Sticks and Clicks25 Feb, 2015 06:00 AM
My parents aren't home much. They never have been. My childhood, as far as I can remember, was a slew of babysitters of varying trustworthiness every night, every weekend, every day off, and every day of every summer. My mom liked to (still likes to) go out to bars and casinos, so my dad took her to wherever suited her fancy that evening to make sure she didn't get into any big trouble or cheat on him. I've never bothered to ask them about their escapades, since they always come home at almost two in the morning, and since I don't particularly care to know.
Most of the time, it was just me and my sister, Halle, at home with some stranger who was content to sit on the couch with a bag of potato chips and watch TV. That was fine with us, too. If there was enough light outside, we'd play in the backyard until the sun went down, and at night I would teach her all sorts of card games and magic tricks. She never really got the gist of anything I showed her, but I know she enjoyed watching me do them. Sometimes my best friend, Greg, would come over and help me out with my demonstrations. Greg was a pretty laid-back kid; he was nice to Halle and extremely helpful, especially to me when I needed a partner for cards or an assistant for magic.
Halle's favorite game, though, was stick pictures. She was young, so she was easily entertained, and luckily the trees in our yard and the surrounding yards provided all the materials we needed. We would collect the fallen sticks and branches and put them in a pile. Then I would give Halle something to make using sticks, but the goal was to use as few as possible. Her creative little mind found ways to create artistic pieces like no one else could; even I had trouble understanding her process every now and then, but the results matched the object given, so I accepted it without much question. On Halle's good days, if she found a stick that she really liked (for some odd reason she was drawn to them), she would clutch it tightly in her tiny fist until we went inside, where she would put it inside a small cabinet that hung on the wall above her bed. That cabinet must have been filled with sticks and completely filthy on the inside, with a nice covering of dirt everywhere.
Halle's bad days only happened once every two or three months, but when they came around, you had to be ready to jump into the routine. The babysitters were always alarmed, but I knew what to do to calm her down. The first procedure on the list was to get an orange popsicle for her. Orange was her favorite flavor, and it took her nearly an hour every time to finish off that one icy treat. Next, I had to make her wash her hands, because they were always sticky after popsicle-eating. She'd step up on her stool in front of the bathroom sink and run lukewarm water over her hands for a solid minute before pumping so much soap into her hand that it all ran over the sides of her palm and fingers. I let her waste the soap on these days; Mom and Dad might care if they knew I let her do that, but they never noticed. While she took her time alternating between squishing the soap between her fingers and rubbing it into her hands, I stood behind her and gently brushed her hair. It calmed her down more to know that I was behind her, and when I was done brushing, she'd run her newly cleaned fingers through her soft, short hair. She loved that feeling.
On the bad days, we didn't go outside. As much as she loved playing stick pictures, she didn't like thinking when she got upset. The best option was to let her pick out a book and lay on my bed with me while I read it to her. I listened to her breathing between sentences. Her chest would rise ever so slightly, except for the occasional deep breath, when she'd make a show of expanding her belly and letting it settle down again on the exhale. Often she would have her eyes closed, but she wouldn't fall asleep. Every time, just in routine, she would listen to me reading to her about dinosaurs, families, secret codes, or whatever the topic of the book was. When I was finished, Halle would be full of questions. I answered them all to the best of my ability.
"Do mouses really like cookies?" I don't know, Halle. Probably.
"Do we have a grandma and grandpa?" Yes, but we haven't met them. "Why?" I don't know. Mom and Dad are just too busy for us to meet their parents, I guess.
"Can we have a code?" Sure. What kind of code? "A secret one." How will it work? "When I snap, that means 'hi'. And clicking our tongues means 'bye'. And when I blink really quickly like this-" she demonstrated what she meant by opening and closing her eyes as quickly as possible, "that means 'I love you'. Okay?" Okay.
I didn't know why Halle had good days and bad days. I certainly didn't, and neither did Greg. Maybe Mom and Dad knew but just didn't ever tell me. Eventually the good days seemed to become less and less of a constant, until they were few and far between. The number of unread books in the house was dwindling down. One weekend, when Dad was home because Mom was sick, I asked him to take me to the store so I could buy books. He asked me several times, in an irritated tone, how I was going to buy them, and he said that if I expected him to give me money then I was out of the ballpark and out of my mind on that one. I showed him the twenty-two dollars that I had saved up, and he relented. I bought one big book to read at night before bed, when I had time to myself, and three smaller books that still had a good amount of pages to read to Halle. Three books wasn't much, but it was more than none.
In two weeks I only had one of those smaller books left. I thought about asking Dad to take me to the store again, but I didn't have any money now, and he sure wasn't going to give me any. I thought that maybe Halle wouldn't mind. A few days later, when none of our books were new to her anymore, she simply picked out one that we had started with at the beginning of all of the bad days. She told me that she didn't remember it anyway, so it would be fine. I read it to her, and she asked me questions at the end- some that I remembered, and a few that she had just come up with.
Halle began going outside less and less. More often than not, she just wanted to stay inside. I learned more magic tricks to show her, and Greg was coming over nearly every day to help me keep Halle as entertained as possible. None of the babysitters cared what we did so long as we didn't break anything.
The bad days and the good days slowed down. I'm still not sure why. Everything just became days, where Halle decided that she was or wasn't- either she was hungry or she wasn't; she was interested in magic or she wasn't; she was going to get up, or she wasn't. Most days she decided 'was' on that last one, while other days she just laid in bed and wouldn't talk. I could tell that when I read to her, even the stories that I knew were her favorites, she wasn't paying attention anymore. Something had changed, and no one would tell me what.
Then, one day, that was it. The days became nothing. Halle decided that she wasn't; somehow, I decided to keep breathing, to keep living, even though my insides burned, my eyes and face stung from salty tears, and I wanted to scream at her. "Halle, you can't do that! You can't decide that anymore! There's been too many days to not have anymore!" That last reason was stupid, and I knew that she didn't decide to not be a person anymore, but I didn't care about stupid at the time. I only cared about Halle and her days. Halle and her sticks. Halle and her books and her orange popsicles and her code.
I blinked as fast as I could at her. Nothing.
I didn't enter her room for two days after that. I tried to tell Mom and Dad that Halle wasn't, but Dad just called me a liar and Mom was too drunk, or maybe she just didn't care. But when one of the babysitters smelled something too disgusting to be ignored, she followed the stench to Halle's room. She looked inside, screamed, and called 911 and my parents. They took her away, and I just hid in my room, quietly sobbing and listening to my parents scream at me through my bedroom door about how they knew I'd known about it and how I didn't tell them or anyone.
There was a funeral. It was small, and one of the only days when Mom wasn't at a bar or casino, and the reason wasn't that she was sick. It wasn't an open-casket funeral; her body was apparently far too disturbing for people to see, not that any of the twenty people in attendance, aside from possibly Greg and me, would have had any more or any worse nightmares about it all. I didn't know what to do most of the time, so I just sat down and switched between watching the other guests and sobbing, all while feeling empty. Mom decided to smoke a cigarette when everyone had left the reception area and she thought no one was looking, but I saw her. I hadn't even known she smoked. I was recounting the day when Halle went from was to wasn't, thinking about how ridiculous all of my blinking was. My last futile attempt to tell Halle I loved her, in that code that she'd made up.
Snapping- hello. Clicking tongue- goodbye. Rapid blinking- I love you. What kind of useless code only has three phrases? Then, I heard a click. I quickly looked to where the sound had come from.
Mom was pulling open the upper half of the coffin. The click was the clasp being undone. The lid creaked as she raised it, and with one flick of her wrist, she tossed the ashy remains of her cigarette into the casket with Halle. Then she quietly closed the lid and clasped it together again. It snapped into place.
In that moment, I realized the beauty of Halle's code. Hi, goodbye, and I love you- those are the only three phrases you really need a code for. One for the beginning, one for the end, and one for all of the feelings in between. Just as she had proven to be smart whenever we played stick pictures, she was a genius in creating such a simple form of secret communication.
A few months later, I was on my own in the house. Mom and Dad had decided that I was old enough to be by myself, and Mom wanted more money to use on her social addictions. I was okay with being alone. It gave me time to do my homework in peace, watch TV, or do anything else that I felt like doing. As long as I didn't break anything, I was fine.
A thought kept jutting into my day every now and then. Should I clean out Halle's room? Mom and Dad hadn't done it yet, and if they were going to in the future, they'd probably just sell everything for more money for Mom. I might as well take what I want now, right? So that's what I did. I peered into her room, holding a big, black, plastic trash bag, unsure that what I was doing was even ethical. As soon as I stepped foot in her room, though, I was filled with a sense that I was about to do the right thing. I didn't riffle through her clothes or boxes of journals that she had tried to write. If there was an achievement award from school, I stashed that in the bag; I gingerly lifted up her favorite stuffed animal, a plush pig, and placed it at the absolute bottom of the bag; any books that had been left in here went into the bag as well. I picked my way through the obvious things in her room, and when I was satisfied, I turned to leave.
I heard a click. Then I heard the soft 'plop' of something- multiple somethings- falling on her bed. I turned around and saw a pile of sticks scattered among the blankets. The small cabinet above her bed had swung open. Without hesitation, I moved quickly to the bed, gathered the sticks, and unceremoniously threw them into the bag. I didn't close the cabinet. Click meant goodbye.
I stepped out of her room, carrying my light bundle in one hand in front of me. I had a feeling that after that moment, I would never set foot in her room again; I never have. I reached behind me for the doorknob and pulled the door shut.