I sit at the side of Michael on the sofa and hand him the manuscript.
“It’s done,” I say, “but I’m a little nervous.”
“Relax Danny,” he says kissing me softly on the cheek, “you’re an amazing writer and I love you. It’ll be beautiful.”
He begins to read.
“You have to tell them Danny,” said Annie, kicking the stones near the porch with her sneaker, “it’s best to do it now while I’m here.”
“I don’t know if I can, sis” I said, sighing, “not yet. I keep seeing Dad’s face. Can’t you stick around for a while?”
“I have to get back to San Francisco,” she said, “Harper’s Ferry suffocates me. This conservative little fucking town. I can’t even smoke without a local do-gooder reporting me back to mom.”
“You smoke now?”
“See what I mean, Danny? You’re turning into one of them. Yes, I fucking smoke. And I smoke weed. I want to be free to live my life as I want, not how they say. It’s the same for you. Go in there and come out to them. Tell them about Christopher, and how you love him.”
“You know what they’ll say.”
“Yeah, I do. They said the same when I left home to go with Jarrod to San Francisco. But it’s your life, Danny. I’ll always have your back, you know that. I’ll always fight your corner.”
“And when I’m eighteen, I can come out there and live with you guys?”
“You know I’ll always save a space for my kid brother. You don’t have to ask.”
“I won’t cramp your style or anything. I just…”
“You’ll be busy checking out the hot guys, I know,” she smiled, “I’m proud of you, Danny, even if they’re not.”
Mom appeared at the front door, giving her daughter a dirty look, before smiling at me.
“Kids, dinner time. Come wash up.”
We kicked off our shoes and dutifully went inside.
It was later when she found me sat on the step of Jarrod’s van. I’d calmed down since the announcement and the ensuing hysterics. She sat down beside me, and for a while we were comforted just to be in each other’s presence. My sister’s boyfriend was in the van giving us some space, pretending to play with the stereo, and I sat looking down at my feet.
“I wish you’d stay here,” I said putting my head on her shoulder, “but I get why you can’t.”
“I sure can’t now after she blames me for you being gay.”
“I’m fucking gay. So what? How the hell has that anything to do with you. Maybe it has Annie, I don’t know. Growing up as a kid, you taught me to live my own life, to follow my own path. To not do whatever they say I have to do. I didn’t want to go to business college, so I didn’t. I want to write stories.”
“How’s the writing going, anyway,” she asked, “you promised me you’d keep it up.”
“I haven’t written anything for ages,” I admitted, “what with Christopher and Mom and Dad and everything, I haven’t been in the mood.”
She pulled away from my embrace and looked me square in the face.
“Hey,” she said, “you have to keep it up. You have to make a go of it. Don’t be another of the dead eyed dreamers in this fucking one-horse town. Don’t you dare, Danny, I mean it. Don’t you dare.”
“Ok,” I said, surprised, “geez, I’ll get back to it.”
“That story I read of yours was special, Danny. Seriously, I wouldn’t say it if I didn’t mean it. Did you show it to Mom and Dad?”
“The story about two boys in the ocean finding love together. How do you think that would go?”
“You’ve a beautiful voice, Danny. Please don’t let it go to waste. Do it for me, ok?”
“Don’t let them ever pressure you into anything, Danny. Go be with Chris if you like him. If not, go find another guy. Be proud of who you are. What they said to you tonight was…it wasn’t right. Not ever. Don’t ever let them put you down. I’ll always have your back.”
“I wish I could come with you.”
“I swear to God,” she said, “that I’m coming for you on your eighteenth birthday and we’re going to live in San Francisco together. I’ll free you if it’s the last thing I do. But you have to keep your writing going. Even if nobody here reads it, you know I will.”
I put my head on her shoulder.
“I miss you,” I said.
I was born in 1972, in a small town called Harper’s Ferry. Showered with toys such as cars, Transformers, and action figures, I wanted only one thing. The attention of my older sister Annie. To my small eyes, she was the most amazing person I’d ever met. Three years older than me, Annie liked to draw and paint. She always gave hugs no questions asked, unlike Mom who would always want to know why I was being ‘soft’, as she called it.
As we grew, Mom and Annie began to clash. I think Mom was jealous of the rapport I’d built up with my sister. Unlike other siblings we knew in the street, Annie and I never clashed, or fought. I adored her, and she looked after me. When, as a growing boy, I failed to develop an interest in girls as other boys did, Annie just nurtured me and let me find my own path, whereas the pressure from my parents grew more tangible daily. Then one day, she turned eighteen.
“I don’t get why you have to leave?”
“I’m leaving before mom and I kill each other.”
“We’ll work it out.”
“We won’t,” she said shrugging, “and I want to live by the coast. By the sea. I paint better knowing that the ocean is there, and I can just take off in a little boat and be free. This town is choking me.”
I hugged her.
“I know. But I need you.”
“I’m only a day away up the freeway. I’ll come back every Saturday. Jarrod will give me a ride.”
“I wish you weren’t dating him. What the hell you see in that guy?”
“He’s kind,” she said, “He’s not like a lot of guys, all demanding and wanting shit from me that I can’t give him. You’ll see when you find someone of your own. No matter who that is.”
I squeezed her hand.
I stuck to my promise. I wrote every day and, by the time I was eighteen, the internet had come along, and I was published in an online fanzine. True to her word, Annie came for me, and despite my parents’ protests, I returned with her in Jarrod’s van to San Francisco. It wasn’t what I imagined. Annie and Jarrod lived in a big old house with what seemed like a never-ending stream of people coming and going.
“This is my kid brother,” she said to a couple of guys sat at a games console, “this is Danny.”
“This is the writer?” said one turning around, “Hi, I’m Eliot. This is Leo.”
I took Eliot’s hand and held it for perhaps longer than I should. I looked him right in the eyes and he smiled back at me. Embarrassed, I stared quickly at the floor.
“So what you think of Eliot?” she said as we climbed the stairs to what would be my room, “you like?”
“I picked him out specially. Happy birthday, little brother. He’s not been out as long as you, but his parents are from here, and they were super-supportive, so he’s kind of comfortable with himself, you know. He’s dated a couple of guys and had some fun.”
“I love you; you know? Like…more than any person in the world. Everyone said brothers and sisters should hate each other, but we didn’t, did we?”
“Life’s too short to spend it hating. We’re all just humans trying to figure things out, you know?”
“Is that why you went on that anti-war protest?”
“Weren’t you arrested? Did you tell mom and dad?”
“No,” she said shaking her head, “and it doesn’t matter anyway. I’m only here for a short time in this world. I don’t want to spend my life collecting crap that I won’t need and worrying about what’ll happen if somebody takes away the crap I’ve already collected. I want my life to stand for something. I want people to know that Annie Kantucket is against this fucking war, and she’ll stand up and be counted and not be afraid.”
“I’ve never known you to be afraid of anything, Annie.”
“I was afraid for you,” she said, when mom and dad threatened you with that straight camp, and you weren’t old enough to come here with me. I know you and Jarrod don’t get on, but he was my rock, you know? I was losing it big time with the thoughts of it.”
I was silent but hugged her close.
“He always was buried in books, you know,” said Mom beaming at the well-wishers, “I didn’t even know he’d applied for a job in New York. I thought he’d stay bumming around in San Francisco forever.”
“We’ll see his name on a novel someday for sure,” said Uncle Lewis, “I can see it now. Daniel Kantucket, novelist.”
“Oh won’t that be lovely.”
I ducked under the Congratulations banner and out to the front porch. Cellphones were still in their infancy, but I had one in order to keep in touch with Annie. We’d lived together for a while in San Francisco, but Annie was never one to be tied down to one place for long, and after a while, her and some friends had said their tearful goodbyes and set off in Jarrod’s van. Right now, she was in Seattle working in some call center while Jarrod worked at trying to sell her art. Sitting down, I dialed her number.
“I’m not supposed to take personal calls,” she said as she answered, “I can only have a minute.”
“When have you ever cared about rules? Besides, I wanted you here for my celebration.”
“I miss you,” she said, “But I couldn’t get the time off. It’s not like being back in San Francisco and we could come and go as we pleased. I think we’re buying a house. Put down some roots here.”
“You’re staying there?”
“For a while anyway. How’s the party?”
“Unbearable, though I’m going down to see Eliot this weekend. Can I come to Seattle?”
“You know you can. What did I say to you all those years ago? There’ll always be a space for my kid brother.”
“I could come live there. Get a job.”
“Didn’t you just get a fancy pants writing job in New York?”
“I don’t care about that, Annie. I’d be happier just living near you and working tables in some diner. See you every couple of days.”
“I won’t let you squander that gift, Dan. Not ever. I want to see your name on a novel in a bookstore one day. You promised. I’ll come see you, and you can come see me. Hell, maybe Jarrod and I will move there someday.”
“New York won’t know what hit it. I miss you, Annie.”
She was silent, and at first I thought the phone had gone dead. But she was just quiet.
“Yeah,” she said, an odd lightness to her voice, “look, I have to go. I love you. You’ll do fine.”
The phone went dead, and for a long time I stared at the number on the screen, as if it were a boxful of riches ready to be opened. I scrolled through the cellphone. Most of my contacts were guys, either friends or old flames. Apart from Annie, the one woman in my phone was the one who had given me the writing gig in New York.
I stared at it for a long time, my finger hovering over the call button. To call her, and tell her that I’d made a mistake, and that I didn’t want the job, and instead book a flight to Seattle, and go be with Annie. Putting the phone down, I stepped outside onto the driveway. I was shaking slightly, and I suddenly heard Mom behind me.
“Yeah…I’m…I’m ok,” I lied, “It’s just a big change for me. Scary, you know. I’ve always been either here with you or in California with Annie. I don’t know if I can do it.”
“Well you can always stay here,” she said holding my hand, “I’m sure the local paper will take on a budding writer like you?”
“I was thinking of going to live with Annie,” I blurted out suddenly.
“Well I don’t think that’s a good idea,” she said, her face changing, “Annie and Jarrod are just settling down. It’s time to grow up, Daniel. She has her own life now. Don’t give up yours just to share hers. She won’t give up hers to be with you. I’ll leave you to think about it.”
I paced up and down for a few more minutes, conscious of faces through the window. I expect they thought I had an artistic temperament, what with being a writer and all. Maybe they thought it was because I was gay. Who knows? A few minutes later, I called Annie back.
Fearing that she would be somehow mad for disturbing her again, I almost put the phone down.
“Danny?” she said hearing the tone in my voice, “are you ok? What’s up? What happened?”
“I’m thinking of not taking that job,” I said, my words coming too fast, “I’m thinking about coming living there with you. I told Mom, and she said that you wouldn’t give up your life to come be with me, so why should I give up mine, and that it’s time to grow up. I don’t know what to do.”
I heard her sigh for a moment.
“Do you want me to come to New York?” she asked, “because you know I will. I’ll meet you at the airport and I’ll stay as long as you want me. Jarod won’t like it, but he loves me, and he knows how important you are to me. I hate to admit it though, but mom’s right. It’s time to be Danny, and live his life, and not live Mom and Dad’s life, or Annie’s life. It’s time to start working on getting that name on a novel. Get some contacts, get your name out there.”
“I just don’t know how good my life can be without you in it?”
“I am in it. I’m right here. It’s just because it’s new. You’ll settle in nicely, meet some new guys and before you know it, you’ll have an awesome life. Trust me, you’ve worked for this.”
“Yeah,” I said somewhat unsure.
“I’ll tell my boss I need a few days to come help you settle in. I can probably do some sight-seeing while I’m there.”
“NO,” I said, “it’s fine, you’re right. I have to do this alone. It’s my time to set out into the world. I promise you, someday you’ll buy my book in the bookstore.”
“That’s my guy,” she said, “you always were the brains of the family.”
Annie was right. I did settle into my new life in the city. I had a decent job scriptwriting, a fairly active social life and, after I’d been in the city two years, I met Michael and fell in love. I called Annie once a week to chat, and my parents less frequently. We all got together every Christmas, but after a while I began to stay in the city for the holidays. Then, several years later, came the call that Dad had died, and once again I found myself back in our old house in Harper’s Ferry.
I’d been looking around the house, while Mom was downstairs with Michael. She’d finally accepted that I was gay, though I suspect that was more down to Michael being charming and lovely rather than a sudden dose of open mindedness. I was in my room, looking at the shelf where I’d kept my Hot Wheels cars, when I heard someone come in. I’d only heard her voice on the phone for so long that at first it sounded strange to hear that husky voice come from inside the house. I ran down the stairs, and there she was at the bottom. My Annie.
“I…I didn’t know you were coming?”
“I didn’t come for him,” she said, “or for her. I came for you.”
“How are you,” I said, “I mean…how’s life without Jarrod?”
Mention of my sister’s ex-husband reminded her of something and made her look to the door.
“Daniel honey,” she shouted, “come say hi to your uncle.”
A small boy trotted through the door, and to the side of Annie.
“Wow you’ve sure grown since I last saw you,” I said dropping to my knees, “look at you! A big handsome man.”
“Hi Uncle Danny,” he said coming to embrace me, “we missed you.”
“Well maybe,” I said looking at Annie, “Maybe momma can bring you to New York for a vacation?”
Annie looked at me.
“I wouldn’t want to cramp your style,” she said glancing up at Michael, “you’ve never changed, have you, Danny. Still need your big sister to come take care of you.”
“I miss you,” I said, “don’t get me wrong, I love him, but I miss you. Couldn’t you come live in New York with me. You’re not with Jarrod anymore.”
“But there’s little Daniel to think of,” she said shrugging, “I can’t take him away from his daddy. I didn’t ever want to get trapped in a one place, but I have to put him first. I’ll never forgive Jarrod for cheating on me, but he still loves his son.”
Annie and I didn’t get much more chance to talk, not with the rest of the family there. Mainly, so I thought, to pick through what they wanted of my dad’s belongings, and perhaps to look at the two kids, and disapprove of us. Annie had always been the rebel, and though they shook Michael’s hand and said pretty things, most of them thought Michael and I were perverts. I didn’t care. I had Annie at the side of me again, if only for a short time. In fact, we agreed that she would go to new York for Christmas with us.
“It’s big, isn’t it?” she said looking out across New York.
“I don’t know,” I said, laughing as we leaned on the balcony, “I never really noticed.”
“Some days I miss the ocean,” she said, “back when we lived in that commune when you’d just come out.”
“Those were good days.”
“God we were so carefree and happy.”
“You’re not happy now?”
“I don’t know,” she said shrugging, “I didn’t ever want to get trapped. But like I said to you at dad’s funeral, I have to think of my kid. I can’t take him away from his father.”
“You’re too good for Jarrod, Annie, even now. You helped me when I needed you, and I’m going to help you now. That asshole cheated on you with…with some bimbo. Quit giving a shit about what he thinks and live your own life. Come live with Michael and me, both of you. Maybe you could start painting again?”
“I don’t know.”
“The old Annie wouldn’t have hesitated. She’d have just said ‘fuck this shit’ and upped and left, without a word.”
“Did that a few times, didn’t I?”
“Yeah. I remember how quiet it was in Harper’s Ferry without you. I’d expect to see you around every corner and yet you suddenly weren’t there.”
“Don’t be. It was just…. you were the best sister I could ever have had. I don’t think anybody ever had a better one, did they. I didn’t know what to do after you’d gone. It was like one minute you were there and the next minute you were nowhere. I didn’t even get to say goodbye.”
“I know what you’re like, Danny. And I know what I’m like. We’d both be in tears and then I wouldn’t have left.”
“I wish you hadn’t.”
She was quiet for a minute, looking out across the city in the midst of a Christmas celebration.
“I’m not leaving again, Danny,” she said turning away from the balcony and looking me squarely in the eye, “I’m staying here. We’ll come live here. Remember once, that I told you that seeing as I was only here for a short time that I had to stand for something important?”
“Is that when you got arrested in that protest?”
“That’s the time, yeah. Well, this is what I’m going to stand for. Siblings. Someday I’ve hopefully get to have another kid. Maybe you and Michael can have some, and this is what we’ll teach them. That no matter how far apart siblings get, they always love each other and they always come back together.”
I hugged her, and we embraced for a long time.
“Hmm,” said a voice behind me, “should I be jealous?”
I hadn’t seen Michael approach, and I turned and kissed him.
“Would you have any objection to Annie coming to live here with Daniel?”
He looked at me, and kissed me again.
“No,” he said quietly, stroking my face softly, “I love you. I know how much you need each other. Hell, maybe it’s an excuse to get a bigger place.”
“Guys, I will need a job?”
“She’s unemployable you know,” I said winking at Michael, “flunked out of high school to go paint the ocean.”
“Hey,” she said kicking me in the shins, “I had a job in Seattle. I worked for a chicken slaughterhouse.”
“Just tell them one of your jokes,” said Michael, “those chickens will commit suicide.”
We stood against the balcony and laughed.
Michel puts down my manuscript, moves over to the side of me and hugs me. I put my head on his shoulder and close my eyes. It’s so comforting to feel his presence at my side. Without demands, without needs or words, just a presence. He knows just what I need.
“It’s beautiful,” he says, “and finally you’ll have your name on a novel.”
“I promised her a long while ago,” I say.
I still have the manuscript in my desk drawer three days later when, for the first time in years I set foot once again in Harper’s Ferry, the town I grew up in. I tell the cab driver where I want to go, and he drops me off with barely a word. If he knows I’m a famous New York scriptwriter, then he doesn’t say, and neither do I. Stepping off the sidewalk, I walk the path that I haven’t walked in a long time, and for a moment I can smell her scent again. That vague smell of bluebells mixed with damp dew.
“I did it,” I say, “I finally did it. I wrote your story, Annie. What would have happened, you know, if….”
I stop speaking, and looking up, I brush the leaves and moss from her gravestone. I haven’t been here for so long. I don’t actually believe she’s here. A spirit as free as Annie’s couldn’t be held underground in one place.
“It’s the story of what would have happened to us if you’d have made it home that day, you know? When I came out to mum and dad?”
A small songbird comes and pecks at the dirt near a neighboring gravestone.
“It’s not perfect,” I say, “our life in the book I mean. I tried to keep it real and not turn you into some figure on a pedestal. But I figured you deserved a life. What’s the point of me being a writer if I can’t at least do that for you.”
I remember the day. The day I’ve long tried to forget. I’d planned to come out to mum and dad, and Annie had said she’d come up from the coast with Jarrod and fight my corner like she had done my whole life. Apparently, there had been a problem with the van, and, as she’d insisted on driving here, Jarrod had hired a car. They’d been pretty desperate which was why they’d settled for the Lincoln without the safety belts. Jarrod was a safe driver, and they were desperate so didn’t think much about it. When the semi-truck hit them, Jarrod had been killed instantly. Annie had been thrown through the window of the Lincoln and landed on the asphalt. She lay for a while at the side of the road, looking up at the sky, but by the time dad and mom arrived, she was gone, and my world was suddenly black and white instead of color. Annie and I were separated for ever.
I stand up and brush the dirt from my trousers.
“They’re all going to know of you,” I say, “who you were, and who you would have been. My Annie. What’s the use of being a writer unless I can bring you back to life.”
I leave the songbird to its business and walk away.
Andrew began writing to honor the memory of his twin sister, Helen. Today, all writing and art he produces appears under the Birch Twins name. Growing up in the North West of England, Andrew was unable to find a long term fulfilling career, and worked jobs as varied as rent collector, truck driver, shoe salesman and teacher before finally finding his calling as a commissioned artist. With a college degree in computing, Andrew started writing short stories in class at university to alleviate his boredom with the real world. After producing a series of fantasy based short story adventures, Andrew wrote and independently published a crime fiction novel. He has written comedy stories, produced single page comic strips, as well as ghost stories and romantic and science fiction. During 2016, and inspired by his sister, he wrote and independently published a second novel, before returning to short flash pieces, short stories and comic strips. With influences ranging from Alan Moore, William Marston, William King and Raymond Carver, Andrew continues to produce character driven fiction of all genres in short prose and longer fiction.