Whether Times Are Good or Bad, Happy or Sad

Katie Jean Shinkle


When Our Older Brother goes to jail, it is always morning and always something monumental happens. Once, someone new was elected President of the United States of America. Once, our little sister Caroline was born. Today, fast moving fires erupted at the Department of Power & Water and spread to fields, parks, neighborhoods. Now, they are engulfing and surrounding the city. Caroline and I are sitting on the porch eating popsicles. The sugary mix drips, and I wipe my hands on the concrete. Ants gather as if there is something to haul away on their backs, but there is liquid nothing. One ant fake-drowns in the small puddle, legs up. Caroline is the youngest. She always looks like she has been crying when she hasn't, her cheeks naturally red, naturally stained. She refuses to wear her glasses, squints. She squints at the sky. Nothing is out of order, everything the same, growing and green. The city cut down a clearing next to our house before summer started to build government controlled apartment buildings. No construction has broken yet and the newspaper said something about money. Everything is incessantly about money in this city. "At least Our Mom still owns this house," I say out-of-context, and pat the steps we are sitting on. Caroline continues to suck the orange popsicle from the bottom only. Our Mom is not home, she left to drop Our Older Brother off at the correctional facility. She told us to eat a good breakfast, but instead we raided the freezer. We know on jail days she will not yell at us. We have been witness to the drop-off procedure before: Our Mom waits at the double Plexiglas doors and watches Our Older Brother get handcuffed, fingerprinted, led away by angry looking men in uniforms with guns in their holsters. Our Mom is so practiced, she doesn't even cry anymore.

When we were much younger, Our Mom would tell us Our Older Brother was going to go work at the circus, and instead he went to jail. We thought he had a long, illustrious, part-time career. Caroline and I would play a game called "Circus" where we would imagine what Our Older Brother was doing, act it out, and see if the other one could guess. I frequently won. My roles for Our Older Brother shifted depending on my mood, but Caroline's stayed the same: a clown, a terrifying clown. Caroline agreed that make-up could take away his scary face if he wanted it to. Our Older Brother had the scariest face we knew of, many tattoos on his face and neck—Family First in huge Old English lettering across his Adam's apple; two tiny crucifixes to the side of both eyes; Live Fast, Die Young on his forehead next to his receding hairline; Queer and Here under his right ear; three small, pink triangles with money signs in the middle on the left-side of his jaw—and when he smiled his mouth revealed a chipped front tooth half-filled with gold and angular, equally as chipped as his bottom teeth. Sometimes he had clown hair, dyed orange or blue or Ronald McDonald Red. Before he went to jail this time, he shaved his head but left his goatee. Even though he looks scary, he is the kindest older brother. When he was high, he would put Caroline and I on his lap, his clothes smelling like cloves and fresh laundry. He would talk to us about the importance of family, we have to stick together, he would say, or else. He never said what else came after if we didn't stick together. I knew, though. I knew that if we didn't stick together, we would be thrown into foster care like my friend Tiffany and her little brother. No thank you, let's stick together.

While Our Mom is dropping off Our Older Brother at the circus, our breakfasts melt more than we eat. Caroline finally gets bored with hers and sticks it into the top of an ant hill in the crevasse of the steps. The ants rush, cover it within seconds. The birds in the trees that were cawing and haloing disband all at once, a rush of black. The wind picks up and blows Caroline's skirt up almost to her waist, she has to hold it down with her hands on either side of her knees. The gusts speed, moving the lawn of dust in huge swirls. Our house has a lawn of rocks instead of grass, easier to manage, Our Mom says.


When I cover my eyes against the skydirt to turn to talk to Caroline, a loud boom and clap comes from another part of the world and shoots straight into my heart. I can feel my pulse in my fingerprints. The end of the clap trails with the sound of tinsel and sizzle, falling fire. Caroline is staring at me, mouth open. The fire ball plume looks like the largest star we have ever seen. The air feels thick, and the smoke burns my lungs. "We have to go inside now," I say to Caroline, who has ants crawling up her ankle. I grab her hand and pull her, the screen door catches my leg and takes a chunk out of it. I don't notice I am bleeding until much later. 


The dad in our house is Our Older Brother's dad, Frank, who is not Caroline and I's dad. We like him. Frank is a mechanic and runs the only legit shop in town, he says. Our Mom and Frank were married and then divorced for a long time. After Our Mom got pregnant with me, and then Caroline, and then divorced again, she and Frank got back together. Frank seems happy to be with Our Mom, seems content with the house and his job. The only person he is not happy with is Our Older Brother. Frank has done time in County, too, but not as frequently as Our Older Brother, and not for as long. They always let me off for good behavior, he winks. I like it when he winks at me, as if we are in on a secret of the universe no one else knows. He says this about good behavior when I am grounded, maybe your mom will let you off on good behavior, and that always means that I can't be mean to Caroline and I have to do the dishes and vacuum the house. Frank never says this about Our Older Brother, though, because Our Older Brother never gets off on good behavior. He is forever in trouble, even in jail.

Frank doesn't drink alcohol, unless he does. When he does, he is gone for days and Our Mom frets so much. When he comes home, he is the same old Frank. Frank never lets us see him drunk, and never gets drunk at our house. I don't know why our house is so sacred that he can't get drunk there or doesn't want to be drunk there. There is no alcohol in our house and there never has been. Our mother is not a drinker. She will have an occasional drink for celebration, but her fancy champagne flutes she got as a wedding gift when she remarried Frank from Frank's mother have only been used once, they sit on the top shelf with a coat of dust.

Frank hasn't been home in a few days. Caroline and I are huddled on the couch. Caroline still sleeps with her baby blanket, a crocheted mint green catastrophe with huge holes that Our Mom has extra mended. It is half the size it was long ago, but it is Caroline's favorite thing. She is clutching the baby blanket to the side of her face, leaning on her hand. The electricity is out, getting hotter by the hour in the living room with the air conditioning off. There is no electricity anywhere in the neighborhood. Every house is dark. Caroline starts to cry, and I comfort her by putting my arm around her. I am angry, angry no one is home to take care of this, angry that I am sweating more and more as the house fills with humid air, angry that I don't know what to do. I tell Caroline to stay where she is, as if she has anywhere else to go, and I go outside by myself. The sky is ashy, the winds are muscular. I see smoke and fire far away over the horizon. I slam the front door shut when I get back inside and lock it. "Don't go out there," I say to Caroline, but she hasn't moved save for burying her entire head in her blanket.


No one comes home all night. When it gets too dark out, I find the emergency flashlight, a big bulky thing from Frank's shop. I get our pajamas on, feed us peanut butter and jelly, and tuck us into Our Mom and Frank's bed. I have a dreamless sleep, the sound of the wind shakes me awake numerous times. When I wake up for good, it is dark out. The only battery-powered clock in the house says it is morning and there should be sun but there is no sun and no Our Mom and no Frank. It never occurred to me to try the phone and when I get hopeful it will help me find Our Mom or Frank, there is no dial tone. "Stupid fucking phone," I say and throw it to the ground. "Don't swear," Caroline says, even though there are no adults around to scold me.


Frank finally comes home in the middle of the day, according to the clock I start carrying around with me. He is pale faced and stubbly. When he sees us, he falls down to his knees with his arms open and we run absent-mindedly to him. He smells like rubbing alcohol and motor oil. His cheeks are cold. Thank god, he says, I have never been more happy to see you two. Caroline smiles, but I do not.

"Where is Our Mom?" I ask. Frank doesn't answer. He unloads large pieces of cardboard from his truck bed into the living room. He closes the blinds and starts duct taping pieces of cardboard over the windows. Caroline and I have watched things whip past all day, lawn chairs and mailboxes. We watched a dog house hit the side of our house, but that's as close as anything got to us. It never occurred to us that we were in danger in front of the windows, it was our only entertainment.

Stay away from all of the windows, you hear me? Stay away, Frank's voice breaks at the end of "away." We have never seen Frank look so nervous before. I don't know how we will stay away from the windows because every single room in the house besides the basement has windows, the windows are unavoidable.

Frank then tells us to sit on the couch, but we have been on the couch all day and it is boring. I wait for Caroline to complain but she doesn't. We watch as Frank goes room to room and drags everyone's mattresses out to the hallway. The hallway is lined with four mattresses, two singles from Caroline and I's bunk beds, one twin from our older brother's room and the queen from Frank and Our Mom's room. He shuts all the bedroom doors. We sleep here tonight, it is the safest space in the house, he says. I don't mention the basement.


Even though everything is shut down in our city and the city next to ours and the city next to that city, Frank gets up in the morning and puts on his shirt with his name in the oval on the left side over the pocket where he keeps pens and his glasses, and he walks the several miles to work. My truck is low on gas and I don't want to waste it, he tells us before he leaves. The sky is lighter outside today. When Caroline wakes up, we color in her Kermit & Piggy coloring books and I feed her Cheez-Its and bread with jelly and sliced bananas that are about to turn. Frank tells us to stay inside and not go anywhere, to not answer the door if anyone knocks, even if it is the police, especially if it is the police. He tells us not to open the 'fridge or the freezer doors too often. We do as we are told. We have no water so we drink what is left of the lemonade Our Mom made before she took our older brother to jail. Once that is gone, we drink cans of Diet Mountain Dew. We each drink two and are wired. We play baby games like Duck Duck Goose so we have a reason to run around. Caroline trips on the corner of the couch and lands into the wall, knocks down an ugly framed print of a house in the country. She starts to cry, not because she is actually hurt, but because she is hopped up on sugar and caffeine and she is scared. "I want Our Mom," she says and hugs her knees to chest. I swallow hard and look towards the windows as if I am looking outside but all I see is cardboard. "I know," is all I say. "I know, Bean."


Our Older Brother started calling Caroline "Bean" when she was a baby because, he said, she looked like a little string bean, long and skinny. Our Older Brother always thought that he would never be an older brother since it took Our Mom so long to have other babies. Our Older Brother loves Caroline and I so much, and we know it. He is only mean to Our Mom and Frank. Sometimes he is so mean to Our Mom that it scares us. We sometimes hide from his yelling. He finds us under the lowest bunk bed and squeezes his giant frame underneath, too, to talk to us and tell us it isn't our fault Our Mom is such a bitch and we have no reason to be scared of him because he will never hurt us. Family first. I believe him, but Caroline is much more skeptical. "What makes us so special? And isn't Our Mom family?" she once asked and I couldn't answer her. Now, I can. We are his baby sisters and Our Older Brother doesn't have many special and good things in his life. I read a letter he was writing once to a boy he met in a rehab facility (who he was not supposed to be writing in the first place) and the boy asked "If you had to live on a desert island, what are the three things you would take with you?" and Our Older Brother answered "My two baby sisters," which is not three things, and kind of a stupid answer, but it was sweet and I will never forget it. When Our Older Brother is cursing out Our Mom, or trying to punch Frank, I just remember that if he was stuck on a desert island with absolutely nothing, he would take Caroline and I with him. Sometimes I wish he would take us right away and get it over with. I would love Caroline and I and Our Older Brother living on a tropical island somewhere far, far from here, somewhere where he can't go to jail anymore, somewhere where things don't blow up and burn everything down.


I wake up in the hallway disoriented and find Frank sitting cross-legged on the floor, smoking a cigarette. He is not allowed to smoke cigarettes in the house so I know something is wrong. Our Mom is not home yet. Frank won't tell us where she is because I am pretty sure he doesn't know. The electricity is restored at the shop so I'm going to walk up there and use the phone and get some answers, I thought Frank was saying this to me but in reality he is just saying it aloud, he doesn't even see me until I cough and it startles him.

Caroline and I eat Ho-Ho's and dry Cheerios by the fistful and the rest of the Cheez-Its and wash it down with Diet Mountain Dew. It is Our Older Brother's third morning in jail. We think about all of the television shows we have watched in our lives and think about what a third morning in jail must be like. We hope he has television and can see the news of the explosion and the fires. We hope he knows we do not have electricity. We hope that maybe Our Mom has called him. Frank won't call him. We hope he is thinking of us out on the deserted island in the sun. We imagine him braiding big hibiscus flowers in our hair. We imagine our skirts made of grasses. Coconut shell bras. We dance under the stars. Somewhere there is a ukulele playing. Anything we are thinking of comes from movies. A roasted pig on huge skewer. Pineapples straight from the trees. Now we are hungry for something other than Cheez-Its. Our bellies ache and make hungry noises. We are sleepy, so we bring a stack of books into the hallway with the flashlight, fall asleep.


The smell of smoke envelops our house. Thick, everywhere. No alarms. I wander out into the living room. Our Older Brother is there. He lifts me up into his arms, lifts me so high I can touch the wooden ceiling beams. The wood is hot. He has thick white face paint on covering his tattoos, a red smile around his mouth, a not-so-scary clown. His golden tooth glints as if the sun is shining on it. Maybe now we can go to the island. Maybe now we can leave this old place behind, stay together forever. Family first.