Ask …

By Ellen Simonson


            “Yes,” she said, and it surprised her. She hadn’t said that word since her brother died.

            Her brother’s name was Marcus, and he was always saying yes. Marcus, do you want to go down to the creek? Yes. Marcus, do you want some Pop Rocks? Yes. Marcus, do you think we can dig to Australia from here? Yes. Always, always yes. Marcus, do you love me? Yes.

            When he died, the grown-ups were worried about her at first, afraid she’d be too sad, that she’d want to be dead too. When they saw how she reacted, they got worried in a different way. They thought she wasn’t sad enough. Her aunt and uncle took her to see Marcus’s body, laid out still and clean in its small coffin in the living room, before the visitors started arriving for the wake. They both kept one hand on each of her shoulders at first as she walked up to him, but eventually they let their fingers fall away. She stood on tiptoe to get a better look. She was nine and tall for her age, but not quite tall enough to see down into his face the way she wanted to, the way she had loved to do while he slept, pretending she was older and he was her baby, not just her baby brother. She peered into the coffin and just kept staring at him, silent, her body as utterly motionless as his. Eventually her aunt said something like “Well, OK, we’ll just let you have a minute, honey.” The two of them went away, but she didn’t really notice, only faintly heard their footsteps fade.

            Marcus. Fat baby cheeks smooth like peaches. Little hands that were always grubby, always moving; it looked strange to her to see them clean. Even his fingernails were clean. Long pale lashes that used to flutter when he slept, painting butterfly shadows across the gray soft places under his eyes. She wondered if his eyes were still blue or if people’s eyes were different after they died. She thought about this for a good long time, staring at his closed lids, and finally she moved, reached out one hand, touched a finger to his right eyelid, and lifted it. Blue. This was a relief, although she wasn’t sure why.

            His skin felt cold, which was strange, but not really bad. It still felt like him. She touched his hands, folded at his waist; she squirmed her index finger down inside his shiny Sunday shoe to wriggle against the arched part of his foot where he’d always been most ticklish. She played one last game of got-your-nose with him, making sure to put it back, and reached up even farther on her tiptoes to kiss his cheeks and his chin and blow on his belly through his white dress shirt. “I love you, Marcus,” she said. “Do you love me?” But of course he didn’t say yes.

            She thought he looked happy. You couldn’t even really tell he was dead, if you didn’t know him. If you hadn’t spent as much time as she had watching him sleep, you might think this was how he looked when he was sleeping. You wouldn’t know to look for the muscle that jumped beneath the fuzz of his cheek, the dance of his eyes beneath the lids, like he was watching TV in his dreams. But really, considering they didn’t know him like she did, she thought they had done a pretty good job of making him look like he was just napping.

            “OK,” she said, coming down off her tiptoes. Nobody answered. She looked around. Her aunt and uncle had left, she remembered now, so it was just her and Marcus

in the living room. The battered hardwood floor was swept very clean and the rug had been put away for some reason, and all the furniture was pushed against the walls. The room seemed very big and empty with just the coffin in the center. The windows were all open and the white curtains fluttered; summertime was always breezy around her house. She didn’t want to leave him alone. Marcus always got into trouble if you left him alone. One of the first things she’d learned as his big sister was not to let that happen, so she sat down on the couch and waited.

            Eventually her aunt came back in, looked around for a minute, and finally caught sight of her sitting there with her chin on her knees. “There you are, sweetie. Are you OK?” she asked.

            “Yes. Marcus looks happy.

            Her aunt blinked. Her face was very red around the eyes and her nose was white with lots of powder. “What?”

            “Marcus looks happy. He looks like he’s napping. I mean, if you didn’t know him.

            Her aunt just stared at her. “Well, good,” she said finally. “Listen, the wake is about to start, and there’s going to be lots of people here soon. Are you all cleaned up and ready?”

            “Can I go play outside?”

            What?” This time her aunt sounded angry as well as surprised.

            “Can I go play outside? I kind of want to play on the swingset.

            “No, you can’t go play outside!” Her aunt’s voice got loud. “You can go play some other time. Right now you have to help me and your uncle say goodbye to your brother!”

            “I already said goodbye to my brother,” she said. “Now I want to go play on the swingset.

            There were tears in her aunt’s eyes, and she thought they must be her fault, though she didn’t know what she might have done. She just looked as the tears escaped from her aunt’s eyelids and started running down her cheeks, cutting wet tracks through all the powder. “Don’t you understand?” her aunt said, her voice quiet again. “Maybe you don’t understand. You know that Marcus is dead?”

            “Yes,” she said, and something occurred to her. Maybe this would be a relief to her aunt, too. “Did you know that people’s eyes stay the same color after they die? I checked with Marcus because I didn’t know if maybe they changed. But they don’t. His eyes are still blue.

            It didn’t work. Her aunt just kept crying, harder and louder now. Her uncle came in, looked at her, looked at her aunt, put a hand on her aunt’s shoulder, and looked at her again. “It’s all right, Debbie,” he said, stroking her aunt’s hair.

            Her aunt buried her face in her uncle’s arm. “She is the strangest child,” she said into his shirt.

            Her uncle kept looking at her. She could never tell whether he liked her or not, or whether he liked anybody. She guessed he loved her aunt, but only because they were

married and you had to love the person you were married to. She didn’t think it was anything like the way she loved Marcus. She didn’t think her uncle ever stayed awake at night just to watch her aunt sleep.

            “I want to go play outside,” she said.

            Her uncle thought about this for a minute. “All right,” he said.

            “I’m going to go play on the swings,” she said.

            “OK,” her uncle said.

            “I’ll be back before dinner,” she said, but her uncle didn’t say anything and her aunt was still crying, so she left, out the front door and down into the side yard where the swingset was, at the bottom of the hill almost to the creek. Marcus’s baby swing was still there, the one she had pushed him in when he was really young. It was getting a little too small for him now. She got in the other swing, the big-girl swing, and pushed off.

            If she swung high enough she could see above the hill to the driveway. Cars were coming now. People got out and went into the house in groups of two or three. Everyone was in their church clothes. She could hear their voices if she listened hard, but she couldn’t hear words, only sounds that soon got lost again beneath the noise of the creek. When her bedroom window was open at night in the summertime she could hear the creek sing lullabies. Once she had made up the words to one for Marcus – “Good night baby, dream of nice things” – and told him it was what the creek was saying when it sang. After that, he asked her to sing it every night for a month. Whenever they went down to the creek to play he would ask her, “What is it saying now?” She would answer with whatever was in her head. “Hello Marcus!” “Peanut butter tastes the best.” The sillier it was, the more Marcus liked it.

            “What is the creek saying now?” she said for Marcus, swinging, listening to the water noise, trying to hear the words so she could answer him. She kicked her legs harder and harder, watching the people as they streamed into the house and back out again, got into their cars and drove away. She swung until they were almost all gone, and then she went and stood by the creek and looked down into the water. She got down on her knees and put her head as close as she could without getting her ears wet, and listened, but the creek didn’t seem to be saying anything. She couldn’t even think of anything silly to pretend she heard. Maybe it only worked with Marcus there.

            She was home before dinnertime, but there wasn’t any dinner. Two men in suits came and took Marcus away to get him ready for the funeral. She watched from the corner of the room as they carefully closed the coffin’s lid, lifted it by the small gold handles, and walked slowly to the hearse, keeping it steady between them. It looked tiny in their hands, and one of them loaded it into the back by himself as though it wasn’t heavy at all. She walked to the door to watch them go. The big black hearse was so quiet she didn’t even hear it start. It glided away silently down the driveway and was gone.

Eventually all the guests left except her aunt’s friend Cindy, and the two of them went into the den and didn’t come out. She could hear her aunt crying through the door. Her uncle just sat in one of the rockers on the porch and sipped a beer and stared off at the mountain. He didn’t cry or say anything. Nobody noticed that she’d gotten her tights all muddy from kneeling by the creek. She sat in the other rocker next to her uncle until it got dark, and finally she went inside and made a sandwich and took herself to bed. Her uncle came and checked on her before she fell all the way asleep.

            The next day was the funeral. She liked it when they threw the first handful of dirt on top of the coffin. It made sense, almost like a present, considering how much Marcus liked digging in the dirt. She almost told her aunt this, but thought better of it. Her aunt had been in a very bad mood that morning when she saw what had happened to the tights, and they’d had to stop at Wal-Mart on the way to the funeral and buy her a new pair. It almost made them late. After the funeral, they had lunch at the house. Some of her uncle’s friends brought over fried chicken. Nobody was talking much and after awhile she went down to the creek again, but she still couldn’t tell what it was saying, so she came back inside.

            Every day after that she asked Marcus at least one question, just in case he could hear her. “Marcus, do you think the people on that airplane can see us?” “Marcus, do you want to go to the circus this year if I promise we won’t go too close to the elephants?” “Marcus, do you want to help me build a tree fort?” “Marcus, do you want to play hide and go seek?” Of course he never answered, which was OK because she didn’t expect him to. It just felt weird not to ask him things when she’d gotten so used to his yes.

            Finally, after a couple of months, things were almost back to normal. Her aunt didn’t cry hardly at all anymore, and her uncle usually went inside before it got all the way dark at night. They had started to make jokes again, even, and they noticed when she stayed out way past dinnertime. It was getting to the end of summer and the nights were starting to feel chilly. She listened every night, but she still couldn’t tell what the creek was saying.

            One night her aunt came in to tuck her in and said, “You know, it’s getting to be fall. I don’t want you to get sick. We should probably start closing that window at night again.” And she reached over and slid it shut. “Sleep tight.

            She couldn’t sleep that night. It felt weird not to be able to hear the creek. She tossed and turned and listened as hard as she could but she couldn’t pick up even the tiniest noise of water. Finally she got out of bed and put her sneakers on and crept down the hallway past her uncle’s snores, and let herself out the front door and down to the creek in the moonlight.

            The swingset looked strange at night. The baby swing moved a bit in the wind like the tiniest little push. She was cold in just her pajamas, and the creek seemed really loud. She crouched down next to it, being careful not to put her knees on the ground this time, and put her head as close to the water as she could in the dark. It occurred to her that she had never asked Marcus what the creek was saying – he was always the one to ask her. Maybe he would know now, if he could hear her. She took a deep breath and said, almost in a whisper, “What is the water saying, Marcus?”

            She stood up again, the answer rushing through her head like current over rocks. “Yes,” she said, and it surprised her. “Yes.” Bounding back up the hill, she let herself in the door, closing it as quietly as she could and tiptoeing back into bed. She listened for the sound of the water, certain she could just barely hear it even through the closed window. Do you love me, Marcus? Yes. Yes. Yes.