The Good Daughter
by Barbara Buckley Ristine
The nightmarish scene repeated in my mind: driving home from the library, the garage door sliding open and my headlights casting a spotlight on my brother Peter’s shattered body, a spreading stain of blood covering the floor around him. The shotgun lying beside him where he’d dropped it.
The sirens slicing through the nighttime stillness. The police questioning me. Watching as the paramedics tried to revive Peter as he lay on the cold concrete floor. My parents returning from the theater to find flashing lights surrounding our house. My mother’s anguished screams echoing as she knelt beside Peter. My father staring at the emergency personnel, clenching and unclenching his fists in mute despair.
Every night for the past three months I saw the same images when I pulled in the driveway.
Several minutes passed before I forced myself out of the car. I avoided looking at the gleaming white garage door. Inside our house, I tossed my backpack on the leather sofa in the center of the living room. On the chrome and glass coffee table, I saw a half-full crystal tumbler and an empty wine bottle.
The flat screen television was on, tuned to a news channel. I shut it off. The room was bathed in a soft light from the recessed lights high above me. Thick beige carpet muffled the sound of my footsteps.
“Mom?” I called, but there was no answer.
I wandered down the hall to peek into my parents’ bedroom. My mother was asleep on top of the unmade bed, clutching Peter’s favorite sweatshirt.
The bedroom was dim, lit only by the antique hurricane lamp on the dresser. On one wall, a picture of us in matching green Christmas sweaters, big sister and little brother, smiling on cue. I always hated that particular sweater, the one with the stupid reindeer embroidered on it. I tried to remember the day of the photo.
I think I was in fourth grade, almost eight years ago. He’d been about eight, with a curly mop of coppery hair and a crooked grin. Even then he was annoying, walking around our quiet suburban neighborhood wearing Dad’s ratty old camo jacket and hunting boots five sizes too large for his feet. God, he was embarrassing.
I stopped myself in mid-thought. No, can’t speak ill of the dead. Turning off the lamp, I placed a worn patchwork quilt over my mother and slipped out, closing the door softly behind me.
“Dad?” No answer, no sign that he had been home. Typical. Even before, he would stay late at his office, grabbing a sandwich from the deli downstairs. He is the CFO of a real estate investment group with very high-powered clients who demand his availability 24/7. Sometimes days go by without a paternal sighting.
Lately he’d become more invisible, slipping in and out of our house like a shadow. I doubted that he had said more than a dozen words to my mother in the last three months. He didn’t know what to say to penetrate the fog that surrounded her.
I walked through the dining room. A massive oak dining table dominated one corner of the room, with four high-backed mission style chairs carefully arranged around it, unused. These days, meals were hasty affairs, no one sitting down to eat or converse together, everyone always rushing towards other destinations, other people. Each night, the trash in the kitchen filled with take-out containers.
Outside the shell of our home, life resumed its normal, ordinary routine. School started on time, tests were taken, homework turned in, and my college applications mailed out. Sometimes in the high-school halls, I thought I spied Peter’s black hoodie turning a corner. But it was only a trick of my mind.
When I retrieved my phone from my backpack, I saw a text from my friend Morgan: Check out your brother’s FB page.
Why? I typed, and waited.
Check out Carly’s post. You’ll see.
Grabbing my iPad, I settled into the beige recliner in the living room and opened Peter’s memorial page, the one my mother had created after the funeral. There was an image of a hooded assassin brandishing a broadsword, the same picture that had been on his Facebook page when he was alive.
I saw another of my mother’s rambling posts, accompanied by a photo of Peter singing in our grammar school choir. So handsome, so talented. Your beautiful voice is missed in this world. She’d been writing posts like that since he died, all about how beautiful he was, how adored, how happy he was.
I didn’t recognize the boy she described. Dead Peter was the ideal son, his memory polished to a golden patina, his minor accomplishments elevated to high art.
There was a new post from Carly Preston, a girl from school. She was part of the geeky crowd, always wearing some fan-girl attire. Peter used to hang out with her, a round-faced girl with long dark hair and thick, square-rimmed glasses. Peter and Carly weren’t exactly dating, but they spent a lot of time together at school and texted into the late night hours. She didn’t come around the house, so I really didn’t know her. I remembered her hugging me at the funeral.
I read her post. I miss talking to you. I still don’t understand. I thought it was just a game we were playing. Why did you do it?
A vague memory surfaced of a rumor about Carly being in the nuthouse last summer. Something about being a cutter. But there were always rumors like that at school. I quickly closed the app, feeling a knot in my stomach. The quiet of the house folded around me as I watched the evening darkness building outside the glass doors. The memories flooded back.
* * *
The day of Peter’s funeral, Mom had locked herself in the bedroom, refusing to come out to visit with the friends and family who had stopped by the house after the service. When everyone had left, Dad came into the kitchen where I was putting away food that the visitors had brought. He reached out his arm as if to hug me but he hesitated and patted my shoulder instead.
“Sara, you’re got to be strong for your mom. She gets so down at times, it’s difficult for her to carry on. We’ve got to be gentle with her.”
I nodded, recalling all the times in the past when Mom seemed to disappear into herself. Dad would joke and cajole her in an attempt to lighten her mood. Sometimes he succeeded.
Wasn’t there some famous writer who said there are no happy families, just unhappy ones? My mother always surrounded herself with attractive witty people, people involved in political causes, artists, the kind who read The Atlantic and Vanity Fair.
She seemed vaguely disappointed with Peter and me. She wanted remarkable children to fit her perfect world. I orbited on the outer edges of her expectations: good student, dutiful daughter, not particularly artistic or beautiful. She never went out of her way to acknowledge any of my accomplishments.
As Peter grew into adolescence, he became increasingly unremarkable. At school, he barely got by in his courses. He quit choir and stopped going to Boy Scout meetings, saying they were stupid activities. After school, he would play Grand Theft Auto alone for hours or seek out grotesque images from video games to post online. He was moody and sullen, the antithesis of my mother’s perfect child. The gulf between Peter and Mom just kept widening without her ever noticing.
* * *
The morning after Carly’s post, I sat in the kitchen, watching the early sunlight warm the wood of the counter, revealing slight indentations in its surface. There was a blackened scar next to the glass cook top, testament to one of my early experiments with frying pans. I hunched over my coffee as I sat on a stool at the counter, my backpack at my feet, my calculus text open on the counter ready for the Friday morning quiz.
Mom stared into the open fridge, not registering its contents. Her graying blond hair formed a wild halo around her face. Her frayed terrycloth bathrobe was open, revealing the flannel shirt she had slept in. Robotically, she picked out the milk and closed the door.
“D’you want some breakfast?” she asked, refusing to look at me. She swayed slightly, and a stale scent of alcohol drifted from her direction.
“Nah, just coffee.” I closed my textbook and slid off the stool. “I’ll be home right after school today. Do you want me to pick up something for dinner?” In the month after Peter’s death, dozens of casseroles and lasagna had appeared at our doorstep, left by concerned friends anxious to help. But as time passed, the deliveries stopped, people moved on. We drifted into our routine of rushed take-out dinners.
“Get something if you want. I doubt I’ll be hungry. Your father won’t be home.” Her face was thin and drawn, her clothes hanging loosely on her body. For months, she’d been glass-brittle, teary, pouring out to anyone who would listen, anyone except me. Her days were spent searching photo albums for evidence of happier times. At night she washed down sleeping pills with bourbon or else insomnia took her on aimless wanderings through the house to Peter’s room, where she sat and cried in the dark.
After school, I returned to find her sprawled on my brother’s bed, wine in one hand and a paper in the other. Her red swollen eyes stared at his open laptop next to her on the bed.
“Did you see this?” she asked, sloshing her drink in the laptop’s direction. I assumed she’d read Carly’s post.
“That’s just some girl Peter knew.” Her eyes showed no comprehension of what I had said.
“What? I’m talking about this-” She shoved the paper at me. I looked at the heading: Medical Examiner’s Report. I read, the words a jumble of medical terms and legal conclusions. Faint scars on his wrists. Contents of stomach revealed a mix of barbiturates and liquor. Cause of death.... The knot in my stomach returned, accompanied by an image of Peter’s body slumped over the shotgun, caught in the beam of my headlights.
“And this... The police finally got his Facebook password.” She pushed the laptop towards me. I looked at the screen and realized that I was looking at a conversation between Peter and Carly.
Peter: So how would you do it?
Carly: There’s a lot of ways. Razor to the wrist. I heard if you sit in a hot bath, it works better. Course you gotta get a razor.
I looked up at my mom, seeing the storm clouds forming on her brow.
“Did you know about this?” She drained her glass, and closed the laptop without shutting it off. I shook my head as I handed the autopsy report back to her. She tried to stand, but her legs wouldn’t support her. She slid back down on the bed, her shoulders heaving, her cheeks wet. The glass rolled to the floor. “Peter...” she murmured.
I held my breath, afraid of what was coming. I reached out for her, but she slapped my hand away and glared at me. “Why weren’t you here that night?” And with that, she heaved herself off the bed and stumbled out of Peter’s room.
There was no point following her. She was going to pour another drink and close herself in her bedroom. I felt the weight of the house’s silence holding my mother’s regret, her judgment of her daughter’s failure. I wanted to shout after her, “How could I know?” but I knew she wouldn’t hear me. She’d made up her mind. I picked up the fallen glass and brought it to the kitchen. I carefully washed and dried the glass and placed it on the shelf above the sink.
I went back to Peter’s room and sat on the bed. His room was exactly the way he’d left it. The walls were grayish-blue with a border printed with pictures of the solar system, a remnant of his second-grade obsession with space. The top two shelves of a tall bookcase were filled with model airplanes and Lego cars from years ago. Paperback editions of fantasy and sci-fi novels were crammed willy-nilly into the third shelf down. On the bottom shelf were stacks of X-Box games, sorted by their titles: Assassin’s Creed, Black Ops, Far Cry.
Up until about a year ago, he would take his games out to the great room, playing online with far-flung friends, talking trash to the other players through his headset. I used to yell at him to keep quiet while I was trying to study, and he would get louder to spite me. Things changed when he started high school, when he retreated to his room and closed the door. He seemed to disappear into himself, just like Mom. I hadn’t realized how much I missed the noise, how much I missed him.
I opened the laptop. The screen reappeared, glowing with the words that had passed between Peter and Carly. How would you do it? There were dangerous words crowded into the secret spaces of his life, words never spoken aloud to me. Carly had heard them and understood what he meant. I wondered if she had tried to stop him. Could anyone?
There was a movement in the hallway outside Peter’s room. I looked up to see my father’s tall, lean form appear in the doorway. He was middle-aged handsome in a navy-blue business suit, his paisley tie loosened from the collar of his starched white shirt. His weary, defeated eyes and pale face revealed how he had aged since Peter’s death. He blamed himself that Peter had used his old shotgun, the one he’d hidden away in the basement years before.
“Your mom called the office earlier. Something about getting the medical examiner’s report. Have you spoken to her yet?” He pressed his back against the door frame as if he would fall down without its support.
I nodded. “She showed it to me. There’s something else you should know. She got Peter’s Facebook password from the police. There was a message between him and Carly.”
“What kind of message?”
“He told Carly what he was planning to do.”
“What do you mean?”
I stood and handed him the laptop. As he stood there reading, he looked like he’d been slapped. “Has your mother seen this?”
“Where is she?” Dad put the laptop on Peter’s desk and turned to walk away.
“Bedroom, I guess.”
Dad disappeared down the hallway. I heard their bedroom door open and my father’s voice murmuring. I couldn’t make out what he was saying or my mother’s response. As the door closed, I heard my father’s footsteps walking away. I held my breath, waiting for the eruption, but it didn’t come. Then I heard her anguished sobs, interrupted by gasps.
I knew better than to go to their room to try to comfort her. I had tried that only once, about a week after Peter died, when I tried to hug her, only to be met by her fists pounding on my chest, punctuating her screams. “Where were you? How could you let this happen?” As if my staying home that night would have made any difference, as if I were my brother’s keeper. In my mother’s mind, Peter’s suicide was an impulse that overtook him that one October night.
Copyright © 2015 by Barbara Buckley Ristine