Mom and Vikki are downstairs in the kitchen. Vikki is my big sister. Victoria. Queen Victoria, Queen of Everything. She has a bad temper, but I know now to hide when she starts. Dad calls it puberty, and he would know, because he’s a doctor. But I know it’s not puberty; she’s always been mean. And I would know, because I’m here more than he is. She can get mad about anything, and when she’s mad, she’s loud, she shakes the whole house; she’s an earthquake all by herself.
I didn’t always know to get out of her way. When I was four, I didn’t know. She was making a poster for an important contest at school—a safety contest—and her poster was “DON’T SMOKE IN BED.” She drew a big picture of a lady laying in bed with a cigarette in her hand, her arm dangling over the edge of her bed. Her blankets were a mess, tangled and draped right down to the floor. Vikki had put big red flames all around the bed—a fence made out of fire, reaching almost to the ceiling. Even if the lady did wake up in time, she couldn’t get away, not without catching on fire. But the lady didn’t look like she was going to get up. Her eyes were closed. Mom was helping Vikki draw, but it wasn’t cheating. It was late and the poster was due in the morning. I was supposed to be in bed asleep, but I heard them still up, so I came downstairs to see what they were doing.
“Can’t miss a thing, can you? ” Mom said. She told me that when I was a baby I didn’t sleep very much at all—that if Mom was up talking with her friends or Dad or anyone, I would scream and cry until I could hardly breathe. They would sigh and shrug, get me up, and put me in my baby seat right in the middle of the table. I would then stop crying, and just look at them with big eyes and listen. She says I haven’t changed much, but I don’t believe her. I’m in school now, and I never cry.
Vikki had to stop colouring her poster to go to the bathroom, and Mom went to brush her teeth, so I thought I’d help too while they were gone. It would be a surprise. I started to draw blue water in the lady’s room, raining down from the ceiling. I wanted the lady to be safe. I wanted Vikki to win the contest. But Vikki came back before I was done. She ruined my surprise.
“Look what she did! She ruined it! You stupid brat, you wrecked my poster!” Vikki screamed, and snatched up the red pencil crayon, the one for the fire, and held my arm down on the table with her other hand. She stabbed the point into my arm three times before it broke off, a tiny volcano poking from my arm. Mom ran back into the kitchen and we were both crying. Vikki ripped the poster up and refused to go to school the next day.
I have an old rocking chair in my bedroom closet. Mom was going to get rid of it. “Rickety,” she said, but she let me keep it. I looked “rickety” up in the dictionary:
rickety, adj. 1. Apt to fall apart, shaky. 2. Feeble, with age. 3. Of or affected with rickets.
rickets, n. A disease of children resulting from a lack of vitamin D and in defective bone growth.
“What for? ”
“So I don’t catch rickets.” Dad tilted his head and smiled.
“And just how do you go about catching rickets? ”
“From the old rocking chair.”
He laughed and said you can’t catch it from furniture. I looked at Mom.
“But Mom said the chair was…”
She didn’t look up. She was staring into her soup like she’d forgotten something and might find it floating there. Dad said he would give me some vitamin D anyway, just in case.
Now that I’ve pulled the chair into my closet, I can go in there and read with my flashlight when Vikki gets loud. Like tonight. I grab my book about Vikings and pull the door shut, but I can still hear them.
“Hurry up! You said you’d drive me there! Now, Mother, get up. Come on!”
I can’t hear Mom. When Vikki yells it gets in every room in the house, even if you’re in the tub and you put your head under water.
“No, it isn’t too late! It’s only six o’clock! We have to go!”
I shine the flashlight on my watch. It says nine-thirty-two, and it’s a school night. But I know Vikki lies sometimes, mostly about where she goes when she’s supposed to be at Catherine’s house. I hear her on the phone.
“I’ll just tell them I’m at your place, and you tell your parents you’re at mine. Don’t worry, my dad’s never here, and my mom’s too out of it to answer the phone. We’ll get Ryan to drive us out there. He can get his brother’s car.”
I wish Mom would just take her wherever she wants to go so she’d be gone. I can hardly read. She’s slamming doors and cupboards and something breaks. More puberty. I push my palms hard against my ears, but, as usual, it doesn’t work.
“Where are your keys? Where are the car keys, Mother? I’ll just take the car myself, Mother. I will. Catherine and I have a project to finish. It’s due tomorrow! You promised you’d drive me, Mother. Right now! Where are the keys? ”
I know Vikki can’t take the car herself. She’s only thirteen, and I’m pretty sure that’s too young to even get your beginner’s. I bet she wouldn’t even know how to start the car. I pull a blanket over my head like a tent and hold the flashlight under my armpit. The Viking book has hard words and I need to concentrate.
The Valkyries were invisible to soldiers, except to those they killed. At the moment before their death, the warrior would look up into the white light surrounding the Valkyrie and see her flying down toward him, her hair a silver flash behind. As he died, his last glance would be into her face— the green mask of scales, the white horns, and the welcoming smile.
“What the fuck is wrong with you, Mother? Answer me! What’s wrong with you?!”
I can’t hear Mom at all.
“What’s wrong with you, Mother? Do I have to call Dad at the hospital again? Do I? Haven’t you been taking your pills? Or are you hiding them in the plants again? Huh? Are you? ”
“Plant food,” Vikki had told me, “Leave them there. They’re special nutrients for the soil. Don’t touch them or I’ll tell.” She grabbed my wrist, hard, and her nails left red marks—little grins in my skin—for days.
“What if Dad isn’t really there? Huh? What if he isn’t even at the hospital? What if he’s fucking some nurse? What if he’s fucking her right now? Huh, Mother, because his wife’s a freak? Who’d blame him? I wouldn’t, that’s for sure. I bet even if I do call the hospital, he won’t really be there.”
I know Dad isn’t having an affair with the nurse. He wouldn’t. He loves Mom, even if she doesn’t always take her pills. Who could blame her? I hate taking medicine too. He’s not having an affair. He’s only at the hospital.
Once, while Mom was doing the dishes, I asked her why Vikki’s always so mad all the time. That’s when Mom likes to talk; when she’s washing and I’m drying and putting them away, stacking the plates, big ones on the bottom and little ones on top.
Mom sighed and wiped her hands on the towel, like my questions made her tired. She ran her hand over her short, buzzy hair and looked at me.
“Victoria likes a lot of attention,” she said. “She wants everyone to look at her. The tantrums are just her way of making sure we don’t forget she’s here.” Mom smiled, but it only made her look sad and I didn’t believe her anyway. As if anyone could forget Vikki when she was around. That was a kindergarten answer, and I was in Grade 2 by then.
I’d overheard her and Dad talking about Vikki before and that wasn’t what they said. I didn’t understand most of it, but Mom always seemed upset, and Dad would act like it was no big deal; Vikki’s screaming, and breaking stuff—dishes, my toys—yelling at Mom, even in front of people. Last year she flipped out on Mom because Mom wouldn’t take her and her friend Claudia from down the road to the mall—swearing and everything—and Claudia started to cry and Vikki said, “What’s your problem? ” and told her to shut up. She went home, and the next day Vikki called her like nothing happened.
Dad said it’s normal with kids, the way Vikki is—whatever it is—just “sibling rivalry,” he called it, but I could only find “sibling” in the dictionary, without the “rivalry.” It meant we had the same parents, and I already knew that. So that meant her bad temper had something to do with me. I’m the only sibling, so it must. I didn’t know why, since I stayed out of everybody’s way as much as I could.
“In fact, I know he’s having an affair. I listened in on the phone. I heard him. Her name’s Lisa. ‘I’ll tell her I’m working a double, Lisa. She won’t know the difference.’ You’re such a dog, of course he’s having an affair. And you can’t even tell the difference! A crazy dog, too! Are you going crazy again, like a rabid dog? Are you, Mother?!”
She’s throwing dishes and shouting, like the guns and bombs in those movies I’m not allowed to watch. The ones I watch anyway, even when they scare me and I still don’t look away. Sometimes Vikki scares me, but she doesn’t know that. She also doesn’t know that I have a secret weapon. It’s from the kitchen. I hide it under my mattress, just in case. It’s like sleeping on top of a secret.
I slide out of my chair in the closet, pulling on my fuzzy white housecoat. Trying to be quiet, I slip downstairs. I don’t know exactly what I’m going to say, I just want her to shut up so I can read.
Vikki is standing in the middle of the kitchen, with bits of dishes around her bare feet. Mom is crying without making any noise, and rocking forward and back, even though the rocking chair is in my room. She looks shaky. Apt to fall apart. Rickety.
“Get down on the floor like a dog then! Do it! Or I’ll break this one too. Right now!”
“Antiques.” That means “of ancient times,” which is really old, but not feeble. The plate in Vikki’s hand is an antique, from Grandma. It has fancy edges like lace, but in gold. She pushes Mom down from her chair.
“Now bark! Come on, Mother. If you think you’re a dog, then bark like one! Do it!”
Mom tries to crawl away through the glass, but Vikki breaks the plate in front of her. I run back upstairs, and Vikki’s voice goes straight through the floor.
“What are you doing? What is wrong with you? Are you crazy again? What do you think, you’re a dog or something?! You’re supposed to drive me to Catherine’s. Get off the floor! You’re crazy, Mother! Get up!”
Vikki doesn’t see me come back down the stairs. It’s like I’m flying, with my housecoat spread out behind me like wings.
She’s kicking Mom, who isn’t trying to crawl away anymore.
I took the big kitchen knife from the drawer before Christmas so Vikki couldn’t wave it around anymore when she’s mad. If I hadn’t taken it away, she’d probably have it in her hand by now; sometimes Mom and Dad forget about safety. Everyone thought Vikki took it, so they searched her room when she was gone. No one asked me. No one ever asks me.
Mom doesn’t look like she’s getting up. She has her eyes closed. Vikki doesn’t see me come up behind her. I think I’m invisible. I step back and Vikki falls to the floor. It sounds like she’s gargling salt water, like when you have a cold or a sore throat.
Then I dig all of Mom’s pills out of the soil and help her to the couch. We are waiting for Dad to come home. He’s a doctor, he’ll know what to do. He will.