By Kelsey Barcomb
Published in Spring 2013, Issue 8 of The Rubicon
“The desire to feel loved is the last illusion: let it go and you will be free.”
-An anonymous poet
People used to say that Annabel’s brother, Adam, was the only person who could make her laugh as a baby; that his laughter alone could trigger even the deepest of belly laughs from her. Annabel couldn’t remember that, but what she could remember about her older brother was the way he had loved her at the beach.
When Annabel was three and her brother was six, they lived with their parents on a private, gated community beach in Florida. Pristine white sand and clear blue water greeted them daily just inches from the back doors of their house. It was the perfect setting for an absolutely perfect childhood. Every day when Adam arrived home from school, he would immediately interrupt Annabel’s tea party/make-believe adventure/nap to take her by the hand and tug her through the house to the back doors.
“Come on! Let’s play, Annabel!” he would shout. Their mother would promptly follow them outside every time, without rejection to his plans, always watching her children from a close distance. The beach was generally empty and quiet around three-o-clock due to the fact that most of the residents of the gated community were either retired senior citizens or families with children above the age of fourteen.
The first memory of Annabel’s life was of a day she had spent with her brother on that beach. Perhaps, in reality, it was no different than any of the other days she had spent with Adam; but, for some reason, it stuck out to her in the same way that a shooting star against the night sky would have. In this memory she wore a billowy white dress and a pink paper crown (she had been playing “princess” when Adam came barging into her room), and her long brown hair had been loosely braided by her mother so that it hung delicately down her back.
That afternoon, when he came through the front doors, Adam ran for Annabel’s room. He grabbed her hand and tugged her to the back patio and then, slowing his pace for her benefit, he cautiously helped her down the steps, one by one. Their mother stood behind them with a book pressed to her chest and a smile on her lips as she watched her children.
As soon as they reached the sand, Adam was off again, tugging Annabel along with him. She struggled to keep up, her chubby toddler legs wobbling after her older brother. But she loved him so much, and she couldn’t wait to play with him, so she stuck out her tongue in concentration and focused on not falling to the ground.
“Be careful with her!” their mother hollered as she jogged behind them in the sand. She reached out and put a hand to the small of Annabel’s back to help keep her steady. “Don’t be so fast, Adam!”
Adam slowed when they reached the edge of the ocean water, and he stood in it so that it lapped over his toes. “Come here,” he said to his baby sister.
Annabel came to stand beside him. The water rose up higher on her than on him—it was almost to Annabel’s knees. The salty water soaked the bottom of her dress, but when her mother tried to remove her from that position, she protested in shrieks.
As their mother took a seat in a beach chair behind them, Annabel gazed up at her older brother, who was smiling down on her. She realized that he was still holding her hand, and without thinking, she squeezed his fingers gently. He squeezed back automatically, as if it was a natural instinct ingrained in him.
Suddenly, his eyes widened with intensity and excitement. “Ring around the rosie, pockets full of posies!” Adam began to sing. He grabbed Annabel’s other hand and slowly began spinning with her in a circle. She didn’t sing because she didn’t know the song, so instead she stared up at her brother in amazement and adoration as the world around them became a blur of vivid colors and intermingling noises.
Adam sang the song numerous times as they spun for what seemed like infinity. Eventually, Annabel memorized the ending verse –“ashes, ashes, we all fall down!”—which subsequently became her favorite part of the song. She gradually began to join in when Adam reached that part, and then she would laugh uncontrollably as he ended their spin by jumping in place in the water, splashing his sister’s dress in the process.
“I love you, I love you, I love you!” At one point, Adam sang these words to the tune of “Ring Around the Rosie,” making Annabel laugh again.
“IloveyouIloveyouIloveyouIloveyou!” Annabel mirrored him hurriedly, bringing her hands together to clap along to her proclamations.
“Okay you two, let’s go inside,” their mother said once they’d reached a point where Adam was just dancing in circles and Annabel was just clapping.
The memory faded out from there, but Annabel never forgot that day. In fact, she treasured it. It was often the first memory she found herself reliving when everything else in her life was falling apart.
As Annabel and Adam grew older, they also, sadly, grew apart. Annabel struggled to keep any remnants of the bond they’d had as children alive, but something inside her brother changed along the way of growing up. When Annabel was six and wanted to play with him and the other neighborhood kids, he shook her off and left the house without telling her. If nine-year-old Annabel went to his room, the door would be shut and locked. The most hurtful part of it all was that, whenever she said “I love you” at any age after five, Adam would promptly reply, “I hate you, too, Annabel!” in a sarcastic tone with a smile as sweet as rotten candy.
Annabel’s mother promised that this sort of behavior wouldn’t last forever. “Everyone fights with their siblings when they’re young, sweetheart. One day you two will be closer than ever, and you’ll have a friend in him again.”
Annabel longed for her brother to love her again. When she was thirteen years old in middle school, and he was sixteen years old in high school, their parents had an arrangement: every day after school Adam drove to pick up Annabel. The car rides were unbearable—at least for Annabel. Adam would blast death metal music and ignore her existence completely as he smoked cigarettes and drove. Annabel barely saw him anymore aside from those afternoon drives— he was always off with his dangerous and mysterious friends, only coming home to eat, shower, and sleep.
One afternoon, Annabel decided to try to talk to him. She was sick of their only conversations being “Please pass the salt” or “What’s Mom making for dinner?” When she saw his black, dented Camry arrive at the curb of her school, she prepared herself with a deep, yet shaky breath. As she stepped into the car, the usual waft of bitter smoke enveloped her.
“Hi,” she greeted him.
He didn’t even look at her. He began driving away even before she could buckle her seatbelt or close her car door.
Annabel quickly shut the door as the car sped off. She watched Adam’s finger reach for the knob on the stereo system, and her heart filled with devastation as she worried that she’d missed her chance.
“I had a really fun day,” Annabel lied as quickly as she could. Annabel’s days at middle school were never fun. The other girls picked on her because of her unfashionable clothes and general lack of self-esteem, therefore causing the boys to disregard her as well. She secretly wondered if the way kids treated her at the middle school was the reason for her brother’s hatred. Was her lack of popularity at the lower level school stressful to him? Was he embarrassed? She wished she knew the answers, but she also wished she didn’t know the questions.
Adam flicked the stereo button on as if she hadn’t spoken. Annabel found herself forced to yell over the music.
“We made paintings in art class. Mine is almost done. It’s a picture of a baby’s breath. I’m making it for Mom.” This part was true; she was painting for her mother, who loved the flowers.
Adam glanced out of the corner of his eye at her, then back at the road. He sat in a slouched position in his seat, one hand on the steering wheel as the car sped well past the speed limit.
“How was your day?” Annabel asked in a loud voice.
Adam ignored her. She watched his fingers tighten on the steering wheel, as if he was angry with it.
“Adam? Did you hear me? I asked—”
“Don’t talk to me. You and I don’t talk. We. Don’t. Talk.” He spoke the words clearly and with precision through his teeth, making it so that she could hear him above the music and so that he would not have to repeat himself (something he hated to do). She suddenly realized that her brother was seething; his hands were gripping the steering wheel so tight that his knuckles had turned white, and his unsteady gaze at the road ahead was enough to make Annabel feel afraid to be in a car with him.
“Don’t talk to me” rang through Annabel’s mind repeatedly, like one of her father’s broken records playing on an endless loop, as she stared tearfully out her window. Her lips quivered and the corners of her eyes stung, and her legs were shaking as if she wanted to run. She didn’t see the passing cars or the trees or the houses outside her window. She only saw a brother who hated her, children who mocked her, and a boy who –once a very long time ago—had loved her more than he had loved himself. She missed him.
Adam’s malicious words mingled along in Annabel’s head with images of Adam as the child on the beach who had danced and held Annabel’s hand while shouting “I love you!” at her. Annabel thought about how, that very day in art class, a popular boy had dumped black paint all over her Baby’s Breath painting while she had gone to the restroom. She remembered returning to a classroom filled with students laughing and pointing at her misfortune. She recalled how the teacher had given her an A on the spot and a strained apology because there wasn’t enough time left in the school year to redo the painting. She thought of her mother’s loving face, and felt an ache in her chest. She desperately wished she had someone to talk to about what had happened. Someone like Adam. She shut her eyes as tears escaped her, and leaned her head against the cold glass of the car window.
Don’t talk to me.
It was as if the brother she used to know had died and been replaced by someone else, someone who never smiled or expressed any emotion other than anger.
Don’t talk to me.
It was like she was in a television show and the actor playing her brother had been replaced by someone who had chosen to take the role in a completely different direction than the writers or director had originally intended.
Don’t talk to me.
She struggled to breathe evenly, telling herself that she was almost home. She could cry there.
Don’t talk to me. Don’t talk to me. Don’t talk to me. And after that day, she didn’t.
Years later, Annabel and Adam reached adulthood, but remained distant. Adam learned to be polite when he saw Annabel at their parents’ home, but he never offered anything to her and never reached out to her. He remained in their hometown working for a power plant, while Annabel went off to college to pursue a degree.
Annabel immersed herself in her college community, making friends and pretending to fill the hole in her heart that her older brother had caused. Because of the fact that Adam—the first friend she’d ever had and loved— had forgotten her, Annabel felt unloved wherever she went. Although many of her new friends were sincere and true to her, she never fully opened herself up to them. She was somewhat of a mystery to other people, and she came off as a bit cold.
During Annabel’s senior year of high school, her parents sold the beach house and moved to a rural neighborhood in Florida. There was no pristine white sand or clear blue water to greet them; only palm trees, grass, and a swampy river in the backyard. Because of this new location—along with the sadness Adam’s presence brought her during family visits—Annabel kept herself busy at college and only visited on holiday weekends.
And yet, somewhere inside Annabel, hope remained alive. She wrote letters and sent texts to her brother, telling him she loved him and missed him, and hoped that he was happy with his girlfriend and job at the power plant. On National Brother Day, she texted to him, “You are the best big brother I could have ever had! I love you!” Every single letter went without a response, and almost every single text was ignored, with the rare and occasional “Thanks” sent back.
On a cold December day during Annabel’s third year at college, she packed up her car and said goodbye to her roommates before she headed off to her parents’ house for Christmas vacation. The general happiness she felt when she didn’t have to think about her parents or her brother during the school year slowly faded away as she crept closer and closer to her parents’ home. Something Annabel had prepared herself for were tight bear hugs from her father, warm kisses from her mother, and a feeling of invisibility from her brother. Something Annabel had not prepared herself for were icy roads, losing control on said icy roads, and colliding into two other cars as a result.
Somewhere between loading her suitcase into the car and driving along an icy highway, Annabel’s reality morphed into a dream world, perpetuated by her life as a vegetable that needed a machine to survive.
In this dream world, Annabel was a child again, who danced and sang and laughed with her hero and brother, Adam. She was a genuinely happy child— happier than she had been as an adult. She was a genuinely happy person in this coma—happier than she had been with her eyes wide open in reality. In this dream world, Annabel and Adam played board games in the house, and Adam read stories to her from their bookshelf. Adam told her he loved her, and Annabel believed him because she could. Memories that Annabel suppressed also emerged in this dream world—she remembered getting into arguments with Adam over childish things like Christmas presents, and trying to “frame” him in front of their parents for things she had done. She remembered biting Adam on the arm because he had made her so mad once. She remembered being spoiled.
But despite all of these problems, Adam always came back and told her that he loved her, and that he always would, and Annabel apologized and said that she would try not to do those things to him again. Sometimes she didn’t and sometimes she did, but Adam’s unconditional love never failed her…until it did at last, of course.
As Annabel relived happiness with her brother in this dream world—holding his hand as they sang and laughed on the beach blissfully—something in reality caught a piece of her scattered attention.
It was the feeling of someone’s hand wrapping itself around her own hand, only this time, it wasn’t part of a memory or a dream—it was actual reality. The hand squeezed Annabel’s hand, over and over again, as if expecting a squeeze in return.
Annabel lingered in her dream world, allowing the hand that was holding hers to become a numbed feeling in the back of her mind like the rest of her painful reality. She decided that she was finally happy where she was, with her long-lost brother in a fantasy land.
Slowly along with her forgotten life, the dream world ceased to exist, and Annabel died happy while the real Adam held her hand in the hospital bed where she lay.