by R.F. Marazas
Zach waited. He had no idea how long he had been here, waiting. It must have been a long time, because his bottom was sore from perching on the kitchen chair’s edge. His sneakered feet still did not touch the floor, but dangled above it, sometimes bouncing against each other and sometimes jiggling as they rested on the chair’s crossbar.
His head and shoulders were unmoving as they rose above the kitchen table, his chin propped on his folded hands and his elbows spread out on either side like wings. Next to his right elbow lay a pyramid of three vivid red roses. His face was expressionless and his gaze steady as he fixed it on a spot through the kitchen doorway, on the opposite wall, where the stairs to the second floor ascended to the left.
His father had been up and down those stairs many times, carrying luggage out to the car, while Zach waited. Once or twice, on his way outside, he smiled at Zach or nodded his head, but Zach didn’t respond. Zach remembered running out to the car yesterday and tugging his father’s sleeve just as he was about to get in. Zach had emptied the tobacco tin that he kept under his bed, spilled a dollar and eighty-three cents into his palm, and told his father what he wanted to do with it.
“That’s a good idea, buddy. What do you want to get them?”
Zach frowned, thinking hard. “Roses.”
“Like you give to Mom on her birthday and Mother’s Day and all those other times. One rose. Mom likes that, doesn’t she?”
His father smiled. “Yes, she does.”
“One rose for each,” Zach said.
Zach stayed outside and pretended to play until his father came back with the roses wrapped in pink tissue paper, and together they hid them in the garage behind the tool cart.
And now, today, Zach waited. Laughter trilled down the stairs from someone’s room. They were up there having fun as if it wasn’t the end of the world. He could separate his mother’s laugh from the other three because hers was soft. His sisters all sounded the same, loud and high-pitched. As he got older he learned little tricks to tell his sisters apart, but it still bothered him that it had taken him so long to understand what the word triplets meant.
He had spent too much time confused. And his sisters were no help. Because he couldn’t tell them apart, they teased him and kept him guessing about which sister was which. Even their names puzzled him. He couldn’t pronounce words of more than two syllables, so Imogene became Gene, and Elizabeth translated to Bet, and Veronica shrank to Ron. He still used those nicknames, and the girls still called him Winky, although he had grown out of his early eye-blinking habit.
But he knew them now. And they had changed. His mother had dressed them alike until they started high school and rebelled against wearing identical clothes. Zach memorized each one’s tastes in clothes: Elizabeth’s favorite color was blue; Imogene dressed in bright colors; and Veronica never wore jeans. He learned other tricks to tell them apart. If Imogene came down the stairs to take her rose, Zach would notice that her right eye sat slightly higher than her left eye and her right eyebrow was curved more than her left. Elizabeth’s hair was shorter than her sisters’, a pixie-ish helmet that clung to her head. And had Veronica had lost an inch in the growing process; Zach noticed it immediately when all three were close together.
Zach waited. Cocked his head and listened to the silence upstairs. Then he thought he heard whispers and low murmurs, and he knew they were coming downstairs soon. For the last time. His father carried the last piece of luggage out the door, and Zach sat up straight.
Other things had changed, slowly, and then gathered speed. It had started during the girls’ freshman year in high school. Subtle at first, so that Zach sensed the changes but wasn’t sure what they meant. After that first year, he realized they weren’t playing with him as often. They became secretive and locked themselves in one of their rooms. “Our homework,” they said, but Zach pressed his ear to the door. Heard their low chatter about boys and fashions, and gossip about other girls. After their school activities doubled and doubled again. It seemed to Zach that they were never home, even on weekends. When they were home, they passed him by as if he were invisible. They became strangers instead of sisters who had once cuddled him and teased him and protected him all at the same time.
And now they were leaving. For college, a million miles away. He would never see them again. Not that it mattered, because they had ignored him for the last four years.
His mother’s voice at the top of the stairs echoed. She came down, her left arm across Imogene’s shoulders, her right hand behind her, clutching both Elizabeth’s and Veronica’s hands. They walked past the kitchen without noticing him, talking and laughing. Zach heard the front door slam.
He slid off the chair and stood at the table and rubbed his bottom. He wanted to cry. He stared at the three roses and wanted to sweep them off the table and stomp on them. He choked back tears and raised his clenched fist just as the front door slammed again and Imogene stood in the kitchen doorway.
“Oh Zach, is one of those for me?” She hurried forward and took a rose and knelt to hug him. “Zach,” she whispered. “No more Winky. You’re a big boy now. Going to high school soon, and you’ll be great. You’re the smartest of all of us. And no more “Gene,” you call me Imogene.”
“Imogene,” he said.
She got up, and he saw Elizabeth pick up her rose and smell it.
“Elizabeth,” he said.
“Thank you for the rose, Zach. I’ll keep it in my room all through college and I’ll think of you.”
“I’ll never see you again,” he said. “It’s too far.”
“No silly, it’s in the next state. Three hundred miles, that’s all. Dad can drive that in four hours. You’ll come to see us when Mom and Dad come. And we’ll be home for the holidays too.”
She hugged him and kissed his cheek. For the first time, he didn’t rub the kiss away.
Veronica picked up the last rose and brushed it against his nose. “I’ll miss you, Zach. You know you’re my favorite brother.” She grinned. “Now you be good and take care of Mom and Dad.”
“Okay, Veronica,” he said.
She took his hand and they all went outside where their father had the station wagon started and ready to leave. After more goodbye hugs, the girls got inside, Imogene in front and Elizabeth and Veronica in back. Zach watched the windows come down as the car rolled down the driveway. Then three roses popped from the open windows and waved at Zach.
His mother bent to hug him as he grinned and waved back.