Our house on Austin Road had red bricks and green shutters. It was a ranch-style house, with just one floor and the longest hallway in the world. The hallway began in the living room: cozy red couches, framed family portrait of the four of us dressed in matching blue jeans and black turtlenecks. It stretched past the kitchen: acrylic paintings of apples, four wicker chairs around the wooden table. It continued past the bathroom: four toothbrushes, cracked porcelain sink. And, finally, it ended at the entrance of the two bedrooms.
The bedroom that belonged to my sister and I was perfect. Two beds, two dressers, two bookshelves. Against one wall our gerbils, Cookie Dough and Bingo, scurried around and around in their identical wheels, toenails scraping against the cheap colored plastic. Half-built Lego creations littered the floor, making it a treacherous zone for bare feet. We had an abundance of blue sticky-tack and used it to hang up my sister’s drawings of cats and the foldout NYSNC posters that came tucked inside CD cases. But my favorite part of the room was our ceiling. Our dad had used a crumpled plastic bag to paint white clouds on the pale blue surface. Every night, I fell asleep staring up at our unchanging sky.
In the other bedroom my parents slept on a queen-sized mattress with a blue-and-white quilt. Every night before bedtime, my sister and I would catapult ourselves through their door and onto their bed. “It’s story time!” we’d holler. We’d burrow under the covers and wait for our dad to grab a book from the nightstand and transport us to another world. But one night our mom recoiled from our enthusiasm. She sat on top of the quilt, her legs dangling off the side of the bed, as if she might get up and walk away at any moment. Our dad avoided our eyes. No one reached for the book. My sister and I grew quiet, nervous. Why wasn’t anyone talking? An uncomfortable throat-clearing from our dad broke the silence.
“Girls,” he said, “there’s something your mom and I want to tell you.” His body was angled away from our mom. He didn’t have his glasses on and the nose pieces had left red half-moon imprints near the corners of his eyes. He looked tired. “I have a son,” he said. “His name is Carter.”
A son? My sister and I looked at each other. Then we turned to our mom. She was staring at the door.
“Like we have a little brother?” I asked. “Like a baby?”
“No. He’s not a baby,” said our mom. She barely moved her lips as she spoke. The tension in her voice hung in the air. Her tone said: no more questions. She tightened the belt on her red robe.
“But he is your little brother,” said our dad. He opened the drawer of his nightstand and pulled out a picture. Standing next to a giant, fluffy, pink Easter bunny was a brown-haired toddler. He had the roundest face I had ever seen and the forced, uncomfortable smile of toddlers who hadn’t yet learned to fake happiness. My sister held the glossy photo in her hand and I hovered over her so we could stare at it together.
“He looks pretty baby to me,” I said. He was pretty cute. I memorized the pink tint of his cheeks. I imagined how useful it would be to have a little brother. He could be a student in my pretend classroom. I could teach him the alphabet and all the spelling rules, “i before e, except after c.” Maybe he could help me with my chores. He’d scrub the toilet while I cleaned the mirror. I could make him oatmeal for breakfast and sneak chocolate chips in when our mom wasn’t looking. He could join in when my sister and I raced down the hallway or played tag outside. It would be nice to have another kid for games, I thought.
Later that night, my sister climbed up the ladder on the side of our bed and joined me on the top bunk. Huddled in the darkness, we tried to understand how we’d become a family of five.
“I just don’t get where he came from,” my sister said. She was nine and very wise.
“Do you think I’ll have to share my bed?” I asked her.
“Well, we don’t even know if he’s gonna live here or not. I mean, he’s not here now,” she said.
We barely slept that night. Was the little boy with the Easter bunny really ours?
In the morning I felt even more confused. I sat at the kitchen table and stared into my bowl of oatmeal. I pressed the cold, congealed oats into a solid, round disk with the back of my spoon. I couldn’t wait any longer so I left the oatmeal on my table and trekked down the hallway to my parents’ room, running my finger along the wall as I walked. I stood over my snoring dad for a moment before poking his bare shoulder.
“Daddy,” I said. “Daddy, wake up.”
“Huh?” He sputtered awake mid-snore, startled to see me standing there. I wasted no time. I needed answers.
“Where will our brother sleep? When will we meet him? Where did he come from?”
“Oh,” he said and rubbed his eyes. “He’s just going to come up every other weekend. And we’ll get him an air mattress.”
“Just on the weekends?” I asked. I’d never heard of a weekend brother. I tried to work this out in my head. “So is he like part-time?”
But my dad was snoring again. Part-time, I guess it made sense. Franny, our babysitter, was only ever here part-time. I’d heard her call it that. She had another job, too, and her own family. And I guess it was really for the best; I couldn’t imagine where we would put an air mattress.
But soon the weekend came and the air mattress was wedged between our bed and the wall. We’d had to clear a whole Lego city to make space. My sister and I watched from the living room window as an unfamiliar beige car pulled into the driveway. It barely fit behind the two cars already parked there. A short woman with shoulder-length brown hair emerged from behind the wheel. When my dad opened the door, she only took one step inside. No one made any move to invite her to sit on the couch or come in to the kitchen. Instead we all gathered around the small space of the welcome mat. The little boy from the photograph peered out from behind her.
“He’s so little,” I whispered to my sister.
I crouched down and waved at him as our dad and the woman talked. He grinned at me. His pink chubby cheeks looked exactly like I remembered.
“Hi buddy, hi,” I said.
My sister said nothing. For a moment she just stood behind me, looking from the boy to the woman to our dad and back. Then she took one step backward, into the hallway. Then another, closer to our parents’ bedroom, where our mom hid behind the closed door. She turned around completely. I turned my attention to the little boy. He clung to the woman’s leg like a koala bear.
“Mommy,” he said, pulling on the fabric of her khaki pants. She patted his head and he sucked in his lower lip, a timid smile emerging.
Suddenly, I felt scared. Who was this woman? I looked behind me, but the hallway was empty: no sister. I felt torn, stuck in the middle of my sister and mom, and my dad and this new little boy. I felt a pang in my stomach. I wished my sister was still here. But this was just for the weekend, just part-time, I reminded myself. I took a deep breath.
“Do you want to see my giraffe collection?” I asked the little boy.
Alexia Kemerling is a writer, runner, and activist from the heart of Ohio. She wears hearing aids in both ears and is somewhat decent at lip reading. She is currently pursuing a bachelor’s degree in creative writing at Hiram College.