The pancakes were sub-par, Grandmother made better. There were doughy balls in the middle and black crusty edges. They had no taste, no rise, and so severely formed even the syrup wouldn’t soak in. It ran straight off and away from the greyish shaped bread pucks to pool on the far edge of his plate. Curious, Bram thought, as if even the syrup wants nothing to do with the pancakes. He sat poking at them and dreaming of his Grandmother’s fluffy breakfast gems.
“Do you want another?” Samantha offered the plate, holding it just a fraction above Bram’s face. His nose is catching the fresh charred smell, and he wondered how such a picturesque type of housewife could cook so horribly. This was his father’s new wife. She was too tall, slim, and her short wavy brown hair made her look extra awkward. Bram pictured Olive from the Popeye books Grandmother used to read him. Sam was friendly but understandable. No extraordinary personality here, just a clean slate for his father to sit back and stare at the television within the evenings.
Bram was shuffled to his father’s house for the remainder of the week, thankfully that meant missing only one school day before it turned to the weekend. Thomas was, of course, at work all day, not even bothering to take the day off to comfort his worried son. He had promised on Friday night when he returned far past supper time, and he would take the weekend off. Now it was Saturday morning, and Bram was waiting for the bombshell to drop. He had already heard his father on the phone arguing about going into work today too. He hadn’t put up much of a fight, saying, ‘I really shouldn’t, my son just…’ ‘I guess a few hours wouldn’t hurt’ and ‘Alright, see you in half an hour.’ Shortly after that, Sam busied herself around the kitchen, cooking up an oversized breakfast, with near raw bacon, runny eggs, mouldy fruit and burnt pancakes. Bram commended her for trying, but really if she had just focused on the pancakes, they might not have turned out too bad. Now he was left sitting at a table full of horribly cooked food.
“No, thank you,” Bram smiled as he motioned the plate away, his mouth already dried to cement from the last bite he forced in. His mother had taught him well enough manners to finish his plate.
“There’s lots more where that came from!” Sam exclaimed, she had a toothy smile which shone enthusiasm. No matter whom she was speaking to, you couldn’t help but feel her positive energy even if she was a little dense in the head and lacking any real personality. As if she had glued Barbie’s head onto the perfect role model of a woman but forgot to insert creativity or skill of any type.
“I sure hope not,” Justyce mumbled through her mouthful. Catching Bram’s gaze, she popped her mouth purposely wide open to show him bits of mashed black pancakes crusted on her pearly white teeth. Even with the ugliest face, she could make, she was still pretty. This was his step-sister, beaming with all the personality her Mother lacked and the looks to boot. They didn’t talk much but could sit comfortably in the same room and share the space. They never fought or argued. Bram wished secretly she was his blood sister, the love he felt for her so quickly after the year they met was immense. Almost a crush, almost inappropriate for step siblings. She, too, carried an aura of perfection—posture, clothing and hair all in its place 24/7. At only 13 years old, she was only four years older than Bram, but her body held too many womanly curves. She looked a senior while Bram was small enough to be, well nine. Justyce wore shirts revealed a little too much cleavage and shorts, which made Bram blush. Long chocolate brown hair matcher her Mother’s, along with a smart nose, rose-shaped eyes framed by blacker than black eyelashes without a lick of mascara to them.
Sam often boasted about Justyce’s grades in school how she had to study day and night to graze even close to them. How she’s the captain of the volleyball team. Bram could only imagine how her friends would try to be her, and her teachers would try to flaunt her. In Justyce’s world, the sun does revolve around her. She is cool, calm, and collected and certainly destined to be a supermodel or the first female president of the United States. He doesn’t blame his father for adoring her so much. Some days, he just wishes Thomas wouldn’t rub it in Bram’s face how perfect she is.
Bram stuck his tongue out in response to Justyce’s face made but was distracted immediately by his father rushing through the kitchen to leave. He gave Bram only a quick fist pump on the shoulder, but Justyce and Sam both got a solidly planted kiss on the cheek. His heart sunk as he realized he was now too old to receive signs of affection from his father, he blinked the single tear back as Thomas waved and ran out the door.
Saying a silent prayer to anyone who would listen, he hoped to hear news of his Grandmother by Monday. Thomas’ farm rancher was a solid 20-minute drive from town, and only Justyce’s school bus would come by. There was no way any of Bram’s school mates lived this far from town, and he did not look forward to a silent drive into town with Sam every day for school if it came to that. The chair screeched loudly as Justyce stood from the table. She was placing her plate in the soapy sink in front of her mother, who stared blindly out the window as she scrubbed dishes. Bram never even saw her eat, but he followed suit to his step-sister out of lack of alternative options.
“Wanna come to the river?” Justyce encouraged a response with a wink. She turned and followed the ghost footprints of her stepfather from only a moment earlier out the door. Bram locked on her dark hazel eyes, and they type the sun even drown in if he didn’t look away. They had a bright splash of bluey-green like the river he was now headed to. It swam through her left eye as a reminder of her uniqueness. He felt drawn to follow her even though he had been to the river numerous times, and there was never anything worth seeing.
Sam yelled something just as Justyce took off darting across the open lawn. Bram didn’t hesitate to turn into a sprint as well. He couldn’t seem to catch up with her though, and she was at least 20 yards further than him. Frolicking through the damp grass as a new fawn would, on long springy legs, she seemed in her own. Bram’s chest began to burn as the hill sloped upward, but he refused to yell to her. She seemed to burn the clouds away above and bring the sun out, beating around them.
Just as Bram thought surely, he would collapse, he crested the hilltop and allowed gravity to stumble him downward. The valley he came into was warm and didn’t show a speck of snow. Even the grass was taller and greener as if spring lived here only. They were in a vast country now. No other homes, vehicles or even fences showed. He liked it back here but was still curious about what drew Justyce here. She was far too much a city girl to enjoy skipping rocks on the water’s edge. This was also the first weekend she didn’t have friends over for a sleepover. Typically, Bram would hardly see her; she would be in and out with her friends. Maybe his father told her to entertain him this weekend? The thought burnt a small rage in his mind, thinking Justyce didn’t want to hang out with him on her own free will.
Was he invited to join her out of just pity? His legs wouldn’t allow him to catch her, to grab her shoulder and spin her around to confront his new realization. Pumping his arms faster didn’t seem to help either; she was just too soon for him. The field spilled into the trees, and he could no longer run, he could hardly see Justyce any more either. The fizz of anger he felt melted quickly as the woods loomed over his head. He had run several hundred feet into the woods without realizing, and now he was alone and exhausted. The sun couldn’t even break the treetops, and the snow mounds in here gave him a genuine cold shiver to his bone. The sweat he had accumulated from the warmth froze to the goosebumps. He swung his head from side to side and swallowed a lump was forming all too quickly in his throat.
“Come on, slowpoke.”
The startled shriek thankfully was muffled by the lump in Bram’s throat, Justyce appeared behind him and knocked him on the same shoulder his father had. He rubbed it, irritated, it was beginning to grow sore now. As if Justyce was Snow White, the trees opened around them, and the sun was there once more. Birds began to sing, and she bounced along with a skip in her walk.
“Pfft, who’s the slowpoke?” Bram trotted beside her now, refusing to let her leave his sights again and overly pleased she was walking now. The trees swayed a soft hello wave in the breeze around them, and the whole forest seemed to beam happiness now with Justyce there. A smile crept across his lips as he felt her warmth creep into his goosebumps and made them fade.
“You’ve been here before, right?” She beamed, the morning light casting an angelic glow on her pristine skin.
“Yup,” Bram quaked but wouldn’t admit he had never come alone, always with his father. Truthfully, he wouldn’t even know how to get home. Her flowing beet red cardigan graced the side of his arm, and she looked at ease. Comfortable with the outdoors, even with her city, slicker looks.
“Have you ever been to the bridge, though?”
“Oh, then in you’re in for a treat.”
“There’s a small bridge over here. No roads join to it any longer. The rumour is a tired old mother drowned her children here. She tied them to chairs and dropped them off the bridge one at a time. The husband was the old mayor and had the roads destroyed immediately, preventing anyone from coming here again.”
Bram examined her face, trying to determine if she was lying or not. Pulling his leg to get a rouse out of him, but her face was solemn—smooth, clean peach cheeks from the chill in the air but no sign of a smirk.
“Do you come here lots?” Changing the subject since the woods seemed to darken once more. He could hear the river rushing ahead and knew they must be close.
“All the time, Mom and Thomas only ever want to spend time together. They go boating, fishing, shopping, all kinds of things without me.” Justyce replied, her voice dropping suddenly. The first show of sadness he had ever heard from her. She held her tone there, just above a cry but far too low from what it was before. “I’m sorry to hear about your Grandma.”
He wished people would stop saying they were sorry. It didn’t help or fix his Grandmother, he wasn’t sure Obscura could help here, and suddenly he realized time was an enemy to her. Nothing would help her now. Justyce had control of many things; clouds, birds, the sun, but he imagined she didn’t have control of time.
“She’s okay,” Bram started but allowed the sentence to run off. He wanted to tell Justyce he had checked on her, and her Obscura plane was still open. Even though he couldn’t see her or help her, he sensed she was still there. He shook the thought from his mind, and he couldn’t tell her. “I just know it,” he finished quickly. Pushing aside branches as they walked, Bram tried to pull the gentlemanly ways by holding them apart for Justyce as well, but it didn’t help much. She was nearly a foot and a half taller than him, and his baby pudge forced him to move slower than her slender frame.
“That’s good.” Justyce took over pushing the scratchy twigs out of the way, “My grandparents died a few years ago. I knew they died before the police called my Mom. I had a dream about it, and I saw my Grandmother’s face smash the windshield when grandpa lost control of the car. Mom wouldn’t believe me when I told her. She yelled at me. Said I was making it up, but I knew, I saw grandma die.”
Bram recalled watching a movie years ago, and it was on the television after his Mother had fallen asleep. A man riding a motorcycle got run over, his face bleeding, broken legs, and choking on his last breathe. Bram knew it wasn’t real, but the feeling it gave him in his stomach was nothing he could forget. The sick scratch away sense of an alarming tragedy, as if he felt the man’s pain in the pit of his being. It lingered, and he felt it now as he too pulled a mental picture of a lovely grey-haired woman smashing her face into a windshield and dying.
They fell silent. The walk continued, pine cones cracking under their feet, but no more words passed. They finally came into the clearing, and Justyce stopped dead in front of him. Turning on her heel, hands on her hips, but she still looked at the picture of beauty.
“If you’re going to be my little brother, there are a few things we need to get straight.” Her lips were pearly pink as well, matching her flushed cheeks, and Bram could nearly smell the flavour of her Chapstick. “No going in my room, no touching my school bag, and no talking to my friends. Do you get me, boy?” Justyce put a spin on the word boy, making it sound snarky, but Bram could hear the love in her voice. He nodded, agreeing to her terms just to stay close to her. She began the walk again.
“Do you have a girlfriend?”
“No, Grandmother says I’m too young. She says I need many years of being a gentleman first,” Bram replied, although he resents the comment. He views himself as more of a gentleman than his father, and he would never leave his Mother’s side even when she cries too much. He would never leave this girl either, just to work at the shop for longer hours.
The river appeared in front of them as if there was a silencing curtain, and suddenly, the roar overtook them both. He didn’t recall it being this loud, but he had never seen it this high upstream before. The flow was so fierce it caused white caps to form and smash against the banks, which were eroding nearly under their feet. The bridge had only ten feet of road on either side. The gravel was cut through with tall weeds and swaying grass, creating a graveyard for the way. The concrete of the bridge was crumbling as if the mayor had taken a sledgehammer to it himself. The bank on the opposite side was nearly all washed away. There was room to venture under the decapitated bridge on this site, and the opposite side would be a death trap. The concrete surrounding the steel pillars into the river bed and washed away, only small bits clung to it still. The horror of what happened here had eaten away at the earth, leaving it pocked and flowerless. There was no colour anywhere except dark, sad greys of the crumbling bridge. The concrete pillars fully exposed on the backside, and now the river was eating away at the earth the road was built. Rocks were emerging from the lack of dirt, and sooner rather than later, the ground would give and fall entirely into the raging river.
Bram followed Justyce closer to the bridge, and he wasn’t shocked at all when she turned to slide her body under the death trap called a bridge. The scream of the river rushing so close to him told him it was a bad idea. Erosion was a lesson he had learnt years ago in school, and yet with Justyce making it look casual, he followed in suit. The darkness was a quick shadow he pushed aside before emerging into a new and well-hidden underworld compartment Justyce frequented.
The graffiti was beautiful, stunning colours embodying names, shapes and poems. Bram could even make out his step-sisters’ name. Mushrooms, fairies and rainbows painted everywhere threw his second ago caution into the river, which magically seemed nearly still under the bridge. As if in other universes altogether, Bram now saw why Justyce came here so often. The concrete was a perfect canvas for her art, not even a single handful chunk missing from the smooth surface. It ran straight up only 4 feet before gliding over their heads and meeting at the broken centre with the threatening pillar pitching downward into the black pool below. The pieces above his head sang worry-free verses, never threatening to fall. Giving a strange reassurance even to him, something calming him. As if he stood in Heaven itself on this side, glancing over the other side spoke one word loud and clear; Hell. No one ventured over there. Large rocks of cement sat on the near-extinct dirt surface.
The rocks under his feet were large, splintering down to small pebbles near the shore. He sat crossed legged next to its majesty, who seemed to emit light in this mysterious place. Her closeness to him sent shivers everywhere. He had a sudden urge to put his head on her shoulder, and he pictured she would wrap her arm around him and protect him from the darkness of Obscura crept in occasionally without his will. He imagined her skin would be so warm, so soft.
“Have you ever kissed a girl?” Her voice broke his thought train, but then just really added to the fantasy he had dived into. She pulled her pony out and let her hair fall loose. It was so long, and they were so close some fell on his outreached knee cap. He pictured himself reaching for her soft skin but threw the idea away. The question of a kissing a girl rang around his mind, making it speed up, and suddenly he recalled the smell of her lips. The Chapstick nectar he smelt earlier. He loved her, and he loved her. She moved slow and meticulous on this rock they shared. Turning her body slightly towards him, she even shrugged her cardigan off. Allowing him to view her naked shoulders and busting shirt.
“No,” he choked out, his mouth instantly dry. She licked her lips, renewing the glow of her Chapstick.
“Do you want to?” Justyce suddenly turned her face towards him, and he felt a jolt of electricity through his body. Her lips were peachy perfect and puckered as she turned. Her imagined how sweet she must taste, and he knew her question needed no answer. He slowly moved into the gap between them to sample her Chapstick, closing his eyes fireworks were lighting in front of him.
“Fag,” Justyce’s voice came again, breaking the spell on Bram, and his eyes shot open to see Justyce holding a package of cigarettes to him.
“Do you want a smoke?” She replied and flicked a lighter to light her own was now hanging from her lips.
“No, I don’t smoke.” Bram stammered. Embarrassment steamed his face, grateful it was dark enough under here she possibly did not see the shade change. Sadness sat there too, and he couldn’t kiss his step-sister. She was so pretty, and surely, she would be a good catch.
“So,” she continued, “do you want to kiss a girl?”
“No. Well, maybe. There is this girl in my class.”
“Why don’t you then?”
“Why don’t I what?” Bram was still lost in the moment of his step-sister, seemingly offering a kiss. His mind dazed with the thought. He had never even really thought about kissing Malhi, but now he was. He was wondering if her lips covered with peachy balm, how would they taste?
“Don’t be coy…” Justyce nearly knocked Bram off the rock she jumped up so suddenly, “did you hear that?” She flicked her cigarette into the rushing river and walked to the edge of the bridge. Crouched over to prevent hitting her head, she climbed over Bram and backed out from under the bridge. She was standing on the tips of her toes to look above the curve of the hill on the opposite side. Bram’s mind was pulsing around Malhi’s lips now. He remained cross-legged on the rock and watched the cigarette float away.
“Bram! Did you hear that?” She was trying to whisper, but the adrenaline coursing through her was causing her voice to be loud and shrill. Bram clambered out behind her now and decided to look to where she was. He couldn’t even see above the broken bridge.
“No, hear what?”
“SHHHH” She waved her hands angrily, Bram had never seen her so dangerous. He watched in horror as she rounded behind him and climbed up onto the broken bridge. Fear turned to dread as he realized she was walking across the decomposing bridge. Pieces are falling into the water below, even where her feet touched. With no chance to react or stop her, he sprung to action and followed like a good little sheep would.
Like a bad dream, they were too soon standing on the opposite side. In Hell. Pieces of sharp rebar sticking out, fallen trees blocking any type of path into the woods. No one would want to venture that direction anyway, Bram thought, the sun was not shining there at all. The sun was almost glistening in the opposite direction, willing them to turn around. Bram could not remove his shoulder from Justyce’s flank, where it nestled in so appropriately. He remained standing with her, even when his whole being told him not to stay.
The goosebumps returned quickly and with a vengeance. They now pained his arms and yelled in his ears from the back of his neck. Every piece of his being on attention to run. He never asked what she heard, but when the whispering from a child’s voice came from directly behind them, they both bolted.
It didn’t seem to matter how fast Bram ran; he could still feel the child’s whisper on him. As if it had a body of its own, it was there, and it had been real. He could never have said what the voice spoke, but Justyce had heard it too. The trees swung and smacked Bram in the face as he bolted through the forest. He wasn’t even sure if he was running in the right direction any longer, he just ran. Thankfully at some point, Justyce appeared at his side again. At least he knew she was okay and with him now. They shared a ghost glance and ran side by side the rest of the way to the cabin.
“Did you have a good day?” Bram’s father queried, he had missed dinner and all the excitement. Bram and Justyce sat quietly for the remainder of the night watching television. Thomas came home with ice cream, but Bram insisted he was too tired and went straight to bed. He father didn’t put up much of a fight, Justyce had a sad look on her face but indulged in her ice cream anyway. Thomas followed Bram into his bedroom, insisting he would tuck him in for the night. Bram rolled his eyes but allowed his father to develop. He now laid in bed with his father kneeling on the floor next to him. Head in his hands, he was looking intently at his son, it seemed the first real stare they had shared in some time.
“It was…interesting.” Bram secretly wished his father would throw his arms over him like he did when he was a child. He was too proud to ask, though, and his father didn’t seem to offer.
“That sounds deceiving.”
“How’s Grandma?” Bram finally mustered enough courage to ask.
“Son, she had a heart attack. She survived, but the doctors tell me she needs to have a lifestyle change. They are allowing her to go home tomorrow.” Bram smiled, but Thomas still held the sad face, knowing the implication better than Bram did.
“Can you drive me home tomorrow night? I don’t want to miss school on Monday. I’m going to ask Malhi to kiss me.” Thomas laughed and ruffled Bram’s hair.
“Yes, no problem.” His father pulled himself up onto the bed next to Bram, with it being such a small bed it was overly awkward with such a large grown man and post-adolescent Bram both on the bed. They were beginning to have testosterone wars. He felt it when his father told him to do something. The swell of pride grew in Bram was immense, but it worked both ways. It happened as well when Bram didn’t want to do something his father asked of him, and he assumed why his father didn’t ask him to do much nowadays. They seemed to only have their last name in stock and it ached Bram more, especially when he had lost his Mother to depression. He felt he had no one left, although Justyce seemed to like him now. Or maybe it was a pity show just for him.
He decided he needed to make Malhi his girlfriend, and he wanted to share a kiss with her and have someone to talk to honestly.
“I need to talk to you, buddy.” His father caught his eyes and wouldn’t let them wander. Bram wished he would leave now, and he was tired from all the running and the ghost talk today.
“Sam and I, we are moving.” His father continued, anyway. Bram yawned and rolled away from him. Showing how uninterested, he was, all he thought about now was her strawberry coloured hair.
“Okay? That’s nice,” Bram replied. He didn’t care if his Dad moved again; he seemed to run every other year anyway. That was why he got stuck sleeping on the couch most days. At least this time, they had moved the pull-out hide-a-bed to the back study, it gave him a little bit of privacy.
“We’re moving far this time.”
“Oh.” The anger crept in again. He refused to show his father, though and stayed facing away from him. Thomas now put his arm over his son’s body, but Bram kept his posture cold, he wouldn’t let him comfort him now.
“I got a promotion in my job. They’re making me a manager.”
“Where are you moving to?” Bram allowed his voice to be monotone and uncaring.
“To the coast. The west coast so it will be a twelve-hour drive from where we are now. I’m sure your mother will be willing to make the drive.”
“Thomas! You know she would if she didn’t cry so much! Grandma says it is your fault. She cries. She couldn’t handle it when you left.” Bram snapped the built-up frustration of the last week, watching his mother suffer, and it was just due to a broken heart from his father. Seeing his Dad so happy now with his new family, new daughter and new wife. Of course, he didn’t care about his old family, and the new one was perfect. Now they were moving far away, to severe the tie for good? Bram felt as though his father had punched him in the stomach, he could feel the cold whisper of the dead children at the bridge again. His heart was pounding in his throat, and all the muscles in his neck went tense.
He closed his eyes tightly, wishing to drown out his father’s pleading words he pushed himself into Obscura. The darkness took him away from his father.