Joshua downed the last bit of tea and rose to rinse the mug at the sink. He set it on the draining board and yawned fiercely. He had been up working since six something that morning. According to his watch, it was what… two a.m.! No wonder he was so tired. Joshua stretched his long arms and turned to face his siblings.
“Well folks, I’m gonna head on up to bed. Mom is scheduled for surgery at nine tomorrow morning and she wants to see us, before she goes under the knife. I figured we could leave for the hospital at around eight thirty. Is that alright with you all?”
Harriet and Richard looked at each other and groaned, nodding wordlessly.
“What about Rachel,” asked Harriet.
Joshua shrugged, “Oh, I’ll just wake her up, when I get up.”
“No, I mean by the time she gets back, it’ll practically be time to get up. She’ll be dead on her feet.”
Harriet couldn’t help laughing at how earnestly her brothers replied in unison. Joshua’s grin matched Richard’s. Up until now, they had all been unwittingly dubious about speaking ill of Rachel; as though she might hear them. That feeling was even stronger around their mother.
Both women had a habit of eavesdropping. So much so, that one felt as though they were always listening and could never be sure when one wasn’t. They certainly did not feel like subjecting themselves to a drunken tirade at this hour. Joshua lumbered across the kitchen, yawning and stretching all the way. He stopped at the door, turning to Richard and Harriet once more.
“Your beds are made and there are fresh towels in the hall closet, but then you already know that. Good night.”
“Goodnight Josh,” chirped Harriet.
“Yeah, night,” mumbled Richard.
Joshua turned and headed for the steps feeling somewhat relieved. All evening, he had the distinct impression that he was interrupting something. The very air that flowed between his siblings seemed charged with anticipation. Joshua dismissed the thought with a wave of his hand. He was just tired enough to have imagined it all. Oh well, it was none of his concern anyway.
Back in the kitchen, the mood was anything but one of relief. Uneasiness settled on the kitchen like a dense fog. Harriet was bewildered by her discomfort at being alone with her brother. It was silly to feel that way about someone with whom she had shared so much of her life. Yet, this knowledge did little to quell the discomfort.
Perhaps that’s why she developed a sudden interest in the dishes on the table, taking great care in collecting each piece and becoming utterly engrossed in cleaning them. The running water kept the uncomfortable silence at bay.
Richard found himself in a similar state, confounded by his complete loss for words. It was moments like this, when he regretted his reclusive lifestyle. Harriet was obviously not a child anymore. So, what kind of things did young ladies talk about? How old was she anyway? Let’s see, she’s three years younger so…she’s twenty-four! Could that be right? Uh…yeah, she is twenty-four! Okay, so what do women her age talk about?
There was a time, when Richard was quite the ladies’ man, as witty as he was charming. Two years ago, he was a different person. Back then, he was fun-loving and easygoing. Now…now, he was solemn and tense, a mere shadow of his former self.
In Richard’s mind, a quintessential part of him died two years ago, when his wife blew a hole in his chest and broke his heart. How many years must pass before he could remember without waves of anguish overwhelming him? At times, it grew so intense that Richard was sure he would lose his mind. But then rage would flare up and boil the pain down to a dull, throbbing ache in his chest.
“Huh? Oh, I’m sorry Harriet. What did you say?”
“I was just thanking you for what you did earlier.”
“What did I do?”
“You got Rachel off my case. Some things never change. She always could get to me. I just wanted to let you know that I appreciate the way you always have my back.”
Before he could reply, Harriet was hugging his neck and kissing his cheek. Those actions had taken every ounce of her resolve. She wasn’t sure how Richard would react. Nevertheless, Harriet made a decision and carried it out. For once, she hadn’t talked herself out of doing something. It felt nice to hug her brother.
Harriet always felt safe encircled in his strong arms. She hadn’t realized just how much she missed him. But now, standing close enough to smell his musky cologne with him gazing down into her eyes made her acutely self-conscious.
They exchanged hesitant smiles, before she turned and whisked out of the kitchen. Harriet didn’t slow down, until she was safely on the other side of her closed bedroom door. She kicked off both shoes and sat down on her bed to rest. Lately, the slightest effort seemed to drain her energy. She couldn’t wait to crawl into bed. Harriet rose and took off her dress, pausing before the mirrored closet door to appraise the wasted body underneath.
She stared at her abdomen, turning one way and then another. Any weight gain? Harriet hoped not. Maybe she shouldn’t have eaten so much on the plane. Harriet had potato chips, cookies and half a bag of chocolate kisses. Then she let Joshua talk her into eating that big slice of chocolate cake after dinner.
Harriet was so nervous about going home that she had stuffed her face all day. She tried to curb her appetite with chewing gum, but it just made her hungry. Harriet could practically feel all of those calories turning into fat. Her doctor felt that she was grossly underweight, but what did he know?
As a ballerina, she simply had to maintain a streamlined figure. Harriet threw her dress on a hanger, grabbed her bag of toiletries and headed down the hall to the bathroom. Trembling hands washed a pinched face and brushed her teeth.
Harriet bent to rinse out her mouth. She straightened, meeting her own critical gaze. Harriet tentatively felt her sharp chin for signs of doubling. Her other hand compulsively shot down to her flat stomach. How she loathed her body! Self-hatred boiled over and clouded her better judgment.
All at once, Harriet stepped over to the commode, lifted the seat, bent forward and shoved the toothbrush down her throat. The spasms began immediately. Everything in her stomach came spewing forth into the bowl. When the molten stream ended, she calmly brushed her teeth a second time and returned to the bedroom.
For an instant, she felt relieved, at peace, in control. Then shame came crashing down on her elation. Dammit, dammit, dammit! She was not supposed to do that again. She had promised herself! It was just that Harriet always felt helpless, in her mother’s house. The moment she walked in and Rachel lit into her, she became the miserable, chubby little girl that she fought so hard over the years to forget.
Harriet turned off the lights and climbed into bed, hoping to find some comfort in sleep. Her overwrought emotions continued to torment her. She surrendered her self-control to the tears that flooded her eyes, grappling with a crushing degree of disappointment in herself. For the thousandth time, Harriet rued the date of her birth.