by E.C. McMullen Jr.
Morning in our kitchen and my big sister Leni was talking futility again.
No one takes her seriously. Mom ignored her and Pop taunted her.
“Ah, the morning’s teen angst!” he mocked theatrically, filling his to-go cup. “What would we do without our Daily. Drama. Dour. Jour? “
Mom and Pop shared a warm hug and a kiss. Then Pop gave Grandma a kiss on the cheek, which she leaned into. Scowling Leni got a quick kiss on top of her head, which she shook off.
Pop noticed but in good-nature, took no offense. “She casts aside my affections. Oh, the ta-ragedy of it all!” he wailed, giving me a quick wink and a nod as he walked out the door. His voice trailed back to us, “If ennui wants me, I’ll be at work.”
“Dad!” Leni groused, “You’re such a-!” But Pop was already gone and the door closed.
Leni turned her attention back to the news and deeply sighed. “Nobody understands the hopelessness of the Suicider.” (I was pretty sure she made that word up). Leni shook her head sadly, murmuring. “Eight story fall. Imagine such hopelessness.”
“Such drama,” Grandma scoffed. “Suicide is only for attention.”
Outraged in a snap, my sister nearly shouted, “Attention? You think people kill themselves for attention? That is so crue-”
“Why else would they leave a note?” Grandma posed, unfluttered by Leni’s anger.
Leni’s open mouth huffed in shock, but said nothing.
“But Grandma,” I said, as I was only eight years old then, “How can anyone kill themselves if they don’t commit suicide?”
Asking Grandma anything required patience. Grandma was forever measuring her words and reconsidering them. Her answers were slow and punctuated by thoughtful pauses. Pop said Grandma spoke in ellipses.
“Everyone knows the way,” Grandma said, then turned her head as if in realization. “They know … how to get there,” she explored the thought. A glint of revelation came to her eyes. “Although… they often don’t know when they’ve arrived.”
Grandma blinked, surprised by her epiphany. “So I’ll tell you,” she said.
“Whether you live near a paved street, a dirt road, or just a path, it’s the same. You merely step out of your house at night, and walk to the end of the road.
Take the steps up to the House That Isn’t There. On the other side of a row of trees, you’ll find the -”
“Trees?” Leni snippily interrupted. “Well what if you live in a desert? Or the city?”
“Or just somewhere with no trees?” I added.
“Like Iceland!” Leni erupted. “They have no trees in Iceland!”
“There will always be the line of trees,” Grandma answered. “They are the borderland between you and your destiny. On the other side of the trees, the giant wheel will appear and wait for you.”
Leni was rudely incredulous. “A wheel?”
“What kind of wheel?” I asked.
“The kind you ride,” Grandma intoned.
“Like a Merry-Go-Round?” I asked hopefully.
“Or a Ferris Wheel?” Leni burst in unexpected enthusiasm.
“Either, or something else,” Grandma said. “It will be your wheel.”
“Why a wheel?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” Grandma shrugged. “The wheel was the first machine human hands ever made. Hm.”
She turned the answer over in her mind. “Some say machines will replace us. Maybe there is something to the idea that… our own creations deliver us to…” Grandma trailed off, then threw up her hands. “Whatever is next.”
“So you see the wheel. Then what?” Leni asked, now caught up in Grandma’s tale.
“You have a choice. You pass between the trees and take your seat on the wheel, or you don’t.”
Mom stopped her puttering to listen to Grandma and it seemed in that moment, as if silence physically stood in the room with us, blocking all sound but our own.
“And if you do?” my sister asked quietly.
“If you do, the wheel will turn and take you around, but when your place on the wheel returns, you won’t be in it.”
“I don’t know where you’ll be, but nobody will ever see you again.”
My sister and I thought about this.
“Wow.” I said in hushed awe.
Leni’s face crinkled up.
“Wait a minute,” she asked, all sneer and sarcasm. “How do you know this?”
Grandma’s eyes looked past us far away to a place we could never go.
“When I was a child, I shared a room with my big sister, Lise. She was never a happy girl, but in her last week, Lise was … different in a way I was too young to understand. It made me uncomfortable and I didn’t sleep well.
One night, Lise got out of bed and, in her nightclothes, walked out of our room, down the hall, down the stairs, and out our front door.”
“I put on my slippers and hurried after her. I nearly caught up, then checked myself. Something about the way she moved kept me back. She moved … she was …” Grandma searched for the word, then used one of Leni’s. “Ethereal. So I followed apace.”
“Followed a-what?” I asked.
“I followed a ways behind her,” Grandma said. “I was only nine and wearing bedroom slippers, so I felt every pebble, acorn, and twig beneath my feet. But Lise walked so lightly, nearly floating. It was almost hypnotic. My, we walked such a long, lonely way in that cold night. So long I started to wonder if the sun would ever rise.”
“Finally we came to the end of the street. Three stone steps led up from the walk to a House That Wasn’t There. Everything was there for a house. A mailbox, empty property, a barren square for a foundation, even a street lamp to light the house number. But no house.”
“My sister walked up the three steps and, just as she entered the place where the house should be, a circus wheel,” Grandma nodded to Leni, “like a Ferris Wheel, rose up from behind a row of trees. Then it did nothing else but tower over us, waiting, and my sister walked toward it.”
Grandma paused again, remembering the moment. “I felt a dreadful finality about that wheel. When Lise vanished from view, I was suddenly so frightened for her. So scared that I broke from my trance shouting, “Lise!”
I hurried cautiously, staring up at that oppressive thing as I neared it. What kind of grown-up would operate such a thing? Who would I meet? And what would he do? Then the Wheel seemed to breathe a sad, rusty sigh, and turned.
I was certain what that meant: Lise was riding that awful thing! I broke into a run, between the trees, shouting “Lise! No!” and arrived just in time to see the big wheel rise her up and away into the dark night.
I stood there helpless, watching the Wheel turn, my sister growing smaller as she slowly rose high up, to the top, and eclipsed the moon.
The moon was so bright I blinked in its glare. I waited for my sister to circle back. As small as I was, I was determined to take her hand and pull her away from this terrible place. But when her chair returned it was empty. Only the prints of her feet remained on the footboard.”
“So what did you do?” my sister asked quietly, once more captivated by Grandma’s story.
“Frightened and alone, I ran home crying, losing my slippers behind me. I ran all the way back down that long, lonely street in the night. Even with such a great distance again, the sun never rose and the moon never moved. And because I was by myself and the night was strange, I thought I must surely be lost.”
“But just as I felt I would never find my way back, I recognized the houses on our street, and ran all the way to our home, back upstairs to our bedroom, and just as I did, I woke up in the daylight and my Mother’s arms.”
“Huh?” I blinked.
“Oh,” Leni said, disappointed. “It was only a dream.”
“The sun rose after all and all was light,” Grandma continued. “My Mother held me… crying on my head… while father and our doctor carried Lise’s body from the room.”
My sister opened her mouth to speak, or maybe it just opened by itself, but no sound came out. Leni only stared as her eyes went wet.
Story by E.C. McMullen Jr.
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