New Family by Paul Barach

Charlie’s parents couldn’t see DeeDee and neither could Charlie, but he was Charlie’s best friend because DeeDee loved to play.

Charlie loved his trains the best. His dad would play trains with him. When Charlie got bored running them along their wooden tracks, he and his dad would run them all over the floor and around the crib of Charlie’s baby sister, Holly. When Charlie got tired of that, he’d ask his dad to run them high across the walls, way above where Charlie could reach.

But Charlie’s dad wouldn’t make them run across the ceiling like DeeDee, or fly through the air while Charlie jumped up to catch them. His dad didn’t even know how, but DeeDee did. DeeDee made playing with the trains so much more fun than anyone.

DeeDee had been playing a new game for weeks after his parents went to sleep. Charlie was already laughing when it started. The train flew through the air, rolling across the ceiling so high up and then down the walls wavy like a snake. Charlie jumped on the bed giggling so much it felt like he’d never catch his breath. Then the train floated down, spinning like a snowflake until it was right in front of his hands.

Charlie loved this game. He clapped his hands together as fast as he could, but the train jumped out at the last moment like a fly and all he caught was his palms.

The train rose again, a little farther away. Charlie leaped off the bed, landing softly on the footies of his PJs and snatched at the air again. The train bobbed just to the left, then down as he clapped his hands again. He danced across the carpet, but the train kept jumping up as he snatched at the air.

DeeDee never kept the game going this long and Charlie was getting mad.

“Give it, DeeDee!”

Charlie stubbed his toe on the chair of his drawing desk. Crayons rolled off the edge and fell onto the carpet and Charlie would have to pick them up because DeeDee was being stupid and his toe hurt so bad.

“DeeDee! I don’t wanna play anymore,” he whispered.

The train floated at the window. It had stopped spinning but DeeDee wouldn’t bring it over.

Charlie limped toward the train. Tears welled in his eyes, but he wouldn’t cry and wake the baby. He liked that Holly slept in the same room. He loved his little sister the best. He knew it already. More than Mom and Dad and he loved them very much too.

The train was still too far up to reach and DeeDee wouldn’t drop it. Charlie pushed the chair over to the window and climbed onto it, grasping for the train on his tiptoes until he finally snatched it out of the air. Relief flushed through him as he curled his fingers around the wooden weight, cradling it to his chest. It was his favorite one, the bright red locomotive with the green chimney that Dad gave him for Christmas. Without it, the other trains wouldn’t know where to go.

He was glad DeeDee opened the window. The breeze felt good, cooling his skin that was damp from chasing the toy and chilling the tears that had spread down his cheeks to his chin. The fall colors were fading from the oak trees outside his window, the first crystals of frost had spread across the dirt.

Ice water gripped onto his back across his shoulders, hands as big as his dad’s. It drove the breath out of him, so cold that it froze through his chest and he shivered. He gasped. The world tumbled forward. He floated above the flower bed below his window, saw the leaves of the oak tree rustling in the breeze. Then the dirt rushed up to meet him, the frost glittering in the moonlight.

He was back inside the house. Inside his room. Holly was shrieking. He looked out the window and saw a little boy wearing his pjs crumpled onto the ground. He yelled for DeeDee, who was gone. He yelled for Mom and Dad and Holly. He yelled for Grandma.

Charlie yelled until the last snows melted. The noise would leave his teeth and be swallowed by the air at the end of his fingers, or where he remembered his fingers had been. No one ever heard him. He heard everything. He heard the yellow paint on the walls crack and the lightbulb that hung in the basement hum. He heard everything all at once, especially the long groans the house made.

The new people who lived there said that the house was settling. It took Charlie six winters before he learned they were words and seven more before the words made sense. The words scared him a lot and made him cry.

Stupid DeeDee never came back. He hated Stupid DeeDee.

Charlie thought he still had a face, but he couldn’t remember what it looked like. The mirrors only reflected back the walls. Charlie could see everything else inside the house. He would stare at the food the new people who lived there brought in. He could see the gleaming frosted edges of the donuts, the tiny caves and crumbs that made up each cookie. But he couldn’t smell them.

When he’d learned to pick the cookies up, he couldn’t feel them, but they lifted off the table and into his mouth. He was so happy. But he couldn’t taste them. He threw them on the floor and cried and screamed until the flowers came back up again. He learned to grasp other things later. He could move them wherever he wanted.

It wasn’t something he could explain, but that was the thing; Charlie couldn’t explain anything.

He couldn’t leave the house, but if he looked very hard out the window, sometimes he could see his sister. She would be walking around the park with her son, showing him the ducks in the pond. She looked happy most days. She looked like Charlie’s mom now.

Then one day, Charlie couldn’t see his little sister anymore.

Charlie missed her more than anyone. More than his mom and dad. He wanted to leave the house and see her. The doors and windows wouldn’t let him out, no matter how much he pushed and kicked and screamed.

The men who moved in together talked to Charlie after they saw the small handprint smashed into the cake they’d brought. Alex and Stan weren’t afraid of Charlie. They’d tried to get him to talk back, bringing a board game into the house. It had a bunch of letters on it and numbers, and a little car with a window like a magnifying glass. But Charlie didn’t know what letters went where. He remembered his name started with a big C like Cat, but it had been so long he’d forgotten what the other letters were supposed to be.

When Patricia and Clark moved in after Alex and Stan, they didn’t talk to Charlie. Patricia talked to Jesus all the time, but he wasn’t in the house. Patricia always asked Jesus for the same thing and it made Charlie tired to listen so he stayed away. She talked to Caroline on the phone about the same thing. Clark left and Caroline came over a lot. Patricia left, and Caroline stayed for good.

Caroline wasn’t afraid of Charlie. She pretended Charlie wasn’t there. If she saw something move, she’d pretend she didn’t see it.
Charlie learned new words as each person came through. VCR. Computer. CD. Internet. Laptop. Smart Phone. Wifi. He liked the music all the people played. He always got excited when someone new moved in but ignored them after a while. None of them made him happy.

Hannah and Peter moved in after Caroline moved out. Hannah had curly black hair, like Charlie’s mom used to have. When Peter smiled, Charlie could see the wide gap in his teeth that made him look like a Jack O’ Lantern. Peter was always playing games on his computer, wearing big headphones.

Charlie wanted them to be happy. When Hannah yelled at Peter for not keeping the bathroom clean, Charlie would clean it while they weren’t looking. He did the same with the dishes. Peter didn’t notice when he was playing on his computer. Charlie watched them as they laid in bed together. He could see what their bodies were doing. The house had told him it was to make a baby. Caroline never made a baby with the men who laid in her bed. Alex and Stan never made a baby. Patricia and Clark didn’t either and sometimes Patricia cried about it and it made Charlie sad.

Charlie knew when Hannah had a baby inside her tummy. When she told Peter they danced in the living room. Charlie danced too.

Hannah wasn’t like Alex and Stan or Caroline. Hannah was scared of Charlie. She saw him moving the chairs once to sweep and ran away. Charlie didn’t want to scare Hannah. He wanted her to be happy. He would be extra quiet around her after that so she wouldn’t be scared.

Charlie liked watching the laundry tumble in the dryer the best out of everything in the house. The clothes looked like they were dancing and jumping and flying around. He liked the loud ding at the end, but he didn’t like how they all fell down and laid still after it. The door at the top of the stairs opened and Hannah turned on the basement light. It flickered, which was never Charlie’s fault although everyone who’d lived there had blamed him for that. It was the wiring. Charlie could see that, because Charlie could see everything. If he looked hard enough, he could see inside people. He could see the flickering of thoughts. If he really tried extra hard, he could see a little into the future.

He knew the baby would be a girl. He knew she would be born in the spring like Holly was.

He knew there were fifteen steps leading down to the basement. He knew Peter hadn’t fixed the fourth step leading up from the basement like he promised and Charlie wasn’t old enough to fix it.

Hannah piled the laundry into the basket, then placed her head against it like a warm pillow. She inhaled deeply. Charlie did too, even though he couldn’t smell anything. Hannah started up the stairs. The basket rested on her swollen belly.

The fourth step snapped from its edge. The laundry fell down all over as Hannah went backwards grabbing at the air. Charlie pressed his hands against her back. Hannah gasped as the ice-cold water sloshed through her chest, into her belly. She shrieked, cradling her arm under her tummy.

Charlie pushed harder, pushed until she fell forward and caught herself on the stairs. Hannah scrambled up to the kitchen crying. Her knee bled. She didn’t stop crying all day, even when Peter asked what was wrong. She just cried and shook her head and held her belly.

She was crying so loud that Charlie hugged her. She recoiled at the icy embrace, shivering and shrieking even louder, curled up on the floor around her big tummy.

Charlie hid for the rest of the day, the hands he couldn’t see mashed over the ears he couldn’t feel.

They yelled a lot that week. Peter couldn’t just move them out just because Hannah was being crazy. Hannah was going to live with her dad. Peter slept downstairs for a bunch of nights. Hannah didn’t sleep. Charlie cried.

Hannah finally said that she would stay in the house. Peter hugged her. Charlie promised not to touch her again.

They left the house one day after all the frost was gone from the ground. When they came back, they were holding a baby. Charlie danced around the living room, careful not to knock anything over.

Charlie would float over Hannah, watching the baby sleep on her chest. The rise and fall of her breath was a lullaby he hadn’t heard sung in so long.

They named her Sarah. Hannah and Peter would lay Sarah on her back. They would hide their faces and uncover them. It was a stupid game. Sarah loved it. Charlie couldn’t play.

Peter and Hannah gave Sarah a lot of new toys. Charlie had never seen them before. They had lights all over that made all kinds of colors and some made noises like the animals outside. There were toys on wheels and plastic rings to chew on.

Sarah loved her bright red ball the most. Charlie saw the gleam in her deep brown eyes when she first saw it. Her chubby, empty mouth gaped open and giggled. Charlie giggled too, the noise swallowed by the air. They would play with the ball every day, Charlie making it jump up and down as Sarah lay on her stomach in her playpen, feet kicking with delight.

When she could sit up, she would roll the ball to Charlie and he would roll it back. Sarah laughed all day and by bedtime she was so tuckered out from playing with Charlie that she didn’t wake up all night.

‘She’s such a happy baby,” Hannah would sigh as she went to sleep.

“Such an easy baby,” Peter would say. “We lucked out.”

When Sarah could stand, she would toddle after the ball, chasing it across the hallway where Charlie rolled it. It was still her favorite game and they played it all the time. All Charlie had to do was make sure the gate to her room was open and keep her away from the stairs so Hannah and Peter didn’t see her out.

“I can’t believe she’s walking already,” Hannah would smile.

“What an amazing kid,” Peter agreed.

The oak leaves were turning red outside, even though it was still hot. Peter had all the windows open. Hannah had just gone downstairs to get the laundry and Peter was deep into the game on the computer, the headphones blaring.

Charlie unlatched the gate and rolled the ball all the way down the hallway. Sarah giggled as she chased after it. She could walk so far now. The ball stopped, then fell down the stairs.

Sarah watched it bouncing away from her, then turned to Charlie, then back down the stairs. She started crying as it rolled onto the floor. Charlie had to do it fast.

Long ago, the house had told him how he could go outside again. It didn’t make him sad anymore. Charlie would be better than Stupid DeeDee. He knew what Stupid DeeDee didn’t. Charlie had been too old. A baby would never figure it out.

Charlie raced forward.

 

Paul Barach’s work has been published previously in Creative ColloquyLitroThe Trek, and in the forthcoming collection Inaka: Portraits of Life in Rural JapanFighting Monks and Burning Mountains: Misadventures on a Buddhist Pilgrimage is Barach’s first book. He currently lives in Tacoma, Washington with his wife, Michelle.