight streamed into her room through windows that had gone unwashed since before her mother got sick. Kate's eyes were swollen, her head was encased in a metal helmet too small for her skull, and her breath could have melted steel girders. She sat up. Through the toxic haze of last night's alcohol, she smelled bacon, coffee, and a third thing that she couldn't identify at first. Eggs. When was the last time anyone had cooked eggs?
Her father was making breakfast. She splashed water on her face and went downstairs to the kitchen.
“Dad, why aren't you at work?” she asked, more alarmed than she wanted to be.
“I called in sick. You and I are going to the cemetery today.”
At the graveyard, they talked of everyday things like the kind of cereal her mother had eaten, where to buy shampoo, where to get a haircut, how long milk lasted in the fridge. They inched their way back to life. Sam stopped stocking the fridge with beer.
Now it was Kate's daughter, drunk for the first time in her life, who had been escorted home by the local police.
fter Sofia repeatedly vomited and was tucked in for the night, Sam said he was going to sleep on the couch. Kate read Martin's letter, which Sofia crumpled into a ball, then curled into a hard tortoise shell on her bed, listening to the others sleep. At four a.m., still not able to sleep, she got up and made coffee.
Kate called in sick at work and then called the high school to verify Sofia's absence. Sam, who had not used a sick day since the bad year after his wife died, caused the biggest to-do when he called in and reached his work partner at the post office, Jane.
“No, it's nothing serious, I'm just feeling . . .” Here he paused, not having banked metaphors for illness. “Queasy, sick to my stomach. I ate out in Sunderland last night. What? No, no need for you to look in on me after work. Yes, I know that nausea can be a symptom of a heart attack. On a scale of one to ten, how nauseated am I?” Sam considered, as if he truly was sick, which in some ways he was but not in the way that he told Jane. “I'm a good solid five-point-five. I'll let you know about tomorrow.”
After the calls were made that excused all of them from the outer world, Sofia headed for the shower. Sam opened the cabinet over the coffeemaker, reaching for a mug. The cabinet door squeaked. He opened and closed it four times, pouring his entire attention into the sound. From beneath the sink, he pulled out a can of WD-40, then aimed a precise spray of liquid at the top and bottom hinges and swung the door back and forth again.
“Stop it. You're being good and fixing things. I appreciate the thought, but it's not helping,” said Kate.
He put the tiny red cap back on the can. “You and I went through hell and back after your mother died. I thought we were past lying about anything. Why did you lie about Sofia? I don't know if anything you told us was true since the minute you showed up at Logan Airport with her, years ago.”
The water pipes clanged as Sofia turned off the upstairs shower. The walls and floors of the house seemed to fade away and Kate could picture her daughter standing in the tub, wringing her black hair, water slipping along her soft brown skin. Kate wanted to reach her, wrap her in soft woven cloth, a cocoon of safety, and put her hands over her daughter's ears.
“She was a war orphan,” said Kate, each word hard as a breech birth.
Sam poured coffee into a blue mug. “We live in a cruel world and war orphans are nothing new. Vietnam was filled with kids roaming the streets.” Sam rubbed his temples with his long fingers. Her mother had told her that it was his way of trying to erase the images that still erupted unexpectedly.
“I didn't plan to take her. The last thing that I imagined was to go to Guatemala to find a war orphan. You know what I was like back then—it was all about losing Mom, like I was hemorrhaging. And then I found the graduate program and research about water. It was like Mom was with me.” This wasn't what he asked her. Kate felt the distance in the room grow alarmingly large, a gulf between her father and her.
They both turned at the sound of Sofia's feet on the stairs. Other fifteen-year-old girls would have blown their wet hair to perfection, which in 2003 meant straight, very straight. Sofia's hair was still wet; black sheets fell in the latitude between her collarbone and her small breasts.
“I knew I had a brother. I always knew. How could you have lied to me about something like this, about a part of me?” Droplets of water fell around her feet.
Sofia was turning into a Mayan warrior, her feet spread wider, elbows in close, part jaguar, ready to pounce. But if she was becoming a jaguar, Kate wanted to reach out and save her from extinction, from the forces that threatened to rip through her young skin.
“He was your twin. At least I think he was. Your biological mother tried to tell me but she didn't know the Spanish word for
and neither did I. Kaqchikel was her first language. Your first language.”
Sofia visibly reeled from the words, like rocks ricocheting off a mountain, an assaultive mudslide.
Sam stood behind the kitchen island, protected by the barricade from the waist down.
“Oh Jaysus, Katie,” he said. There was a hint of Irish brogue in his voice, dredged up from his childhood, from his grandfather, as if he had put out an SOS to his ancestors.
“What happened to him?” said Sofia. Kate had never seen her daughter's eyes in such unblinking intensity before. She had turned part interrogator, part prisoner of war.
Kate took a few steps toward her and Sofia stepped back. A new territory was born yesterday, a new distance that was already breaking Kate's heart.
y the time she was seven, she no longer told her mother when she dreamt of her brother. She used to tell her but her mother said, “No, you were the only one when I searched for a child to adopt and I picked you. There was no brother. Dreams are different from waking life. They are like a story.”
But still, he came. And he came because she asked him to come. Here is how the brother dreams came. First, Sofia brought a glass of water to the porch and set it beside, never in, the geraniums. This was the summer plan; in the winter, she brought the geraniums into the kitchen. She put one hand on each clay pot, with the glass of water in the middle. She scratched each pot with her fingernails, scritch, scratch as if her fingers were running. Her fingers were legs running like little puppets.
Once, she thought her mother had seen the way she called the brother. Sofia turned around and there she was in the doorway of the porch, watching. It seemed for a minute that she knew Sofia was conjuring the twin, because Mom was so smart and she saw everything. Then Mom had smiled and said, “Sofia, are you listening to those plants?” That's how her mother was. She worked for Fish and Wildlife and she was on the river all the time, looking at plants and birds. When Sofia was little she used to call it Wild Fish Life, but later, when she was bigger, she understood the real title.
She said, “Yes, I'm drumming a song to the geraniums.” The drumming song was really for her brother, not the geraniums, and she thought for sure her mother would see through this. Maybe the flowers heard the running of her fingers as a song, but it was a side effect, just like Grandpa had a side effect to taking Tylenol PM, which was that he had bad nightmares.
Back to her secret brother. After she did the geranium thing it was time to go to bed, after saying goodnight to Mommy and Martin. She took the blanket off the bed and turned it over. She had discovered all these steps through something called trial and error. Her mother told her that when scientists want to see if something is true or not, they keep trying different ways until they get it right; it was a scientific thing.
The science review:
Step one: Put the glass of water between the two pots of geraniums.
Step two: Stand with one hand on each pot. Her fingers turned into legs and they ran and ran on the pots.
Step three: Turn the blanket over so that it's the flip side up.
Step four: Do the same thing with the pillowcase; turn it inside out and put it back on. Then she put her head on the pillow and closed her eyes.
Here was the most important step. Sofia wished and wished for her brother. It was a smoke signal, a laser beam, or a horn, honk, honk. She made space for him in her dreams. And sometimes, he came.
Sometimes when she dreamt of him, she couldn't see all of him, but she still knew it was him even though she could only see his feet. His feet were brown like hers and shaped like hers too, broad from big toe to little toe. Sometimes she heard a sound and it was his voice, braided into her voice, vibrating in her chest.
But now her mother had told her that he had existed; he was dead, killed, not listening to her call. It was as if her mother had reached into her dreams and stolen him.
he very hint of Sofia pulling away from her, seeing the hurt in her dark eyes, was worse than the imagined loss of Sofia being taken away. Kate could not have pictured this. What had her own mother feared when she had been dying of cancer, leaving Kate and her father behind? Had it felt anything like this, like her core wrenched out?
How much could she tell Sofia and her father without annihilating them? All of it? Part of it? The kitchen floor beneath her feet was cold and her toes gripped it hard to steady her.
“I know this will be horrible to hear. Your brother was killed. People in the village had marched to the army garrison demanding the bodies of . . .” Kate stopped. She was bludgeoning her daughter with every word. The massacre had crept forward in time and slammed into her kitchen. Everything she fought to keep out of their lives came streaming in through the windows, the vent over the microwave, and the cracks in the basement floor.
“The people of the village demanded the bodies of your father and another man who had been shot by the soldiers.”
“If he was my twin, he was just a baby, like me. They shot a little boy? Wait, they shot my father?”
Kate was losing her footing on the tile floor. If she unhinged her focus, she saw her sandaled feet stepping over bodies.
“They shot everyone in the village square,” said Kate.
“I've seen him in my dreams. He looked like me, didn't he?” Sofia clenched her fists.
Every part of the unveiling would go like this, raw, abrasive, chinking away at Sofia. If only Kate could absorb all the pain of hearing this, not Sofia. She would volunteer to take Sofia's place. That was the true pain of parenthood that no one tells you about, that you want to be the stand-in for a daughter's pain, but you can't. This was not what Kate wanted for her daughter. Sofia was her daughter, she was.
“He was your fraternal twin. You were both so small, but yes, he had a smile so much like yours.” From his station behind the island counter, Sam exhaled and ran his hands along his face.
“I know the difference between fraternal and identical. Don't talk down to me. Martin wouldn't have talked down to me.”
Sofia now wavered between calling Martin her stepdad, Dad, or just Martin.
“Believe me, talking down to you in any way has just gone off the table. And I wish Martin was here too. More than you know,” said Kate. The kitchen clock, a silly Mickey Mouse replica that was plugged into the wall, ticked like a metronome. “You were the only one alive. Your mother's body saved you.”
“My mother? You knew her? Tell me her name!” A wisp of beer and vomit pulsed off Sofia, despite her efforts at cleaning up.
“Manuela,” said Kate, letting the name of her friend fall from her lips. The soft music of her name expanded, at last, into Kate's kitchen. Sofia's torso collapsed and then hardened.
“That's enough for now,” said Sam, nearly forgotten in his role as witness.
Sofia whirled her head and drops of water flew off in a spray as if she was a sea creature, caught and breathless in the unnatural confines of a house. “No! That is not enough! I want to know everything.”
Kate's stomach curdled. Teenagers did run away and it always ended badly. Not that Sofia had said the words, but something in the electrified air of the kitchen hinted at it.
“I'll tell you as much as I can. There are other people who could tell you more. Some of them are gone, some are still in Guatemala and I don't know what has become of them. I can only tell what I know.”
And what Will had told her.
BOOK: The Center of the World
6.57Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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