- This Is How It Always Is
“Remember when we accidentally told everyone at the Grandersons’ barbecue?” said Rigel, and Penn did. In fact, he remembered that it wasn’t Rigel who’d said it but Orion, and he was touched at Rigel’s instinct to shoulder some of his twin’s blame. Maybe in the dark, it wasn’t clear even to them which one was which.
“The next week at school, this kid we sort of know came up to us at recess and asked why we said that about Poppy,” Orion explained.
“We started saying how we were just joking and about Captain Cockroach and Harry and Larry’s dog,” Rigel continued.
“But then he interrupted and said he thought he might be … like that too. Like Poppy. And maybe we knew what he should do or who he should talk to or whatever.” Rosie noticed how steady Orion’s voice had become.
“And we did,” Rigel said simply. “So we told him.”
“He was really sad and scared,” Orion added, “so it seemed like the right thing to do. We thought of all people, he wouldn’t tell, but maybe he had to so someone would help, you know? Maybe he had to so someone would listen.”
And maybe it was because it was becoming less clear by the moment who was responsible, and maybe it was because it was becoming more clear by the moment the size of the hole in the hull of this secret, and maybe it was because the good reasons there were to tell were finally unfurling—or maybe it was just that it was nearly morning and no one had yet slept—but Rosie and Penn found their predominant emotion wasn’t anger but pride. At least for a predawn hour or so.
The only one they never heard from that night was Poppy.
I’m Nobody! Who Are You?
The next morning, two hours later, everyone was generally groggy and cranky and still a little shell-shocked. Their world had changed again; they were just waiting to see how. In the meantime, there was school to go to. There were patients to see and words to write. And they were all of them grateful for those traces of normalcy, all except Poppy, who, as everyone else was rinsing out cereal bowls and getting dressed, still hadn’t emerged from her room. Penn imagined she’d had trouble falling asleep and didn’t want to wake her if she’d finally managed to do so. Rosie imagined she’d committed ritual suicide any of twenty or thirty ways just off the top of her head and had to be bodily restrained from barging in to check. When at last she could stand it no more, she and Penn opened Poppy’s door without knocking, one creaky millimeter per breath, slow enough to bore slugs. When they finally had it wide enough to look inside, what they found was not as alarming as suicide, but not all that far off either. What they found in Poppy’s room, there on her unslept-in bed, was Claude.
They recognized him at once though he was, in fact, a stranger. They had not seen Claude since he was five, so here at ten, he was an apparition. Poppy, their creative, confident, shining daughter, was nowhere to be seen. This child though, this ghost of a child, was dark and sullen with puffy red eyes he would not raise from the floor and arms that would not unwrap themselves from their stranglehold on his ribs. He was wearing Poppy’s most masculine pants—a plain pair of gray sweats—and a much-too-big Mariners fleece of Orion’s. In a large box next to the bed were piled all Poppy’s dolls and stuffed animals, her dream catcher, her ballet shoes, and all her framed photos—one of PANK on the last day of fourth grade, one of Poppy and Aggie both dressed as ponies one Halloween, one of Poppy in a lavender sundress smiling out from among her brothers at Rigel and Orion’s middle school graduation. And all around Claude—on the pillow and the sheets, in the box, on the desk, on the floor—spread Poppy’s long, thick hair, streaked around the room like threads of dark blood. Rigel’s electric shaver, put to use at last, lay on the floor next to the bed like a murder weapon, and tears coursed down Claude’s cheeks under an uneven, stubbly scalp that broke his parents’ hearts.
“I am not going to school,” Claude wept, his first words to his parents in five years, “ever again.”
Rosie went to call Yvonne to cancel all her appointments for the day. Penn held his sobbing child against his chest and wondered at this moment come at last, come anew, come again.
When Penn called school to explain why Poppy would be absent, Mr. Menendez was not surprised. “Everyone’s talking about it.”
“It’ll die down.” Penn, after all, had done this once before.
“How did people find out?” the principal asked. “Who told?”
“Don’t know.” This was true. There were, apparently, a whole host of candidates. But Penn wasn’t prepared to say that the answer to this question, even if he had known it, was any of the principal’s business. He wasn’t sure that his other kids didn’t need protecting in this moment too. “Doesn’t matter,” he told Mr. Menendez. This was less true.
It took the principal three days to figure it out, and when he did, the answer was none of the above. None of the middle-of-the-night confessors had been the culprit. It was all Marnie Alison’s fault as Poppy, for one, had known all along.
Roo’s English class was writing practice college admissions essays. The mock-prompt was Write about a moment of great change in your life. Roo’s essay was not about Claude or about Poppy, but it was about how his own life had changed when his brother became his sister—what could be counted on, what was unalterable, what was rooted in the physical and what eluded it. The past should be immutable, Roo wrote, but it wasn’t. The future hadn’t happened yet, so it shouldn’t be so strange when what you imagined could no longer come to be, but it was. The essay was heartfelt, well written, and insightful, and a few months later, an only slightly revised version would gain Roo offers from several institutions of higher learning despite his failing a quarter of history in tenth grade and having a suspension for fighting on his permanent record.