Arthur freaks may remember Brian Evenson from his cover feature on Sunn 0))) and Earth, published in Arthur No. 20, and his short bit on an imaginary disease in Arthur No. 7. Following is the opening story from Brian’s newest collection of short fiction, Fugue State, published by Coffeehouse Press and available now from Powell’s, Amazon and the best bookstore near you.
Download: “Younger” from Fugue State by Brian Evenson (pdf)
Years later, she was still calling her sister, trying to understand what exactly had happened. It still made no sense to her, but her sister, older, couldn’t help. Her sister had completely forgotten—or would have if the younger sister wasn’t always reminding her. The younger sister imagined, each time she talked to her sibling on the telephone, each time she brought the incident up, her older sister pressing her palm against her forehead as she waited for her to say what she had to say, so that she, the older sister, the only one of the sisters with a family of her own, could politely sidestep her inquiries and go back to living her life.
Her older sister had always managed to do that, to nimbly sidestep anything that came her way so as to simply go on with her life. For years, the younger sister had envied this, watching from farther and farther behind as her older sister sashayed past those events that an instant later struck the younger sister head-on and almost destroyed her. The younger sister was always being almost destroyed by events, and then had to spend months desperately piecing herself together enough so that when once again she was struck head-on, she would only be almost destroyed rather than utterly and completely destroyed.
As her mother had once suggested, the younger sister felt things more intensely than anyone else. At the time, very young, the younger sister had seen this as a mark of emotional superiority, but later she saw it for what it was: a serious defect that kept her from living her life. Indeed, as the younger sister reached first her teens and then her twenties, she came to realize that people who felt things as intensely as she were either institutionalized or dead.
This realization was at least in part due to her father having belonged to the first category (institutionalized) and her mother to the second (dead by suicide)—two more facts that her older sister, gliding effortlessly and, quite frankly, mercilessly, through life, had also sidestepped. Indeed, while the younger sister was realizing to a more and more horrifying degree how she was inescapably both her mother’s and her father’s child, her older sister had gone on to start a family of her own. It was like her older sister had been part of a different family. The younger sister could never start a family of her own—not because, as everyone claimed, she was irresponsible but because she knew it just brought her one step closer to ending up like her mother and father. It was not that she was irresponsible, but only that she was terrified of ending up mad or dead.
The incident had occurred when their parents were still around, before they were, in the case of the mother, dead and, in the case of the father, mad. There were, it had to be admitted in retrospect, signs that things had gone wrong with their parents, things her older sister must have absorbed and quietly processed over time but which the younger sister was forced to process too late and all at once. The incident, the younger sister felt, was the start of her losing her hold on her life. Even years later, she continued to feel that if only she could understand exactly what had happened, what it all meant, she would see what had gone wrong and could correct it, could, like the older sister, muffle her feelings, begin to feel things less and, in the end, perhaps not feel anything at all. Once she felt nothing, she thought, knowing full well how crazy it sounded, she could go on to have a happy life.
But her older sister couldn’t understand. To her older sister, what the younger sister referred to as the incident was nothing—less than nothing, really. As always, her older sister listened patiently on the other end of the line as the younger sister posed the same questions over again. “Do you remember the time we were trapped in the house?” she might begin, and there would be a long pause as her older sister (so the younger sister believed) steeled herself to go through it once more.
“We weren’t trapped exactly,” her older sister almost always responded. “No need to exaggerate.”
But that was not how the younger sister remembered it. How the younger sister remembered it was that they were trapped. Even the word trapped did not strike her as forceful enough. But her older sister, as always, saw it as her role to calm the younger sister down. The younger sister would make a statement and then her older sister would qualify the statement, dampen it, smooth it over, nullify it. This, the younger sister had to admit, did calm her, did make her feel better momentarily, did made her think, Maybe it isn’t as bad as I remembered. But the long-term effect was not to make her feel calmer but to make her feel insane, as if she were remembering things that hadn’t actually happened. But if they hadn’t happened the way she remembered, why was she still undone more than twenty years later? And as long as her sister was calming her, how was she ever to stop feeling undone?
No, what she needed was not for her sister to calm her, not for her sister, from the outset, to tell her there was no need to exaggerate. But she could not figure out how to tell her sister this—not because her older sister was unreasonable but because she was all too reasonable. She sorted the world out rationally and in a way that stripped it of all its power. Her older sister could not understand the effect of the incident on the younger sister because she, the older sister, had not let it have an effect on her.
For instance, her older sister could not even begin to conceive how the younger sister saw the incident as the single most important and most devastating moment of her life. For her older sister, the incident had been nothing. How was it possible, her older sister wanted to know, that the incident had been more damaging for her than their mother’s suicide or their father’s mental collapse? It didn’t make any sense. Well, yes, the younger sister was willing to admit, it didn’t make any sense, and yet she was still ruined by it, still undone. If I can understand exactly what happened, she would always tell her older sister, I’ll understand where I went wrong.
“But nothing happened,” her older sister said. “Nothing. That’s just it.”
And that was the whole problem. The sisters had played the same roles for so many years that they didn’t know how to stop. Responding to each other in a different way was impossible. Every conversation had already been mapped out years in advance, at the moment the younger sister was first compelled to think of herself as the irresponsible one and the older sister was first made to be a calming force. They weren’t getting anywhere, which meant that she, the younger sister, wasn’t getting anywhere, was still wondering what, if anything, had happened, and what, if anything, she could do to free herself from it.
What she thought had happened—the way she remembered it when, alone, late at night, she lay in bed after another conversation with her sister—was this: their mother had vanished sometime during the night. Why exactly, the younger sister didn’t know. Their father, she remembered, had seemed harried, had taken their mother somewhere during the night and left her there, but had been waiting for them, seated on the couch, when they woke up. He had neither slept nor bathed; his eyes were very red and he hadn’t shaved. Somehow, she remembered, her sister hadn’t seemed surprised. Whether this was because the sister wasn’t really surprised or because, as the calm one, she was never supposed to appear surprised, the younger sister couldn’t say.
She remembered the father insisting that nothing was wrong, but insisting almost simultaneously that he must leave right away. There was, the younger sister was certain, something very wrong: what exactly it had been, she was never quite certain. Something with the mother, certainly, perhaps her suicidal juggernaut just being set in motion—though her older sister claimed that no, it must have been something minor, a simple parental dispute that led to their mother going to stay temporarily with her own mother. And the only reason the father had to leave, the older sister insisted, was that he had to get to work. He had a meeting, and so had to leave them alone, even though they were perhaps too young—even the older sister had to admit this—to be left alone.
Her older sister claimed too that the father had bathed and looked refreshed and was in no way harried. But this, the younger sister was certain, was a lie, was just the older sister’s attempt to calm her. No, the father had looked terrible, was harried and even panicked, the younger sister wasn’t exaggerating, not really. Do you love me? the younger sister sometimes had to say into the phone. Do you love me? she would say. Then stop making me feel crazy, and just listen.
So there was her father, in her head, simultaneously sleepless and well-rested, clean and sticky with sweat. He had to leave, he had explained to them. He was sorry but he had to leave. But it was all right, he claimed. He set the stove timer to sound when it was time for them to go to school. When they heard the timer go off, he told them, they had to go to school. Did they understand?
Yes, both girls said, they understood.
“And one more thing,” the father said, his hand already reaching for the knob. “Under no circumstances are you to answer the door. You are not to open the door to anyone.”