by Mark Pantoja
“Put this on,” Father says and tosses me the sweater as I rub the sleep from my eyes. He turns off my sleeping hat, hangs it on my bedpost, and tousles my hair.
I am groggy, eyes sticky. The medicine gives me such rich dreams, which I can’t remember after waking. Mornings have been a fog as of late.
The sweater. It’s rough and thick and too warm for this time of year.
“Why?” I say.
“Your mother made it for you,” he says. “Worked very long on it.”
“I don’t remember that.”
He gives me a glare.
“Well,” he says. “She did.”
Aside from being terribly itchy, it stinks, like a wet dog. And it’s ugly. I make a face and push it away. I am not going to wear it.
“It would make her very happy.”
Why would I care about making Mother happy? She’s been strange for weeks now, ever since I got back. Father pretends not to notice, like everything is normal. She’s cold, distant. She barely says a word to me. Looks away when I enter the room. Won’t eat around anyone at all. Spends half her time up in the attic, away from everyone else. I don’t know what I did, but it was plain to me that Mother did not love me anymore. Perhaps she thinks she’ll get sick, even though I’m all better. I want to say this to Father, but the words won’t come. Not without tears. It’s hard to admit that your mother no longer loves you. But … that wasn’t it. Not completely. There was a feeling, a wrongness about her, something I can’t put into words. She was different. Not the same at all. All I can do is cross my arms and put a pout on my face. Even that nearly brings me to tears.
But Father sees this.
“Fine,” he says. He steps out of the room, that sweater next to me on the bed.
• • •
I can’t hear the words, but they argue in the next room. Then silence. Then Mother and Father enter the kitchen where I wait at the breakfast table.
Father tries to put a smile on his face, but it’s only on the surface. Beneath are dark, sad eyes.
Mother is stiff, one arm across her stomach holding her other elbow, hand at her neck as she fingers the attic key on the chain around her neck.
“Your mother wants to have breakfast with you,” Father says.
Mother says something under her breath. Father starts to ask what she said, but she clears her throat.
“Yes,” she says. She goes over to the pot of coffee on the counter and pours a cup. The air in the kitchen soon heavies with its rich, nutty aroma.
Father stirs a pot of oatmeal on the stove and grunts at Mother. She says, “Oh,” and puts down her coffee to retrieve a bowl from the cabinet. Father dollops a clump of oatmeal. Mother dresses it with sliced, fresh strawberries and sets it in front of me.
She returns to her coffee.
I take a bite of strawberry and oatmeal, but immediately it disagrees with me.
“I … don’t like strawberries.” I rub my tongue against the roof of my mouth, then on my napkin. “They make my mouth itch—”
Mother slams down her cup and a slosh of coffee spills onto the counter.
She opens and slams closed the dish cabinet and pantry as she clatters down another bowl in front of me and opens a jar of baby food. She slaps the bottom and the thick, brown puree squelches out and plops into the bowl. She picks up my spoon and shoves it in like a knife. It stands and then starts to lean after she lets go.
“How about this? Would you prefer this?”
“No,” I whine as sobs start to come. I hold them back, but they start to punch through.
“Bel—” Father says.
“I didn’t think so,” she says, venom thick on her tongue.
She swipes the bowl of baby food and whisks out.
Father and I look at the wall and ceiling as we listen to her take the stairs and then go into the attic.
I press fists into my eyes to fight off the tears, though a few come through. It’s hard to breathe.
“She hates me.”
“No. Don’t say that.”
“Then why did she get so mad? The berries make my tongue itch.”
“She just … she wanted to give you something you’d like. She … When you got sick, it was very hard on her. She couldn’t be around all this. She had to go away. And now that you’re back and so healthy, well, she’s scared.”
“She doesn’t love me anymore.”
“No,” Father says. “That’s not true. You can’t ever think that.”
“Then what is it? What have I done?”
“Son … you’re not a parent. You don’t know how it is. She loves you so much, she can’t bear to lose you again.”
He means well, but we both know it’s not true.
“But I’m here,” I say. I have to say it. I have to put it into words. He has to know. “She’s … changed.”
“Of course. You being so sick was difficult for us all.”
“No,” I say. “I mean … she’s not her. She someone else.”
He gives me a look, which, for a moment, is white with fear.
“No,” he says. “She’s not. She’s your mother.”
“She’s different, now,” I say.
“We all are,” Father says.
• • •
I play the Monster Game with Pepper from next door, out behind our house. Her family just moved in a few weeks ago. We’ve only been there a month or two longer. It’s a new housing development. Father said we needed a fresh start. Which is fine with me. I was so sick for so long, I don’t remember all that much of the old house. Only it was big and blue, and we had avocado trees in the backyard.
I am the Snapdragon and Pepper is the Hunter, but she kills me quickly. She moves in over me to cut off my head for her trophy collection, but stops.
“What is it?” she says as she plops down next to me in the grass.
I sit up.
“It’s her,” I say. “My mother.”
And then I tell her. I tell her about breakfast and how she won’t look at me and how she won’t eat with me. And I tell her about the attic. We both turn and look up at the small attic window, open enough for the curtains to reach out into the daytime breeze.
“She hates me,” I say.
“Maybe,” Pepper says.
“Maybe she liked it better when I was sick.”
“No,” she says.
“Pepper … I think … I think she’s changed. No. I think she’s not who she says she is.”
“Okay,” she says flat, like I said the river is cold or the sky is blue.
“Like, she’s someone else.”
“Yeah, I know. It happens.”
“What do you mean?”
“Just what I said. People get replaced all the time.”
“Replaced,” I say and it’s like something clicks in my head. That’s the word. Yes. She’s not my mother. She’s a replacement.
“Every day people get new wives and husbands, mothers, fathers.”
“But—don’t they get like a whole new, different person? She looks the same.”
“So? Makeup. Or plastic surgery. Or she’s a robot.”
I think of her mood swings and tears and—
“The baby food,” I say.
“What baby food?”
“She only eats baby food. She won’t eat in front of us and she only eats baby food.”
“Okay, ew, but don’t you see. She’s a newborn! They grew a brand-new adult.”
“They grew one?”
“Sure, why not? They grow people in tubes every day. Some of them have to be replacements.”
“Then what happened to my real mother?”
Pepper goes quiet. She twirls a piece of grass with a finger.
“You said she left when you got sick.”
“If she comes back and sees a replacement— She’s not coming back, is she?”
Pepper shrugs, but says, “Probably not.”
“She went away because I got sick. And she’s never coming back.” The tears threaten to force their way out, but I hold tight, clench my fists. It’s all my fault. I got sick, Mother went away, now there’s a replacement.
“Maybe it was just too much for her,” Pepper says and pulls the green blade from the bed of grass.
“I tried to tell my father, but he doesn’t believe me.”
“Or maybe he replaced her.”
I give a look of sheer horror and Pepper flinches.
“Maybe,” she says. “Or the hospital did it. Or the police did. Maybe your real mother did something bad and is in jail.”
“What do I do?”
“Well, you have to prove it, of course. You have to know, for sure. And then confront her. And your father, too. They can’t go around lying to you. You need to know what happened to your real mother.”
“How do I prove it?”
But she doesn’t say anything. She doesn’t have to.
We both look up at the attic window again as it gives another lazy wave to the world with its white curtains.
• • •
It isn’t easy getting into the attic.
I listen to Mother and Father in the kitchen. She slaps the bottom of a stubborn jar of baby food, he chops carrots. They share short, terse exchanges. She does not speak to him or anyone with anything but flame and bile. Did Father have Mother replaced? If so, why would he choose such a terrible mother? Maybe it wasn’t his choice. Maybe he really doesn’t know. It’s obvious, but adults can be that way, blind to what’s right in front of them. I feel sorry for him. Whether or not he knows or replaced her, he sleeps next to her at night.
While they partake in a controlled bicker I am upstairs, standing before the attic door. I try the door knob. It is locked, as expected. That key and chain never leave Mother’s neck. She bends over when she unlocks the door. I’ve watched from the hall closet.
I have brought a paper clip from Father’s study. I bend it mostly straight and insert it into the key slot. I don’t have any idea how to pick a lock. I do this simply to see if it’s feasible, how loud it will be, how hard, etc.
I move it back and forth, up and down, jiggle it around. Maybe if I knew what I was doing, but I don’t. And even with practice, it is a conspicuous sound. There has to be a better way, something more immediate. Picking the lock is not possible. Not in my timeframe.
Mother finishes her preparations and Father calls me to eat and I end my attempt.
Mother and I pass each other on the stairs. Her eyes are cast down, one hand clutches the key, the other holds the bowl of baby food with spoon. I play with the straightened paperclip in my pocket.
Father tries. He asks questions. How was your day. How is Pepper. But though he asks and provides follow-up comments and questions, I can see that he’s only paying half a mind. He is elsewhere. Surely, he has finally noticed that Mother is not Mother. But I don’t bring it up. It is better to have truth at hand, proof or witness from the attic, than to bring up suspicions that are discarded out of hand.
So I eat my chopped carrots and butter noodles. I sip my water. I answer his questions. My day was fine. Pepper is fine. I ask him about returning to school. I don’t love school but look forward to time away from the house. And the impostor.
“A while,” he says. “We have to make sure you can handle it. Make sure your health has fully returned.”
“My stomach hurts,” I say. It doesn’t. It’s a lie.
He looks at me, eyes wide. His face looks clammy. He thinks I’m sick again.
“I just ate too fast,” I say and rub my stomach. “I have to go to the bathroom.”
“Oh,” he says. “Are you done eating?”
“No,” I say. I don’t want him to leave the table. “I don’t think so. I just have to go to the bathroom.”
“Okay,” he says.
I scoot my chair back and get up.
“Don’t forget to wash up,” he says.
Once out of the kitchen, I take the stairs two at a time and enter the bathroom on the landing. I grab a ball of toilet paper, turn on the light and fan, and close the door. If she’s left the door unlocked, I’ll stuff the paper into the hole in the lock-play in the door jamb. It might cause the door to swing back open, but I’ll test it a few times, see how it works.
I reach for the knob. This is the moment of fear. What if she opens it with my hand on the knob? What if she’s waiting for me? A trap? If she catches me, perhaps I’ll be the next to be replaced.
I touch the knob and turn, but it doesn’t budge. Locked. I can just see her, waiting on the other side of the door. I listen. Only the fan. And then something else. Something from behind the attic door. A voice. Muffled. It is not constant, but interspersed. She talks to herself. Perhaps she’s talking about me. I press my ear to the door.
Father calls me.
As quiet as can, I bolt for the bathroom door.
“You okay up there?” he calls from the bottom of the stairs.
When I open the bathroom the whine of fan comes out. I leave it open as if all done, not as if I am reentering. I flush the toilet, stuff the toilet paper next to the paper clip, and wash my hands in the sink.
“I’m fine,” I say as I step out and turn off the light and fan.
Thumping comes from up in the attic. Father and I both turn and watch the blank attic door.
The thumping grows loud and fast and near as the replacement comes down the stairs and throws open the attic door.
“What?” she says annoyed and eyes me on the landing and Father at the foot below. She holds an empty bowl streaked with traces of baby food.
“Nothing, I just asked—”
“I didn’t feel well,” I say. “I had to use the bathroom.”
“Oh,” she says and stiffens a bit as she looks at me. She stares into my chest, never meets my eyes. “Well, you need to take care of yourself.”
“Yes,” I say. “I feel much better now.”
“Good,” she says. “Very good, then.”
“Let’s finish your dinner,” Father says.
I watch mother turn and close and lock the attic door. Only one course lays before me. Only one course I ever really had.
“Yes,” I say. “Let’s.”
• • •
The window, of course, is the obvious route of entry. Though not without certain risks. It is one story above mine and the only way to access it is the six-inch second-story overhang that runs beneath the window.
I leave my window open as I brush my teeth. Father readies my sleeping hat and hands me my bedtime medicine. A little white pill that he watches me swallow, but which I tuck into my cheek in the back corner of my mouth, and a little green diamond shaped pill that I do the same with. I say ah and pass inspection. I’ll take them later, after the attic. I don’t want my medicine interfering. It makes me drowsy. He pulls up my covers and sits on my bed.
“I know it’s been hard with your mother,” he says. “We’ve all been through a lot. We haven’t been a regular family in a long time. But she’ll come around. You’ll see.”
I droop my eyes, making like I’m sleepy.
“Yeah,” I say.
He pats my cheek and turns on my sleeping hat.
He gets up and tells me good night as he hits the light and closes my door.
I wait a moment in the dark, then turn off the sleeping hat before it can lull me away.
I spit out the pills and put them on my bedside table and listen to the house.
My eyes adjust and pale moonlight streams into the room. I am motionless for so long in that light it feels like it’s pressing the blankets flat over me.
The thump and mumble of my parents talking and moving about the house seeps into my room. Pipes groan as one of them brushes their teeth. A moment later the soft thumps of my mother going into the attic one more time. But she’s not there long, a few minutes before she thumps back down, and I hear the attic door whine shut before she locks it. They settle into their room and their interspersed staccato conversations arrive farther and farther apart …
I bolt upright.
The house has long been quiet. It’s gone cold. The moon has moved on and the room is pitch, can only see the outline of my hand in the black.
I curse myself. I fell asleep.
I slip out of the bed and ready myself with quiet feet.
Shirt, jacket, pants, shoes, backpack with flashlight, digital camera, rope, duct tape, and kitchen knife. You never know.
As quiet as I can, I whisper out the window onto the roof.
It’s slow going. Each step feels like a stomp, but I get across the roof to the drainpipe and lift myself up. I press myself against the side of the house as I inch closer and closer to the attic window. I get to it and find that it’s still open a breath, which is all I need.
It groans against the frame as I raise the window. To me it seems so loud, like it fills the house, but once it’s open enough for me to enter I stop and listen. Whole house is quiet.
One leg in, then my pelvis, then the other leg, then the rest of my bulk.
The room is dark and quiet and smells of dust and age and bananas. I suspect the last is from all the baby food.
Outside the window is a pale, dimly lit world. In the attic is a black so rich I could fall in and never hit the bottom.
Out of the quiet I feel a hum. There’s a plastic smell in the room I hadn’t noticed.
I slide my backpack around front and fish out the flashlight. When I flick it on, I see boxes stacked, rickety wooden furniture covered in sheets, neglected exercise equipment. And a bed. With machines next to it. And a boy sleeping in it. In the bed.
The machines breathe and beep and hum. And in the light I can see, they keep the little boy alive.
He’s pale. And shriveled. And gaunt. Sick. Dying. And I recognize him. Very well. I see him every day. In the mirror. He wears the same sleeping hat as me.
I turn on the little lamp next to his bed and kill my flashlight.
I wait a moment, then turn off his hat.
His eyes flash open and I can tell, he’s here, he’s smart, a whip. As near to me as anybody. He smiles.
“Why are your teeth black?”
“Because I’m sick, brother,” he says.
“You know,” he says and gives a weak shrug. “Life. My blood is bad.”
I am still.
“Come,” he says and lifts his hand to beckon me. I can tell it requires great effort and energy on his part. “I’m not contagious. Especially to you.”
I step forward and stand next to his bed. I see a half-eaten bowl of baby food. He sees me see this and gives a hoarse chuckle.
“You want some?”
I shake my head.
“It’s all I can keep down, these days. You know what I really miss? Strawberries.”
“They don’t make your mouth itch?”
“No,” he says.
“Hmm,” I say. “What did you mean, you’re not contagious to me?”
“You’re the answer,” he says.
I touch his skin, on his arm. It is cool and dry.
“You don’t feel sick,” I say.
His smile shows those black teeth again.
“I feel it,” he says. “It is deep. It gnaws at me. From the inside.”
“What do you mean, I’m the answer?”
“To this,” he waves to his body, hand wavering in the still air of the attic. “Where I am weak, you are strong.”
I think on this a moment while his machines purr.
“Jump,” he says.
He laughs, though it sounds like a cough.
“Pick up that ball,” he says, pointing to one on the dusty chest in the corner.
I do. I show it to him.
“Throw it in the air and catch it.”
I do. With ease.
He laugh-coughs again.
“See?” he says.
“You’re what I’m not. Strong in body, full of zest.”
“I’m just me.”
“No,” he says and stares at me. In the eyes.
“I’m you,” I say. “I’m your replacement.”
“They said you’d be smart.”
“Did they just grow me in a tube?”
“No,” he says. “I mean, I don’t know. But you’re me. They fixed what was wrong with my blood and made a new body. A new person. That’s you. You’re me. Mother said we shouldn’t talk, but why not? I wonder. We’re the same person.”
I look around the attic.
“I have dreams of this room,” I say. “Of smothering.”
He laughs again, but this time it turns into a real cough. He hacks and hems and haws, but I don’t help him.
When he finishes, he’s on his side and tired and panting. I can smell his sweat. Acrid.
“We have the same dreams,” he says. “Every night they link us together and you learn a little more about me.”
I frown. And think. A bit of time passes.
“So, every night I become a little more of you,” I say.
“And every night you bury a little bit more of me,” I say.
He doesn’t nod. He doesn’t have to. His eyes tell it. They say, yes, you’re right. I know. It’s true. I kill a bit of you every night.
There’s a quilt on his bed. An afghan. Is an afghan a type of quilt? It’s brown and white and orange. Something about it makes me think of cheese. I put my finger through one of the big afghan holes.
“No wonder she’s acting so strange,” I say. “She’ll never be herself as long as there are two of us.”
We are both quiet for some time.
“I will not wear the hat anymore,” I say.
“Father will notice.”
“I’m sure I can disable it.”
“Yes,” he says. “I’m sure you can.”
“I hope you understand.”
“I do. I’m just glad that part of me gets to live on in you.”
“Yes,” I say.
“It won’t be long now,” he says.
I stay with him a while, long enough for the light to lift the darkness some. We talk in low voices. I listen. I can’t let them bury who I am just so they can pretend he’s me, but I can remember his stories.
I leave well before my parents wake. My parents? Yes, they’re still my parents. I think.
I’m in bed with the sleeping hat on when my father wakes me.
I am right. It’s not hard to disable the hat and hide the pills.
He asks me to find one of his favorite books. I do. It is on my shelf.
But when I visit him at night after I find it, he doesn’t wake after I turn off his hat. I say his name and give him a shake, but he does not stir. I read to him beside his bed in soft tones while he labors to breathe, despite the assistance of his machines.
After a while I just sit and listen. I hold his hand. It is cool and dry, but definitely still alive.
After I leave his room, I lay in my bed the rest of the night awake. I am not surprised when I hear Mother scream and wail or when Father comes in to wake me, his eyes streaked with tears. He tells me everything is alright and I should stay in my room.
Maybe someday I will let them know, that I’m me, and not him. At least in part. But for now, all I can feel is sorrow. Sorrow for the boy they lost, sorrow for the boy they tried to bury inside this mind, sorrow for how desperate they must have been to try and replace their own son.
I prepare myself for the day and lay out my clothes. Underwear, black socks, jeans. And the sweater my mother made for my dead brother.
Copyright © 2020 by Mark Pantoja