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Chapter 2 - The Girl Who Left the Lights On

Eleanor with a vacuumxstory 7

December 24, 1988

Eleanor is shoving a broom handle down the throat of this vacuum cleaner. Something's blocking the air – could be anything from half a clothespin to the family's old hamster. Not her problem. Christmas tomorrow and no decorations, no tree, no gifts from anyone but Eleanor. The house still resembles a bomb site sprouting algae and Gareth's turkey is downstairs seething poison from its loose, puckered skin like some vile god. Fuck knows how long that thing's been presiding there or why he thought it was a good idea to drag it out from the freezer in the first place.

     'That's your contribution this year?' Morning in the kitchen. Dad had already left for his Santa visit to Great-aunt Liz's place on the South Shore. 'Really, Gareth? Food poisoning?'

     Her brother kept his back turned. He appeared to be stuffing the turkey, or making friends with it, or perhaps teaching himself basic puppetry. Eleanor leaned over the sink. There were ruined towers of dirty dishes she could topple with her head if she let herself slump forward. This was a temptation; she was exhausted, even then.

     She has no idea what time she got up this morning, except that it was dark outside. The first task of the day had been helping Dad assemble a box of presents for Aunt Liz. Eleanor wanted to come with her father, she told him. Of course she did. But look at the state of this place. It would be different if Gareth would lift a finger around here – besides the obvious one – but since he was evidently more interested in hanging out with his new friend Salmonella Bill than helping....

     Dad answered with a strained little chuckle. Then he'd told her to go easy on Gareth.

     'Just give him a break about chores and stuff.' Dad glanced down at the image of his son grinning vacantly from the family photo. Mom, Dad, Gareth, Emily and Eleanor, all posed in front of the fireplace last Christmas, though at that point Mom and Dad had been separated for months. Still, there was the gang smiling on anyway: the last group picture they would ever take.

   Her father angled the sturdy brown frame into the box with the other gifts and Eleanor sent it a mental goodbye. 'Try to be patient,' Dad told her. 'Okay, pretty girl? Garfy's been going through a hard time lately.'        

   So, there she was, attempting to be patient, like Dad said. She stayed quiet by the sink and watched her brother pluck a handful of leaky brown grapes from a bowl, roll them around on his palm for a moment, and shove them up the dead bird's ass. Did he think they'd turn into raisins in there? Possibly. The same principle must have been at work when he added popcorn kernels a few minutes later. By the time he moved on to tangerines, she decided she couldn't stand it anymore.

    'Jesus, Gareth. Did you even bother getting Dad a present?'

    'Calendar.' He jerked one shoulder toward a sheaf of shiny, stapled paper on the washing machine. Well, at least it was for 1989. Eleanor flipped open the first page. Compliments of Scotia Bank.

     'Wow. You really went all out this year.'

     'I'll get something else. I mean, if you think that's not good enough.'

    xstory 5She began pacing the kitchen, moving objects around and throwing other ones away. Grapes in the garbage, bowl in the sink.

     'Of course it isn't. And you've got maybe six hours until the stores close. Probably take you that long to find your shoes.' Eleanor yanked open the fridge, lobbed a bag of onions at the crisper drawer and slammed it shut with her foot. Then it was back to the sink.

     He shrugged. 'You get the best deals at the last minute.'

     'I'm sure he'll enjoy the box of light bulbs.' Hot water came down in a blast and she squirted Joy over everything. 'Look, why don't you just go now? I'll pay for it if you don't have the money.'     

     'I'll go when I'm done. Jesus.'

     She thought she saw him push a packet of pizza spice in there. The dishes groaned against each other.

     'Gareth, you are not going to cook that thing and serve it up for Christmas dinner tomorrow. It's probably got bacteria cities growing in it by now. It'll poison us all.'

     'You don't have to eat it.'

     'Well, I'm not going to and neither is Dad. If you want to kill yourself, that's fine.'

     'I don't.'

     Shit. She glanced over her shoulder. Her brother had turned from the turkey to glare at her. Oh, Gareth. The same expression he used to get when he was a little kid, right after you smacked him and just before he'd start to cry.

     'I didn't mean it like that.' She was retreating into a corner with the cupboards smooth against her head. 'God damn it, an idiot could see – '

     'Yeah? Well, maybe I'm not an idiot.'

     Gareth sawed at his face with his forearm. He looked awful. The way his shoulders stooped, the sluggish grey skin under his eyes, his prison uniform of lint-speckled black rags. Like some poor creature spliced together from bones and broom handles that had come creaking down from the attic to steal Christmas.

     But she didn't want to say sorry, not then. 'Sorry' is her bad habit. 'Sorry' changes nothing. After all, how many times had Gareth apologised for last night? And did it make her feel any less like pounding him?

     So embarrassing. The night before Christmas Eve, and there was our heroine on the train pulling into Riverside station: watching the blue fields and the Christmas lights, smiling as the landscape turned friendly and familiar. The porter paced past calling the next stop in that comforting rhythm and she'd jumped to her feet. Home. The word seemed to expand in her head. The floor pitched under her. She'd craned for a glimpse of Dad and Gareth on the platform.

     But the train stopped, and her smile had turned into something uncertain. There was no sign of either one xmas 3of them. Were they late? Eleanor clambered down the steps and took a seat on a bench with her back against the station wall, her face flushing as if there was some joke here that no one would explain. Off to the side, two elderly women were greeting each other. Carefully positioned kisses on the cheek, questions about the journey, soft smiling voices.

     Probably sisters, she decided, long after the women and everyone else had climbed into their cars and vanished. It must be nice to have someone welcome you home.

     After a long while Eleanor had given up waiting, hauled her suitcase through the snow and arrived at a dark house with no one to talk to but the dog. Barney, their ancient Border collie mix. A pretty good listener.

     Was this her father's fault? No, indeed. Dad had been held up in meetings halfway across the province. He'd known he wouldn't be back until late, had left strict instructions for Gareth to meet her train. And the little darling went off to a party instead. Because he's going through a hard time. Apparently.

     Right. Enough wallowing. Last night's disappointment and this morning's squabbles in the kitchen are over, and now it's just Eleanor and the vacuum cleaner with twelve hours left until Christmas. She's cleared the blocked mess in the tube – appears to be part of a sock. Now she can deal with the rest of the house. Lunch was four carrots in onion dip, no time to get fancy. She can't remember how many hours she slept last night, or if she slept at all. Every night she clicks off the light, closes her eyes, and feels the same as she does when she's awake. It hurts to drag herself out of bed in the morning.

     Keep going. Dining room. The dog threw up under the table, a long time ago. She's on her hands and knees confronting it with a J-cloth. Good thing she didn't go with her mother to Florida. Imagine missing this. Mom got carried off there by a friend from work (Shirley? Penny?), a widow who knows exactly what to do about Christmas: ignore it. Thank God for the woman, whatever her name is. Their mother deserves a bit of sunshine.

     Mom's on anti-depressants and mood stabilisers these days. A weakness, Eleanor had thought at first, turning your emotions over to a handful of chemical compounds. But who cares as long as it's helping? The last time they'd seen each other, Mom had actually laughed at one of Eleanor's lame jokes – they were in Frenchy's pawing through bins of second-hand junk, and Eleanor had scooped up two crocheted toilet paper covers in the shape of yellow poodles, said she could make her mother a very attractive bikini top from these. And there was that laugh, for the first time in...weeks? Months?

    xstory 6 'Sure, sweetheart,' Mom had said. 'Guess I should try to look sexy on the shuffleboard court.'

     Then they'd ambled to the counter with their burden of cast-off clothes. Mom kept her arm snug around Eleanor's waist, told her again how much she'd miss her this Christmas, how sorry she was that Eleanor wasn't coming with her.

     'But it's nice you want to take care of your Dad,' she'd said. 'And remember to go easy on your little brother. Okay, honey? The poor thing's been having such a rough time lately.'

     Is the entire world in on this? Any minute now a band of carollers is going to ring the doorbell and start singing it to her.

     Right. Dog barf's dealt with. Now she's trying to organise the papers on the tabletop where something sticky is coagulating along with the folders and files. There's a stack of soil pollution reports to get clear, and a collection of old birthday cards. Some curling strips of paper, probably reciepts. A scrap of cardboard, cut into a jagged Christmas tree triangle.

     Stop. This is her sister's handwriting.

     It's a list. 'Wondering what to get that special middle daughter this Christmas?' Eleanor catches a glimpse of a few album titles, a brand-name perfume. Little faces are crowding the branches of this cardboard tree: joyful, curious, comically surprised. One of a monster with horns singing 'Jingle Bells'.

     Why would Em care about Christmas gifts? If she was really planning...that. To do what she did.

     Finish the thought, you stupid coward.

     She shoves her sister's list into a folder. She'll sort it out later. Before Dad sees. Eleanor doesn't feel too well, all of a sudden. No food. No sleep. Outside the wind's gathering speed. Better call Aunt Liz, find out if her father's still there.

     No. It's not time to panic. She needs to finish upstairs first, at any rate. She drags the vacuum cleaner by the hose and the wheels bang against the steps in a clunky, ascending rhythm. Things go faster up here. But at the end of the hall, her leash pulls up short; she's flailing away at corners she can't reach. Idiot vacuum cord. There's another socket in Gareth's room. She fumbles with the doorknob and walks in.

     Bizarre. There's nobody here. But the door to the back stairway is open and caught in a whoosh of air, as if someone's just pelted through. Does he run when he hears her coming? She takes a seat on the mattress. Still warm. The bedside table is crowded with books and empty mugs tilted at precarious angles, the insides varnished over with old stains as hard as nail polish. A notebook with a wire coil teeters on the clock radio.

     Off limits. The kid's personal thoughts. Don't touch it, Eleanor.

     But somehow the thing's in her hand. She's looking at one sentence in a loose scrawl that covers the entire page.

     'Was she really crying or did I dream it?'

     Eleanor closes her eyes, imagines she can feel her fingertips going numb. Who is he talking about? Emily? She shouldn't look at any more of this, not one word. She flips back to the previous page. The handwriting's calmer, more contained.

    xmas 1 'Maybe try to contact the boyfriend, find out if he knows anything. Look for his address in Emily's stuff? Write him a letter? Might seem weird coming from a guy. Mom's good at this kind of thing – ask her to do it? What about Eleanor?'

     Then under this: 'BAD IDEA. She can't stand me lately.'

     Eleanor sets the notebook exactly where she found it. Better add a new item to the to-do list: prove love for irritating sibling. Now when can she squeeze that in?

     The top drawer of his bedside table is open, just a few inches. She nudges it a bit farther. Inside there's another little journal. This one's hard-backed, some design on the cover that looks like peacock feathers.

     Stop. For fuck's sake, give the kid some privacy. Out you go, Eleanor. Now.

     Then she's in the hallway kicking the vacuum to a corner, charging off to her room, her open suitcase. xmas 2Under the clothes and wrapped presents she finds that bottle of Southern Comfort some terrified girl gave her for the Secret Santa exchange on her dorm floor this year. Stuff tastes like corn syrup and makes her teeth feel furry. But what the hell? It's Christmas.

     Right. Time for another set of stairs. Up we go, Eleanor. Get that Christmas tree. Their artificial tree, the same one they assemble every year in mid-December and abandon in the living room until spring. It has to be in the attic.

    Both hands on the banister, dragging herself. Then she's on the dark, unheated third floor. As soon as something's part of the past it migrates here, this cold place with its thick clots of dangling cobwebs, its corners that stay dark even when you shine a flashlight into them. Eleanor pries open the flaps of a sagging cardboard box, peeks into a plump plastic bag. Clothes and toys. Winter coats they've outgrown. There's another box buried on a shelf, too small for the tree. Looks like it could house a pair of boots. Or a stack of magazines.

     Oh, no. She lifts the lid to make sure.

     Yep. Dad's old Playboys. Like bumping into an embarrassing childhood friend at a party. Quite a find, this box, back when she was twelve and Emily was eleven. Naked bums and boobies! They were still something that made the girls point and giggle. But if you were an adult, it was different, Eleanor saw. That constant posing. Those unfunny cartoons with the same eternal plotline – some stupid girl getting tricked into sex, over and over. A dreary place, this grown-up world. She didn't expect much of a future there.

     So what was her dad doing with this stash? 'Aw, honey,' he'd said, years later when she'd got political and confronted him. 'Listen, I never set out to exploit anybody. I was just a lonely fat kid with a lot of imaginary girlfriends.' Dad rubbed at his forehead. His cheeks above the beard had flushed deep red. 'Plus I was probably going overboard trying to prove I wasn't, you know, a homosexual. People were starting to talk about Alex around then.' Alex is Dad's brother. The whole family's known he's gay for as long as Eleanor can remember.

     'It wasn't a very understanding time,' Dad went on. 'Back in those days.'

     Flipping pages. Now she's driving past this embarrassing childhood friend's house, hoping she'll catch a glimpse of her in the backyard. That one girl. Remember? Pale blonde, blue-green eyes, glancing up from a bed with rumpled sheets. A length of yellow silk wrapped around her body, just barely covering everything these men had paid to see. Eleanor wanted to be like her.

     At least that was how she'd explained it to herself at the time. Poor gawky kid, peeping at forbidden pictures in the darkest corner of the house, asking: What does that scarf feel like? Is it really silk?

    Silk that crinkles under your fingers. That luxury of skin beneath it, her deep, slow breathing. Then the cloth goes slithering off, the movement makes her sigh in a soft burst like she's suddenly remembered something. Someone's taking it off her. A man? A person. Not Eleanor, of course. Because that would have been weird.

     Fisher-Price bells are pealing, forlorn in the dark, as she bumps a box with her foot. All those times alone in her little bed downstairs, praying to be normal. But why? It wasn't life and death. She could tell her whole family tomorrow, and so what? Mom might pause for a nanosecond. Then she'd be off to her filing cabinet grabbing handfuls of pamphlets: organisations to join, legal recourse in case of discrimination, maybe even a bundle of recipes. And Dad? Why would he care? He's on the phone to Uncle Alex every week. They love each other. Gareth will probably drift into some dopey frat boy fantasy at the mention of the word and not even that realise that Eleanor's talking about herself.

     Emily will never know.

     She'll never tell her sister. Time has moved on without Emily, already.

     'Oh fuck.' Whimpering in the dark. This Christmas is impossible. She wants her sister back so badly.

     'Hey, Em, can you believe it?' Eleanor's voice is slow with Southern Comfort. 'Gareth never bought Dad a present and it's Christmas Eve.'

     How 'bout a can of dog food? There's loads. We should wrap one up for him.

     'Yeah. Let Dad open it and think Gareth bought him dog food on purpose.' She's laughing now, over this imaginary conversation. 'I miss you. So much, Em.'

     xmas 4No answer. There will never be an answer. Why did Eleanor go off to Halifax that summer? It was her last chance to see her sister every day, live under the same roof, like they're supposed to. It was her last chance to...

     'To save you, Em. Last chance to save you.'

     Her fingernails are digging into her elbows. Get the tree. You came here for the stupid tree. She ransacks the corners where the light won't go. Pushing objects she can't see, ripping at tightly packed plastic bags. Something's crushed behind a shelf, bristling. A branch. She feels like Noah. Land! Land, ho!

     But one plastic-needled limb is all she can find. What have they done with the rest?

     Right. No land. No dove. No frigging rainbow. But at least she knows where she is now. She's in purgatory, sifting through the wreckage of her life in search of something good. She's also probably drunk.

     Somehow she reaches the stairs. Astonishing that the rest of the house is still here. She can hear the distant noise of electronic guns from the living room. Video games, for fuck's sake. That's what her brother's been doing this whole time. He ran and hid from her and now he's off playing Space Invaders.

     Stop. You're supposed to be nice to Gareth. Remember the notebook?

     Of course she remembers. And the little journal in the drawer, peacock feathers on the cover. Strange thing for a boy to have, really. Wouldn't he go for a picture of motorcycles or boobs, something manly? Unless it's not his. Unless he took it from some girl.

     Or found it, hidden away. In Emily's empty room.

     Her diary? Suppose he's been hoarding it for himself this whole time.

     'Well then, I really will kill him,' Eleanor says, right out loud.

     Tree branch in one hand, bottle in the other, a layer of brackish dust coating her clothes, her hair, her skin. She's not sure if it's safe to be around her brother, if he'll be able to tell she's been crying.

     This isn't supposed to happen on Christmas Eve.