Fiction by Elissa Field
It’s expensive to get the phone activated for international roaming but, late after midnight – so late that I have to ask the hotel clerk to unlock the door with the distinct risk I might not be let in again before dawn – I’d got desperate with waiting for news and gone out walking Dublin’s streets. Found an open chemist, a doorway cast in white and yellow blades of light, phantasmic portal in the rain sick shine of night, who stared weary questions while they activated my SIM. I didn’t explain. So well trained in the habit of not being allowed to say aloud, My brother is a journalist who followed a lead over the border from Istanbul and now is lost.
I know your number by heart, but fingers cheat me – half nerves, half fear, full rebellion – bouncing off the wrong keys. I wonder, Danny, is there someone on your end who points to your phone and questions the 427 calls from your sister? All the times I let it reach your outgoing message then hang up, wanting your real voice? Does it show, too, the times it says this line is not available once your phone discharged? All the times I leave a message into dead air?
I’m stuck in Dublin. Trying to book through to Atatürk. As if this were just one of our childhood spy games. So clever and fun. I’m useless.
Dial again. Dead signal. I tell you anyway that I remember the time you and Frank Giancarlo jumped from a third floor of a house under construction in our old neighborhood south of Charlotte and landed on a stack of windows waiting to be installed, a dozen of them, on the garage floor below. One after the other: you jumped, then Frank. Me, chasing behind, frozen with my hands on the frame of the open attic wall.
That year, all the kids in our neighborhood had begun to follow you and Frank. Nearly twenty kids running through the woods and that one last street of houses being built at the edge of the neighborhood in the last hour of light after the builders had left their sites. A wild game of tag in and out of half-built houses.
I left my best friends behind to keep up with you. The only one besides Frank who could.
So, I was the only one of them who saw you jump. You and then Frank. Out of the unsealed wall of the third-floor attic, arms rising in natural wings, to land on a stack of windows on the garage floor below.
A subcontractor rushed from his pickup in through the open wall of the garage to scream in horror, even as Frank fell midair behind you.
What I remember is the look on your face when you turned back to me – having realized only in midair what it was you would be landing on. Twelve stacked layers of glass. You turned back to scream at me – your little sister who had only tagged along – and, while Frank was still falling, you screamed at me, “NOOOOO!”
For years I resented that you’d done that.
You and Frank could make that jump, but not me – you screamed names at me. Called me Pinhead in front of Frank. Screamed until I retraced my steps down the safe open staircase.
How do we not understand life when we are in the middle of it?
How does it telescope so intensely, so painfully, later? I’d been staring at the windows, plotting my landing.
Not at your face.
I never understood your fear, in that moment.
Not even that night nine years later when I’d gone to stay with you for a weekend in SoHo when I was still in college, and you’d taken me to a bar down the street from your loft that was almost too cool for me to understand – handknit sweaters upholstering the ceiling, green glow lights, and a band too loud for me to hear you clearly, especially after drinks. But you were screaming it in my ear, then: this same story – you and Frank jumping on the stack of windows.
I’d thought you drunk, your voice breaking with the insistence of making me understand: “It was twelve fucking windows, Cara. Twelve stacked layers of glass we jumped onto from thirty feet up.” You cupped your hand around my head to hold my ear near your mouth to be sure I didn’t turn away and miss your words. “They were big windows, and I’d landed dead in the middle. For all I knew, I’d cracked that top one, and they wouldn’t hold when Frank landed.”
Those windows: the glass-green plates, cardboard wrapping their wooden frames. The breadth of them. The inches of air between each sheet like combine blades.
You were raging louder than the band: “He was such a dumbass – you know Frank – and he didn’t even think, he just followed me.”
You screamed in the middle of the bar, my brother a tiger snarl, and the bartender came – all tattooed and pierced – thinking you were calling for another round.
Tears streamed down your face and, still, I didn’t get it.
In my version, I was still your sister, still waiting for my turn up in the eaves, my hands on the open frame of the attic door you’d jumped through – my fucking turn. Here on the phone in 2006, another three years gone by, standing in the bottle green glow of a rain-sick night, calling you where you’re on assignment in a strip of war, your satellite phone disengaged, your cell phone disabled until the next time you return to the safety of that hotel in Qatar where the journos will all buy each other shots, poolside, and steep in silence, and you might listen to my calls, might call me back. Because I’m here, calling from Dublin, still waiting for my fucking turn.
For credit. For you to acknowledge. I was fast enough. Clever enough. This time. This time, I was the one who connected you with the lead. Your string, your fixer. Your plot on a map. Your dust-browned car driven over a border.
That night, there in the Knitting Factory, you tried to tell me what the image was that was stuck in your head: of Frank, your best friend, midair, in that infinitesimally frozen moment before his feet contacted the top window.
He jumped down with you, rolled as he hit the concrete. “That crazy Frank G laugh!” you screamed at me over the screaming band, the screaming drinkers in the screaming bar. “Fucking Frank, clueless to what could have happened.”
Even then, in the bar, it had ripped out my heart: I reminded you that I had been there. I joked, making fun of myself, “I had kid sister syndrome.”
But I could tell that wasn’t what you wanted. My friend Noor and her brother Beny had shown up then, a distraction; I’d introduced you to Beny – he became your new contact for foreign leads. But I tried to keep you going by asking if you knew what Frank was up to, if you’d kept in touch after we’d moved north.
You shook your head in frustration that I didn’t understand. Your eyes flashed wild in the green shine of the gel lights, spittle on your lip from the effort of insisting I hear you, shaking your head in frustration at what I didn’t get. You might have been drunk. Laughing later in the night, I’m sure you were.
But stranded tonight in Ireland, every contact I know having been a dead end, I’m screaming into the dead air of the line. I wanted to understand, Danny. Do you get that? Just like I wanted to jump off the ledge onto the windows after you. Just like I wanted you to answer, any of these times, to hear you safe and successful and in awe of the world, to hear you say, “I wish you could see this, Cara. This place is amazing. I wish you were here.”
It’s never left, that feeling of your hand holding my head close to be sure I didn’t pull away and miss it. You might have been drunk.
But you raged.
Trying to get me to understand how much more real the experience was in your memory, in your body: Frank forever midair.
How you held in your body the anticipation of the first window splitting, and then the one under it and the one under that, five feet of glass plates, a dozen stacked windows, and your Frank slicing through them. How you didn’t just see Frank’s body shredded in your mind but felt it deep into your muscles, through your ribs, shredding your lungs with a memory and pain that had never happened.
How your voice cracked when you told me, “It never leaves you, Care. The thought you might’ve caused the death of someone you love.”
I dial and dial and dial to tell you, I get it now.
Elissa Field’s writing has appeared in Reckon Review, SmokeLong Quarterly, Hypertext, Conjunctions, Adelaide, Writer Unboxed, and elsewhere. Her work has been a finalist or shortlisted for awards including the SmokeLong Summer Fiction Contest and the James Jones First Novel Fellowship. She and her sons live in a ridiculously cool historic house under an ancient mango tree. She teaches at a school for the arts. This story is related to themes of her novel, underway. She is also at work on a collection of stories. Find her on twitter @elissafield or elissalaurenfield.com.