Palo Alto Weekly 20th Annual Short Story
by Hilary Brennan-Marquez
I slid my shoes off and stepped out onto the porch that my grandfather had built with his father when he was a child. My baby brother was sitting on the first step, looking out at the colossal red rocks on the horizon.
"Rain, you're back," Kieran was still turned away as he spoke, seemingly mesmerized by the overwhelming beauty of Sedona. Again, for the first time in three years, I wondered how someone so completely blind could see so much beauty. "I knew you'd come back." I didn't say anything; I didn't need to. "You know how I knew?" his question was rhetorical; he wouldn't have been able to hear the answer even if I had said it. "You promised. You always keep promises...always have."
I stepped down and sat next to him. I let my bare toes curl around the edge of the varnished step. The porch was not varnished when our grandfather lived there, he didn't believe in it. Grandpa always said that he came here to live with nature, so why would he cover it up? Mamma was always afraid of Kieran and me getting splinters; so when Grandpa died and Mama had to move out to Arizona to look after Nana and the ranch, the first thing she did was cover our beloved redwood deck with a thick layer of unforgiving liquid plastic.
When I was young, I would get splinters at Grandpa's house all the time. He would hand me a pair of tweezers and I would spend hours trying to get the tiny slivers of wood out of my skin, because I never let he or Nana help me. Mama always said I would get infections if I was allowed to remove the splinter myself; but Grandpa laughed at this and said I had to learn sometime. My whole life my feet never knew any sort of infection. Mama never forgave her father for that.
"Are you telling me that you know how to raise my children better than I do?" My mother only spoke to Grandpa when she was angry, she hardly spoke to Kieran and me at all.
"Louise, do you even know your children?" That was the first time I heard my grandfather call Mama anything but Honey. I was seven. I didn't understand why they were yelling.
"Oh come on Dad! Don't you dare give me that. Like you were such a great father! Like you never worked and never drank and never disappeared!"
"I am not saying I was a great father, but I did the goddamned best I could, and at least that's more than you can say. It's hard work Louise! It's hard work, but you wouldn't know that because you've never lifted a finger. Your kids have their fancy clothes and their fancy television sets and all the money anyone could ever want, but they don't got a mother Louise, they ain't never had a mo--"
"Oh, God Dad! Is that what this is about? Listen, I know you didn't want me but here I am, take it or leave it!"
"Don't you interrupt me Louise! And don't you ever say that! You know I love you but you gotta hear this sometime and it might as well be now. You worried about your kids gettin' a splinter Louise? Honey, you should be worried about a lot more important things than that." I remember the silence that followed better than any other moment of my life. In that moment my whole world fell still. To a seven-year-old lying awake in bed straining to hear what the adults are shouting in the next room, a moment of silence is like a huge wave of guilt crashing down. Where the mind was once so full of the intrigue of adult dramas, there is then only nothingness and the guilt of curiosity.
"Fine Dad, I'll leave. I'll be back to pick them up before school starts." My mother's voice was quiet then, leveled and calm. Her voice was numb. I heard footsteps and then silence. When I woke up the next morning, Mama was gone.
That was the beginning of what Kieran and I would later decide were the best years of our childhood. After that night, we spent the summers with Grandpa and Nana on the ranch in Sedona, and the school years with Mama in Albuquerque. The summers were the best. The lessons school had neglected to teach us, Grandpa made up for a thousand times over. He taught us to fish, to cook, and to sleep as late as we wanted. Grandpa taught us the lessons about living we failed to learn in the big city. Nana would tell us stories about when Grandpa was a little boy, about how he, her husband and her brother had built the ranch together.
In October of that same year, just after Kieran turned seven, my brother lost his sight. As a child, my only conclusion as to the cause of his blindness was that he was being punished in some way. At first, I thought it was an act of God, but as time went on I stopped believing in God altogether. I refused to believe in something as vengeful as a God who would take my brother's sight.
After Kieran went blind, Mama stopped talking to him altogether, and to me even less than before. She worked longer hours and I found myself making more meals, doing more loads of laundry and doing less homework as time went on. As my mother became increasingly detached, Grandpa called and wrote more often, becoming a sort of pen-parent to Kieran and me.
Eventually, as we knew it would, summer would come around. Before we knew it we were bouncing excitedly in our seats on the greyhound bus which would take us to Sedona. The next few years went on in the same way: school year with Mama, summer with Grandpa and Nana, and a little bit of being on our own in-between.
Mama saw Kieran's blindness as her responsibility. She could never forgive her son for this, the same way she could never forgive her father. Mama could pardon neither herself nor Kieran for his blindness: a trauma she felt she could have prevented. The truth was that no one could have precluded what happened to Kieran. His eyes were never good to begin with and as he got older they simply couldn't hold up anymore. Still, she blamed herself and resented him for the rest of her life.
When I was ten, Grandpa died of a heart attack. Mama apologized to her father in the only way she knew how, by packing up Kieran and me and moving out to Sedona. Mama hated living on the ranch, and I hated living there with her. But someone had to take care of Nana. Between the times I was ten and sixteen she had managed to ruin every beautiful thing about the ranch. Everything but the red rocks.
The night I left home, as an emancipated minor at sixteen, my mother didn't speak to me except to point out how obvious I was making it that I didn't love her. I had no pity for the woman who had made it so painfully honest that she wanted nothing to do with me my whole life, and told her so.
I climbed the stars to Nana's bedroom and kissed her on the forehead. At that point she was falling into the grip of dementia and I knew my leaving would make no difference to her whatsoever. In a way, this was comforting. The only thing I disliked about leaving was breaking Kieran's heart, and with Nana losing her mind, that was one less heart to break.
I found Kieran sitting on the front porch as I was leaving. "Come sit with me before you go." he spoke with utter calm, unfazed words, in an attempt to convince me he did not care. There was a single tear trickling down his cheek. He felt it and wiped it away. "That's the only life that's come out of these eyes in a long time." He chuckled slightly in a sad, disillusioned way. "I know there's nothing I say can make you stay here." He turned his head away from me, but spoke clearly so I could hear every word. "But I want you to think about something while you're gone...Maybe not everything bad was Mama's fault. Maybe sometimes bad things just happen and we can't blame anyone for them."
"How was everything bad that happened not Mama's fault?" It made me angry that he could defend her after being entirely without his own defenses for eight years. "Isn't it her job to protect us? Wasn't that her job the day Robert Gleeson broke my heart in ninth grade, and the day I failed eighth grade math? How about when Grandpa died, or when you lost your sight? What about then? Where was she then?"
"She couldn't have protected us from any of those things Rai--"
"Yes, I know that. But she could have been there for us to blame. We needed something to blame, so we just ended up blaming ourselves."
Kieran closed his eyes and tilted his head back dramatically. After a few moments he turned his head straight at me and concentrated on me so piercingly I could have sworn he actually could see me there. "Rain, will you come back? I mean, maybe not anytime soon, but eventually...will you promise to come back sometime?"
If I could have taken him with me in that moment, I would have. Asking to be emancipated when you graduate high school at sixteen and are in perfect health, however, is different from being a fifteen-year-old blind boy who hasn't even finished freshman year.
"Of course I'll come back Kieran. I promise."
Three years later I found myself back at the ranch just as I had promised. At ninety-eight years old and with a number of mental illnesses, Nana had outlived her son by nine years. I came back home for not only the funeral, but for Kieran's high school graduation.
"How've you been?" sitting on our old redwood porch with Kieran felt awkward in a comfortable way. Almost like neither of us knew exactly what to say but that was fine.
"I've been alright. I'm glad to be done with school." Kieran was still looking out over the rocks as if he could see them. Before thinking about the words coming out of my mouth I asked him if he could.
Kieran chuckled slightly. "What d'you mean? Like, in my mind's eye?"
"Yeah I guess. No, I mean, well...You look at them like you're seeing something."
"I am." Kieran smiled. "I'm just not seeing what you're seeing." I didn't understand and so I didn't say anything. "It's funny, how unobtrusive they are, until you look at them. I remember I didn't even know they were out here until Grandpa pointed them out. Do you remember that?" he was smiling serenely, remembering Grandpa. "I remember the feeling I got when I looked at them for the first time, I mean, really looked at them. Because of course I had seen them; I'd just never taken the time to appreciate their immensity. I was so afraid when I first saw them. I was scared because it was almost too beautiful. They're so majestic they feel overpowering sometimes. You know when you see something really beautiful and it scares you? And then you look away and suddenly you're not frightened anymore? Well that's what I see now; A pebble here, a curve there, the smell, the taste of the air, Grandpa's big wrinkly hand around mine. It's like I looked away and suddenly it doesn't scare me quite so much anymore. Now I can take in the beauty moment by moment, instead of all at once."
We sat for a long time without saying anything. Gazing out at the rocks, I could feel the beauty bearing down on me. My own insignificance scared me. "Can you still feel them?"
"No. I try so hard, but I can't." He turned to me, defeated. He looked so unlike himself in that moment, so much more vulnerable than I had always seen him before. "That's what I miss the most."
"Maybe it's better. Maybe it's like, that feeling we get when we stand at the base of a redwood tree or looking out over the Grand Canyon, maybe that's the illusion. Maybe life is just the moments and there's really no such thing as beauty as a whole you know? What if your blindness allows you to see the truth?" I wanted to continue. I wanted to ease the pain of his loss. I wanted to convince him he hadn't lost anything, but he had lost something, so instead, I looked away. "Couldn't that be possible?"
"It could." Kieran wasn't smiling anymore. "But it could also be possible that I'm blind and you're not and that's all there is to it."