I imagined him to be tall and dark, my twin brother, when she told me; similar personality, more confidence. Ma told me she’d bled heavily when she carried me, thought she’d lost me, ‘till her stomach kept growing after the doctor ordered bedrest. Didn’t have scans in them days, she said. Aunt Connie had been drafted in to help. Then I arrived after what I’m told is the longest and worst labour, like it was somehow my fault, that I’d been difficult or might have been responsible for his loss. She looked startled in most of my fading baby photos — the ones in tartan albums, labeled in biro —like she’d birthed an alien. There was an awkward distance between us that looked nothing like Madonna and Child. Ma thought she’d told me once, but with most of her stories, I’d heard this one on numerous occasions by the time I carried my own bairns.
The constant, gnawing gap in my life, the longing, the loneliness, it had always been there. I found his face in a few male friends over the years, the ones that were silly and funny and kind. But, I lost him as time unfurled, wondered whether he might have been a doctor, like my Pops, or a vet, maybe a teacher. Sometimes I would reach out a hand to see if he caught it, or hear his voice in a stranger’s. I’d look at men my age and wonder what it would feel like to have him here in the flesh, if we’d fight the way siblings do. I imagined he’d be a better version of me. We look for better all the time. They tell us in school to do better, be better. Better.
I asked her, once, how she knew she’d lost the baby, but I needn’t have asked, knew I’d lost him long before I could remember. I dreamed of something pulling from me slowly and vanishing, leaving a quiet space, free of movement. I dreamed it over and over. Grief was the shadow that followed me like a stray dog, clinging to my heels, begging to be taken home. But I didn’t have a label for it, then. Sometimes, at sundown, I’d raise a glass and hope we’d somehow meet again. I didn’t believe in an afterlife so much as a meeting of souls, of those who should never have been parted.
I’d created an imaginary friend, Michael; told no one. He’d steal my toys, throw things at me and run away. I’d hear him stomp up the stairs when he was cross with Ma. Michael wasn’t around any more. There was a space on the mantel piece and I wondered if Ma’d left it blank in his memory. She never said. I pictured his graduation photo next to mine, or a wedding shot or holiday snap of the children he never had.
This evening, as the sun went down, I thought I saw his face or heard him say something, but it was the neighbour letting the dog out and asking his girlfriend to help him bring in the washing. The sun was low, casting long shadows across the table. I thought I saw his arm reaching out towards mine, trying to hold on to life.
F.C. Malby is a contributor to Unthology 8 and Hearing Voices: The Litro Anthology of New Fiction. Her debut short story collection, My Brother Was a Kangaroo includes award-winning stories, and her debut novel, Take Me to the Castle, won The People's Book Awards. Her short fiction has been longlisted in The New Writer Magazine Annual Prose and Poetry Prizes by David Gaffney, and won the Litro Magazine Environmental Disaster fiction competition. Her stories have also been published online in Litro Magazine, Ether Books, Spontaneity Magazine, 1000 Words, Flash Fiction Magazine, Paragraph Planet, Flash Flood Journal, The Puffin Review, Vending Machine Press, Friday Flash Fiction, Ellipsis Zine, The Drabble, Spelk Fiction, Fictive Dream and Train Lit Magazine.