A Deep Breath

by Anna Sheppard

          Lawrence, the obese Himalayan cat my sister bought the year she broke up with her long-term boyfriend, joins me in the kitchen as I wash our dishes. Kimberly had arrived earlier in the day with our youngest brother Spencer, and even though I haven’t seen either of them since last year, I’m somehow still as alone as every other night of the year, only now with the company of a cat.
          Most siblings meet for the holidays. They drive a few hours to one brother’s house for Thanksgiving, then to another’s a month later on Christmas. We’ve always done things differently. Maybe it was the lack of parents, or the age differences. I only know that I haven’t seen my brother or sister on Christmas day since the years before each of them left for college. We meet instead for three days every March: one day for them to arrive, one day to celebrate the birthday of the grandmother who raised us, and one day for them to pack and be gone again.
          Eventually, Kim comes out to the kitchen as well. She sits at a chair close enough to the counter for her to stroke Lawrence’s back. He purrs, and it sounds like more of a gurgling sound than like a sign of affection. 

          “Can I have a drink?” she asks me. 

         “You had a beer earlier.” 

          Kimberly smirks. “Don’t hold out on me, Lou,” she says. I shake my head and open a cabinet to the far left of the kitchen. 

          I pour her a few sips worth of bourbon and fix myself a vodka tonic with cranberry juice. She eyes my drink suspiciously and uses her glass to hide the amusement on her face. 

          “Can you believe all that?” she asks. “About Pucón?”

          I’m reminded of the plans Spencer had relayed to us earlier today about a house boat in Pucón owned by his roommate’s cousin. He’d told us he’d move there at the beginning of summer, after finishing his last year of college in Chicago, and work in the marina where the boat was docked. Kimberly’s lack of reaction to the plan had told both of us she wasn’t okay with it, but I hadn’t heard her acknowledge this disappointment until now. 

          I shrug. “He’s an adult. He can decide that stuff for himself now.” 

          Kimberly lets out a deep breath. “You give into him too much, Lou. Have you been letting him smoke?” 

          I furrow my eyebrows but do not look up from the dishes. “Spencer doesn’t smoke.” 

          She gulps down the rest of her drink and winces before she speaks again. “He was high earlier today. In the living room.” 

          “You’re paranoid.” 

          “And the guest bathroom smells like weed,” she says. “He probably just sticks a towel under the door, turns the shower on.” I’m reminded of how I questioned his need to shower almost immediately after he arrived. 

          “You would know better than I would,” I tell her. “That was always you guys’ thing.”  

          “I wouldn’t say that,” she says, laughing, then seems to consider it. “I mean, maybe. But you guys had your things too.” 

          “I know that,” I say. I consider this idea. What count as “things,” anyway? The eight year age difference had made us hanging out a consistently awkward experience, and I was never like Kimberly, who could always tell when he came home drunk and would feed him bread and coffee in an attempt to hide it from Gran. Growing up, I’d always felt it was necessary to protect Spencer, but now I can’t think of one memory that would justify such a responsibility. He’d had Kim and Gran and close friends from school, and then methe older brother who’d left town and moved back before Spencer was even old enough to graduate. I glance at Kim. “What things are you thinking about?” I ask her. 

          She lets out a laughing breath. “I don’t know.  He still keeps that old picture of you guys from the pumpkin patch in his room. That’s got to count for something.” 

          “When did you visit?” 

          “Louis,” she says. “That’s not the point.” 

          I bite the inside of my cheek and look to Lawrence, who has fallen to his side and disarranged the papers underneath him in the process of doing so. The corners of his mouth curve up contently, his eyes droop lazily in some unknown region between open and closed, and his chest rises and falls with every sleeping breath. I scratch him roughly behind his ear, and he stirs a little bit in his sleep. “The cat’s pissing me off,” I say to Kimberly. 

          She laughs. “I like him.”


          The next evening, I pick up Gran at five o’clock. On the way back to my condo, we pass the house where Gran had raised both my uncle and my father and, after losing both of our parents, Kimberly, Spencer, and me. I was nine years old when my parents died, and for months after I couldn’t look at our uncle because his scruffy beard and green eyes resembled my father’s too closely. We lost them to a car accident caused by a lack of friction on icy roads in Vermont, where they’d been vacationing at the time. Gran adopted the three of us soon after.
As we all grew up, we began to understand the sacrifice Gran had made by keeping us.
She’d already done the kid thing and could easily have passed us off to Uncle Corey, an alcoholic living hours away who had his own kids to disappoint, or my mother’s family, Floridians about whom we’d always known very little, but she had chosen to keep us instead.
Spencer was still an infant when we lost our parents, Kimberly barely a toddler. Being 
the oldest by a large margin, Gran had always depended on me more than them, even as we’d grown into adults. I was the one who’d changed Spencer’s diapers, I was the one who’d helped Kim with her trigonometry homework, and I was the one who moved back to town after college so that Gran wouldn’t be alone.
          It’s never until Gran has arrived at these dinners that I realize how little things have changed from when we were kids.

          “Kimberly,” Gran’s voice wails shakily as I wheel her past the kitchen. “What are you doing in there?” 

          “Kimmy’s making us dinner,” I tell Gran. “I asked her to.” 

          Kimberly comes trotting into the room to wish Gran a happy birthday, ignoring her initial comment. 

          “You don’t have to do all of this, you know,” Gran says. “It must be a lot of work for you all.” 

          “It’s nothing,” Kim says.

          “We’re happy to do it,” I correct her. Gran smiles up at me. 

          “You look good, Gran,” Kimberly lies. “It’s good to see you.” 

          “In that case, I’d think you’d do it more often,” Gran says in the passive-aggressive tone that Kimberly knows better than to reply to. Gran stretches her hand out and pats my arm. “I see Louis almost every week.” 

          Kimberly looks at me desperately. I can tell she wants me to defend her. I say nothing.“Louis lives here, Gran. You know I’m in Atlanta now.”

          Gran waves a hand. “I’m just giving you a hard time, Kimmy,” she says. “Where’s your brother?” 

          Kimberly watches me, ready to measure my reaction. “He’s in the shower,” she says. 

          Before the sentence has completely left her mouth, I feel my fist banging on the bathroom door. I yell his name.
          I hear the scrambling of his feet, the unzipping of pants and his clothes being forced off, his footsteps as he enters and exits the shower, the shower being cut off, the snatching of a towel, the door opening. 

          “Hey, Lou,” he says, his voice shaking. The earthy smell escaping the bathroom makes me wonder if turning on the shower had had any effect at all. Spencer looks like he’s having trouble holding his eyes open. I feel a brush of fur running past my legs and realize that Lawrence had been trapped in the bathroom with him. 

         I grind my teeth together, too furious to say anything other than, “Gran’s here.” He nods, giving me a bright, stupid smile, and slips into his room. 

          When I return to everyone else, Gran and Kimberly are deep into a conversation about Kimberly’s new hair color. “Honestly, honey,” Gran says, picking up the end of a piece of Kimberly’s hair, “I think it looked just fine natural.” 

           Kimberly yanks her head to the side so that the hair falls from Gran’s hand. “Well, I like it better red.” 

          Gran clicks her tongue. “What do you think, Louis?” she asks. 

          I shrug. “I didn’t even notice,” I say. This, of course, is a lie. The red hair makes Kimberly look like she’s wearing a fireman’s hat, and it isn’t nearly as beautiful as the natural honey blonde which closely resembled the hair of our mother.

          Spencer stumbles out after a few minutes. His eyes seem to have been repaired by eye drops or water or whatever one uses for such things, but he still has a sort of dizzy look to him. He stops in his tracks when he sees Gran, reminding me that it has been a year since he saw her last. She’d still looked old then, but the past year had been her worst in terms of aging. Her skin looks thin and brittle, almost see-through in places; her eyes lack the strength we’d all found comfort in at one point. It’s the first time he’s seeing her in the wheel chair, and with the oxygen tank. For a moment, I almost feel sorry for him. 

          “Well, there you are,” Gran says. “Was taking a shower so much more important than seeing your Gran on her birthday?” 

          He looks from Kimberly to me to Gran, his lip trembling. For a second, I’m worried he might actually cry. I think Kim might be trying to hold back laughter.  “No, ma’am,” he mumbles to his shoes.  

          “Well, I’d hope not,” Gran says. She holds her arms open. “Come here, boy, I haven’t seen you in a year.” 

          He stumbles over to her and into her arms. A timer goes off, sending Kimberly sprinting back into the kitchen. I am watching Lawrence, who doesn’t seem to be watching anything. The cat is sitting with its back straight, its eyes nearly closed. Every few seconds, he starts to lean too far to his side, as if he is being slowly pulled to the floor, and then realizes what he is doing and snaps himself back into place, opening his eyes a little wider only for them to return to their closed position as he begins to fall back down again.
          We stumble through dinner in the same manner as we do every year–awkwardly, and with very little substance to the conversation. Gran asks Spencer where he lives three times. On the third time, Spencer changes his answer.

          “Los Angeles, Gran,” he says. “Right down the street from the Hiltons.” 

          I see a brief hint of confusion in Gran’s eyes–perhaps she is wondering what a Hilton is or maybe she really does know that Spencer lives in Chicago–but it quickly changes to a warm smile. “That’s great, dear,” she says and reaches over to pat his knee. 

          Kimberly makes a comment about something she saw on the news–an attempt at small talk, but all it does is launch us into a political debate. Gran tries to follow what we are saying but has not kept up with our country’s government since 1988. Spencer seems to be more annoyed than zoned-out, which I take to be a good sign. I consider that maybe he hadn’t been smoking after all, that Kimberly had just been overly-suspicious and that I had been too quick to believe her. What business would he have had getting high right before Gran’s birthday dinner anyway?
One glance at Lawrence reaffirms what I’d really already known. The cat is having 
difficulty crossing the living room. His foot hangs in the air before every step, as if he is deliberating whether he really wants his paw to be on the ground. I avert my attention to Spencer; it’s impossible not to notice the similarities between their movements.


          Later, I escape to my back porch to be alone for a while, only to have that solitude interrupted by the steady screech of the sliding door opening and closing. I turn and see Spencer, who is looking much more like himself and less like someone who is still sleeping. Still slightly furious with him, I don’t greet him or offer him a seat. I just turn back to where I was sitting and act as though I have something else to look at. He sits in the chair next to mine, and the way he continually shifts uncomfortably in his seat tells me that he has something to say. I consider saying something to put him at ease, saying that it’s okay that he got high before dinner, that it’s okay that he never visits, and that it’s okay because we were never very close, anyway. I then consider that I would be saying this entirely for him and that I wouldn’t mean a word of it, so I allow him to continue to suffer. 

          “Look,” he says eventually, “I know you’re pissed. I know that I deserve it and that I’m a piece of shit. I’m a piece of shit, okay?” He hunches over and puts his head in his hands and I think I hear him mumble an “I’m sorry.” I reach my arm over and rub his back. 

          “You aren’t a piece of shit,” I tell him. “It’s okay.” 

          He sniffles and wipes his eyes on his sleeve. Interlocks his fingers together, and looks at his hands as he says, “I need your help, Louis.” 

          I pull my arm away and lean back in my chair. Pinching the bridge of my nose, I squeeze my eyes shut, thinking of how I’ve heard him say this too many times before. “What is it?” 

          “I messed up,” he says. “I was driving home, and I’d been drinking, but I wasn’t drunk, but I got pulled anyway. Ran a stop sign or something, I don’t know. All I know is I got a DUI I can’t afford, and there’s no one else I can go to.” He sighs and looks me in the eyes. “You know I wouldn’t go to you if I didn’t have to. But I really, really need the money this time Lou.” 

          I take a deep breath. “How much is it?” 

          “The court charged me, and I have to pay for substance abuse classes, and my insurance is up another hundred a month–“ 

          “How much do you need?” 

          “Four thousand,” he says quietly. 

          I let the number hang in the air. Four thousand dollars would be the equivalent of six and a half weeks of pay for me. It takes up about half of the savings I currently have put away. Assuming Gran sends him the same amount of money as she sent me, it would take him months of not spending a single penny for him to earn four thousand dollars. I think of his plans for Chile and how they could all go away without my help, and of how I’ve never been able to let him down. 

          “I’ll write you the check before you leave,” I tell him.  He lets out a deep breath and is about to thank me. “But you need to get serious, Spence,” I say before he has the chance. “Go to Pucón, or stay in Chicago, or move back here. I just want you to do something. I’m not giving you this money for nothing.” 

          He nods and swallows hard. “I will, Lou. I promise I will.” We don’t say anything else. For a few minutes we sit in silence, but soon Kimberly comes out and tells Spencer that Gran wants to talk to him inside. We share a confused look before he leaves, and Kimberly takes his seat. 

          “Let me guess,” she says the second he has slid the door shut, “he wants you to pay his DUI.” 

          “He asked you first?” 

          She nods. Can you believe that?” Kim asks. “He really thinks that we’ll just give him what he needs every time…” 

          “I told him I’d give him the money.” I can’t look at her as I’m saying it, but I know she’s shaking her head. 

          She watches her beer contemplatively, catches the drips of condensation running down the side with her pointer finger. “I just wish you’d think about what you’re doing for him. He needs a lot more than that money, Lou.” 

          “I know that,” I tell her. “He knows that. He’s really gonna try now.”

          After some quiet, I tell her that what I said to Spencer had really sunk in, he really got it, and that she should trust me.  She looks away, down at the city, and mumbles that maybe I’m right, but maybe he just needs to mess up and we need to let him. She says she doesn’t know, but I feel good, for the first time all night, for the first time in a while. I think that my steering Spencer will pay off. After Kimberly finishes her beer, we both go back inside. 

          Kimberly freezes in the doorway; I can’t move or see around her. “What the hell?” she says. 

          “What?” I push past her so that I have a clear view of the living room. 

          Spencer is sitting cross-legged on the couch next to Gran. The oxygen tank sits on the floor between them. I read somewhere that someone who relies on an oxygen tank to breathe can last ten minutes without the tubes connected to their nose before they will start to feel as if they need it again. I think of this when I see that the tubes which are normally laced around Gran’s ears and under her nose are now being held by Spencer. I’ve walked in just in time to see him pulling the contraption away from his nostrils; he is unsettlingly calm for someone whose older siblings have just walked in on him stealing his grandmother’s oxygen. 

          Kimberly and I look at each other and then at Gran. “I told him he could try it,” she says, daring us to question her. Kimberly says she told me, she so told me. I expect Spencer to apologize, to say something, but all he can do is smile.

 Author Biography: Anna Sheppard is from the low country of South
Carolina. She currently lives in Greenville, SC, where she studies creative
writing at the Governor’s School for the Arts and Humanities. She enjoys
Fleetwood Mac and talking too much about her twin sister.

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