Our baby sister came out blue, but I didn’t see her. Carson told me, blue as a fish.
“What kind of fish?” I asked. It was three days after, and he’d allowed me in his room, where I sat watching Carson’s fish swim in his saltwater aquarium. I pressed my face against the glass and pointed to a fish darting around the neon coral. “Like that one?”
Carson snorted and flopped down in his beanbag chair. He grabbed a Sports Illustrated and knocked a mini basketball toward me with his foot. “Not one of my fish,” he said. “Bigger. Like a trout. You can be such a dumbass.”
“But this color?” The fish was small and blue as a jewel; its tail glinted yellow at the tip. “What’s this one called?”
Carson snorted again, rolling off the beanbag and heaving his body across the floor to sit beside me. His face was puffy with acne, and a thick log of flab hung over the waistband of his shorts. Thirteen. Gross. “What fish?” he asked. “What fish are you looking at?”
“Damselfish,” Carson said, nodding his head. “Yellowtail damsel. Similar to a clownfish. Hearty. Two inches. Does well in captivity.”
I watched the fish rise to the surface where the bubbles from the circulator boiled around her. “Damselfish,” I said. “Yellowtail damselfish. She’s my favorite. Can we give her a name?”
“God, Anna,” Carson said. “That’s a really dumb idea. It’s a fish, okay? Not a cat.” He reached up to the lid and clicked the button that dimmed the tank’s lights. “Show’s over. Don’t you have somewhere to go?”
“Yeah,” I said. “Yeah, I do have somewhere to go. Ballet. But Mom’s still asleep.”
“Don’t wake her up!”
“Duh,” I said. But on my way out of his room, I slammed the door as hard as I could.
Mom was still asleep at five when Dad came home from wherever he’d been, carrying a bucket of fried chicken and two sweating tubs of mashed potatoes. “Where’s your mother?” He dropped the food on the counter.
I jerked my head at the stairs.
Dad smiled, but not his real smile. “Well,” he said. “Well.” He put his palms on the counter and leaned forward, his glasses slipping down his nose. “How was school? Are you hungry? Did you have a good day?”
“I missed ballet,” I said, and then felt like a whiney baby. “I missed ballet. Again.”
“What’s your brother up to?”
“He’s in his room.”
“See if he’s hungry?”
“Yeah.” I started for the stairs but stopped. “Dad,” I said, even though I knew I shouldn’t. “Dad, did she look like a fish?”
I wrapped my hands around the banister and put a foot on the first step. “The baby,” I whispered. “Did the baby look like a fish?”
“What?” Dad gripped a carton of mashed potatoes and came to the stairs. “What did you say, Anna?”
“Nothing. Forget it.”
“What did you say?”
I closed my eyes and squeezed the banister and thought about ballet and the pointe exercises the class would have practiced today. “Carson said it.”
“Carson told you the baby looked like a fish?”
“Yeah. Cause she was blue.”
Dad reached up and put his hand on my shoulder, but I shook it off. “Carson didn’t see the baby, okay? Carson doesn’t know.”
“That’s a horrible thought,” Dad said. “Don’t repeat it. Don’t say anything like that around your mother.”
“Duh,” I said. “Duh, Dad. I know.”
“Hey,” Dad said, reaching for my shoulder again. “Hey, it’s okay if you’re sad. It’s a sad thing. We’re all sad.”
“I’m not.” I pushed his hand away.
Upstairs Carson had the volume of his music turned low, but I could still hear something punk and stupid behind his door. I knocked once, but he didn’t answer, so I tiptoed to the guest room, which we had been calling the baby’s room until that day. The door was cracked and I nudged it open so the light from the hall made a triangle on the carpet. The curtains were drawn, but I could see Mom in the rocking chair by the crib. “Anna?”
“Sweetie,” Mom said. She smiled and patted her knees. “Come sit?”
“Okay.” I stepped into the room over an unopened package of Pampers and made my way to the chair.
“Do you want to sit?” she asked, patting her knees again.
I looked at her lap. No room. Her stomach was loose and stretched. A week before, her belly’d felt firm beneath my hand, and I’d whispered to the baby through Mom’s skin. “Come out,” I’d said. “We’re waiting.”
“You don’t have to sit with me,” Mom said, but she was looking at the crib.
“Dad got chicken,” I said. “And mashed potatoes.”
“Okay.” Mom took a deep breath and pushed herself up from the chair, wobbling a little when she stood. “Okay. Chicken.” She leaned in to give me a hug, but her shirt was soaking wet.
“Mom!” I pushed her back. “Mom, you’re leaking!”
She looked down at her shirt and moaned, grabbing her breasts. “God damn it,” she said, in this weird hushed voice. “God damn it. When are these things going to stop?”
“Mom,” I said, but her face was twisted and she was shoving her hands up her shirt.
“God damn it,” she whispered, squeezing and squeezing her breasts like she was trying to ring out a wet towel.
I took a step backwards and another and another, until I was out in the hall, where Dad stood at the top of the stairs. “Hey,” he said. “She in there?”
He sighed and stepped past me. “Oh, honey,” I heard him say, and then he pushed the door shut.
In the hall it was quiet, and I went to the stairs and stood on the landing, where the railing was the height of the ballet studio’s barre. I straightened my back and pointed my toes, bringing my leg slowly up my calf, just like a ballerina, rounding my arms as I touched my toes to the rail. I could have taught her to plié. Shared my tutus. Pinned her hair. Leaning forward, I rested my cheek against my thigh.
A door clicked open in the hallway above me, and Carson started down the stairs. “Hey,” he said, nudging an elbow into my back. “Hey look, Swan Lake.”
“Creep. What do you want?”
“Chicken,” he said, not turning around. “What do you think?”
I pulled my leg back in and lifted the other into the same stretch. From the guest room, I could hear Mom’s voice, whispered and frantic. I leaned into the railing, into the tightness in my thigh. “Not,” I said, breathing the word on an inhale. “Sad.” I breathed out.
In the kitchen, Carson was hunched on a stool, a drumstick in each hand. “You’re a big fat liar,” I said. “You didn’t see the baby. She didn’t look like a fish.”
He bit into a drumstick. “It was a joke,” he chewed. “But Anna, the baby probably was blue, you know. Because it couldn’t breathe.”
“She,” I said. “Not it. She. Laurel.”
“Okay,” Carson said. “Okay, so she couldn’t breathe. So she was probably blue. And cold. Like a fish.”
“You’re sick,” I said. “You’re really sick. And fat. Seriously, it’s disgusting.”
He snorted and flopped his drumstick to the table, reaching for the mashed potatoes and a plastic spoon. “Whatever.”
“Seriously,” I said. “It’s gross. Everybody thinks so. They say it at school.”
“No, they don’t,” Carson said, but he looked away from me and the food.
“Yes, huh,” I said. “Carson the car.” I opened the fridge and pulled out the Brita. “You want some water? Carson the car?”
“You suck,” Carson said. He dropped his spoon and pushed back from the counter, catching a leg of his stool on the corner of the island. He fell in slow motion, his face smacking the floor like a pie. When he looked up there was a trickle of blood above his lip, and he was screaming, even though it was just a bloody nose.
“What? What is it?” Mom yelled from upstairs. She came limping down the stairs, Dad behind her.
“It’s just a bloody nose!” I said. “Look! It’s just his nose!”
“Get some ice!” Mom said, dropping to the floor where Carson had curled into himself like a big fat child. “Anna, get some ice!” I pulled a bag from the cupboard and filled it with ice chips, watching as Mom lugged Carson’s upper-half onto her lap. “Poor baby,” she said, wiping his face with her shirt.
“Mom.” I pushed the ice at her. “Here.” I walked to the stairs, where Dad sat on the bottom step with his face in his hands. “Dad,” I said. “Dad.”
He looked at me and his eyes were wet, and I turned and ran up the stairs. “It’s just his nose!”
My bedroom was quiet. Degas paintings hung on the walls and ballerina figurines lined the shelves. My bedspread had ballerinas on it, too, little pirouetting dancers, all in pastel tutus, their hair in smooth clean buns, and it was my own room, but it felt like it belonged to someone else, someone younger, a little kid. I stepped into the hall, and downstairs Mom and Dad were still fussing over Carson. “She kicked the stool,” I could hear Carson saying. “And she called me fat.” Across the hall Carson’s door was open, and the fish tank hummed from the wall. I slipped into his room on the balls of my feet, and I was so quiet, I was dancing; the fish didn’t notice I was there. The little Yellowtail Damsel nudged a chunk of pink coral, and I bent down and tapped my finger against the glass. “Hello Laurel,” I said, and then I reached behind the tank and twisted the heating dial all the way to the right.
Isabelle Brock writes and teaches at Oregon State University in Corvallis, Oregon. When she’s not writing, she is found planting more and more fruit trees in her garden. Her work has been published in The Hopkins Review.