Ma makes us swear to be civil. My brother Kit is nine days out of the treatment facility in Delray Beach, which Ma paid for out of her savings. He’s all dried out, she says.
I get to her apartment first, and together we move all of her bottles – ‘for the guests’ – into one cabinet and lock it.
I’m sitting on the couch when Kit’s taxi pulls up. My niece is with him. She’s wearing a pink dress and when Ma sees it she lets out a little squeal.
‘So pretty,’ she says. ‘Isn’t Jackie pretty? You look like a little princess.’
Jackie doesn’t say anything. She just looks at the ground and tugs at the hem of her dress. I give my brother a hug and when he lets go I have to make an effort not to look down at the stump where his hand used to be. The angry pucker of scar tissue. It’s the reason he isn’t in jail; since the only person he hurt was himself, all they did was pull his license and make him attend the meetings.
Kit hands Ma a bottle of champagne with a dollar store ribbon on it and her smile gets all screwed up. The first thing she does when we get inside is tear off the foil with her teeth and pour it down the sink.
‘Chrissakes, Ma, it’s just champagne,’ he says, but his voice is soft, diminished. He walks over to the locked cabinet and gives the handle a half-hearted tug with one finger and snorts, like it’s all just a joke he’s heard before.
I ask Jackie how she’s doing in school, but when she answers me, she does it with her hand. She holds it out beside her and makes a little hand puppet, and that’s when I notice the eyes drawn on in pen.
Kit sees her doing it and slaps her on the knuckles. ‘Knock it off.’
Things are going fine until Ma brings out the Scrabble. She’s always been good at it, way better than either of us. She’s dominating the board and Kit is staring at his letters with his brow furrowed like he’s studying some newly discovered species. When it’s his turn, he puts down STEVE.
‘Double word score,’ he says. ‘That’s sixteen points for me.’
‘Names don’t count,’ I tell him. Right away I regret saying anything, regret not being able to turn off that little part of me that can’t ever just let things be.
‘It’s in the rules,’ is all I can say. I give a lame shrug. Kit shoves away from the table. The legs of his chair screech and the Scrabble board upends and tiles go skittering across the hardwood. He stands there for a moment, chewing his lip, like he’s not sure whether he should apologise or not. He says something under his breath that I don’t catch and walks off down the hallway. Ma flinches when the bathroom door slams.
He’s in the bathroom for a long time, and when he comes back we have to pretend he doesn’t smell like a distillery. He’s brought along some hidden stash, a flask or one of those things people use to sneak their booze into a concert or a stadium.
Jackie makes her hand puppet. Her nose wrinkles up. ‘Daddy smells,’ she says to her hand. A conspiratorial whisper.
My brother’s eyes narrow. The muscles in his jaw are twitching and his face gets all red and boiled-looking. Jackie’s hand puppet says something else and he brings the stump of his hand down hard on the countertop. He’s crouched down in front of her, so close their noses are almost touching.
‘Knock that shit off.’ He says each word very slowly, pushes them between his teeth like he’s chewing them up and spitting them out.
But Jackie doesn’t stop. She looks right at him, holds his gaze and keeps talking. And then my brother has his good hand on her shoulder, and he’s jerking her back and forth like he’s trying to shake something loose inside her, trying to reconnect some faulty wire. Jackie is looking at him and the tears are coming now.
Ma is shouting in the background. I wedge myself in between them and then I’ve got her hand and I don’t let go until we’re outside and in my car. I don’t know where we’re going. Away. Anywhere else.
I make myself smile. What feels like a smile. ‘Everybody just needs to cool down for a bit,’ I say. ‘Let’s get some ice cream. You want some ice cream?’
Jackie doesn’t say anything at first. I run my hand through her hair. ‘It’s gonna be alright,’ I say, but I’m not sure if I’m telling her or if I’m telling myself.
She asks me if I mean it, and I tell her yes. She makes me swear on it. I look up, see Ma’s house getting smaller in the rearview, see my brother standing in the driveway like a kid in his father’s suit, and I make one more promise that I know I’ll have to break, eventually.
ERIC SHATTUCK is a freelance writer living in Charleston, South Carolina. He studied at South Carolina State University, where he earned a Bachelor of Arts in English and served as an editor for the Inkwell Student Literary Journal. His work has been published or is forthcoming in Gone Lawn, Freeze Frame Fiction, 99 Pine Street, Yellow Chair Review, and The Drabblecast.