|Balancing the House|
|By Chandri MacLeod|
|Fandom: Stargate: Atlantis|
|Categories: angst, drama|
|Summary: She thinks that what killed her father wasn't disease, but bitterness. She supposes that's a sickness, too.|
|Disclaimer: They're not mine, alas. I'm just using them for fun.|
|Author’s Note: Part of the Catalysis universe, but you don't have to read that to get this. Written for the Family Challenge on sga_flashfic.|
Jeannie is nineteen years old when her father dies, and she gets the call at school, phone ringing loud in the dead of night. Her roommate grumbles and curses and rolls over as Jeannie scrambles to the foot of her bed and picks up the phone, cupping her hand around the receiver and whispering "hello?"
It's Aunt Caroline, and she sounds tired and brittle even over the telephone line.
"Jeannie, honey," she says, "I've got some bad news."
Jeannie knows what she's going to say before she says it. She’s always been smart.
Richard McKay was never, Jeannie knows, a man to pay much attention to his health. Oh, he did his duty, went to annual checkups when required, cleaned his teeth, drank only as much as was appropriate, never smoked. Above all her father was a practical man, something of which he was proud, something he told them often. Jeannie remembers this as she arrives home to the silent house, now totally empty with both her parents gone and her brother who-knows-where. She trails her fingers over photographs and dust on the mantle and the stiff, mothball-scented array of her mother's dresses still hanging in the master bedroom closet.
She thinks that what killed her father wasn't disease, but bitterness. She supposes that's a sickness, too, and she sits down on the faded bedroom rug next to her parents' bed and stares at the three pairs of identical brown leather shoes lined up on the floor of the armoire and thinks I'm never going to be like that, and I miss Mum and how she never wants to die alone having missed all her chances to be happy.
It's been two days by the time she finally reaches Meredith, and again the contact comes as a telephone call in the dead of night. Jeannie reaches in the wrong direction and nearly rolls out of bed, no longer accustomed to the shape of her childhood bedroom, the position of the furniture, the direction of the light from the window.
"Well?" Her brother's voice is clipped, impatient, and she recognises sleeplessness out of long habit - Mer's been working, non-stop, for days, and his voice holds the jitter of an interrupted intellectual high. She knows it from both sides, and for a second she almost does feel bad for bothering him.
"Oh." Suddenly he checks himself, and when he speaks again it's with an obvious effort to be more pleasant. "Jeannie. I thought - I thought it was Dad. They just told me I was getting call after call from home and–"
"Mer," Jeannie says, loudly enough that he falters and stops. It's hard to get Mer to stop talking, and she thinks she might be the only one who does it without thinking. Or maybe it's that tears are welling up in her throat again, audible even to Meredith, who can't even read people face to face.
"What's the matter?" In the background she can hear voices, arguing, shouting over one another. She wonders if she's hearing something classified - she doesn’t know what Mer does these days, but she knows it’s secret - and stops listening to anything but the quaver of uncertainty in her brother's voice.
"Dad – he died."
There's relative silence on the other side of the line for a moment, and then Mer says: "I..." and "hold on a minute," and she hears the receiver set down with a clunk, followed by the sound of Mer's strident voice driving people out of earshot. He's still speaking as he comes back to the phone: "...find something better to do with your time than presume to error-check someone about fifty IQ points your better. Jeannie?"
"Yeah," she says, taking a deep breath, letting it out.
She wishes she could see him right now, because sometimes when Mer is upset he says things he doesn't quite mean, or at least doesn't say things the way he means them. It's not so difficult when she can see him, because Mer wears every feeling on his face with what he'd probably consider embarrassing frankness, but she can't, and she doesn't even know for certain where he is. The States, she's pretty sure, since she had to reach him through two aeronautics firms and a liaison in Washington DC with an exceedingly vague job title, but she wouldn't venture any more specific guesses.
"He had a heart attack." And it doesn't even bother her, so much, that he doesn't sound upset. When Jeannie heard, she burst into tears and wept until her roommate turned on the lights and asked what was wrong, slipping arms around her as Aunt Caroline told her she'd meet her at the ferry terminal in Schwartz Bay. But she didn't really expect the same of Meredith - she expected more or less this, how he apologises, sounds awkward and unhappy like a neighbour has died, not his own father, and he's not sure what to say. To say that Dad and Mer didn't get along would be the understatement of the decade, but she has no doubt he's upset in is own sharp, internalised way, that he'll be uncertain and angry and take it out on his co-workers until he can push it aside.
It's been years since Jeannie felt like the younger sibling, because the older she got the more she realised that in most things, she was so much more settled and polished than her big brother. She dimly remembers following him around when she was little, asking him to explain things she didn't know, ducking her head when he fought with their parents and understanding only that this wasn't something she had to suffer. She thinks that even when she was small, she had some vague understanding that Mer had to reach so much further to touch the world itself, to touch the people in it rather than just the numbers that bounded it, and she understands those, too. Other people would accuse him of insensitivity, but instead, she just feels sorry for him.
"Are... are you okay?" he asks, and it sounds stilted, but for Mer it's uncommonly considerate.
"I'm... there's a lot to do," she says, instead of anything real, because with so much distance between them it's suddenly unbearable to translate for her brother. "The service is on Sunday," she says then, and finds herself holding her breath, and isn't sure why.
This silence drags on until she remembers; she can picture him fidgeting, excuses crossing his face, but it's not the same as having him here. "Mer," she prompts, wearily, and he swallows, loudly.
"I've got... I'm not sure I can," he says.
She's not surprised. And that's... well, kind of unfortunate. Her brother is incredibly predictable when it comes to things like this, and he's also a coward, and she almost says so. "Meredith, it's Dad's funeral."
Her own voice feels like Aunt Caroline's sounded, brittle and stretched thin, gently telling Jeannie “don’t expect too much from your brother,” and she finds herself clenching the fingers of her free hand around the telephone cord. She can't see him, but she imagines she can feel the waves of discomfort and bitterness and terror emanating from a continent away, where her brother tries to justify his cowardice to himself, considers justifying it to her.
He doesn't. "I'm in the middle of a project," he says, tightly. "It's not a good time."
And in this they are alike, because she can't stop the disapproving snap to her voice, can't keep the disappointment and scorn from her next words: "Oh, well, I'll just tell Dad he needs to schedule his fatal heart attacks better, shall I? No, wait, I can't, he's dead."
She supposes the difference between her-and-Meredith and Meredith-and-other-people is that she can hurt him and have it show. He doesn't try to protect himself from her - it doesn't occur to him that it's necessary.
But this silence stretches out longer than the others, and as Jeannie is regretting her words, saying: "Mer, look, I'm sorry," her brother is saying:
"Jeannie, there's no reason for me to be there." And it's resigned and bitter and heartbreaking and it makes her want to wring his neck.
She pounds one fist into the mattress, draws up a handful of the bedspread between white-knuckled fingers, and forces her voice steady. "I can't believe you're doing this," she whispers, because she doesn't quite trust that at a normal tone he won't be able to tell she's crying. "I can't believe you're having some adolescent temper tantrum now when Dad's–"
He doesn't point out, mulishly, that she's not twenty yet, and that's a sign that she's struck him, though she's not quite sure how, this time. She never really understood the hostility between her brother and their parents, just knew that it was there.
"It's not about–" he begins, and she hears him sigh, slow and wound-up. "Jeannie, you don't need me there." And maybe Meredith doesn't know people but he does know her. She is stronger than he is, in so many ways, but goddamnit this time she didn't want to be, not all by herself. "You've got Aunt Caroline and everybody–" This time the sigh is hollow, like he's tired of being angry, and all at once she realises that he's relieved, that Dad is dead and Meredith is relieved. It chills her, inside and out, and hardens her anger to a sharp narrow point.
"You know what, Mer?" she says, swallowing hard. "You're right. Forget it. There's no reason for you to be here. Just... forget I even called."
"Jeannie–" His tone is desperate again, the sound of someone grasping for something slipping away.
"I have to get up early, Mer," she informs him. "A lot of things to do. Not your problem. Goodbye."
"Wait, Jeannie–" His voice twists up a half-octave on the last syllable of her name, but she doesn't answer, shakes her head and places the receiver back into its cradle with exaggerated care and cutting him off. She stares at it for a minute or two, shaking all over with rage and grief and disappointment, wondering if it will ring. But it doesn't. He won't call back. He hasn't called her first since their mother died. It's always been up to her, and she's never resented that so much until this moment.
With a swift, efficient movement, she snatches up the stuffed blue dog from her bed and throws it, hard, across the room. Dog hits the wall and then drops to the carpet, embroidered black eyes looking up at her reproachfully.
She glares back; a million years ago, give or take, Dog belonged to Meredith, and Jeannie appropriated the toy when she was two. She remembers that he protested at first, but eventually gave Dog up to Jeannie when Mum told him he was acting like a baby. Dog has been a faithful companion now for many years, and none of this is his fault.
Feeling foolishly guilty, she slips out of bed and rescues Dog from the floor, clutching him to her chest as she crawls back under the covers. Around her, the house is empty and silent and creaking in the wind.
At the reception after the service, Jeannie wears a dress procured by Aunt Caroline, but it doesn’t fit quite right; she keep smoothing the skirt, tugging at the collar, like she’s eight years old again and this is her mother’s death, not her father’s. She doesn’t wear black very much if at all – she prefers clothing that expresses what she sometimes stutters to convey, colour, pattern, detail. The black dress with its row of satin-covered buttons makes her think of things her mother used to wear, and she keeps imagining herself wreathed in the smell of mothballs.
The house full of people is worse than the house empty. Jeannie spends as long as she can get away with – about twenty-three minutes, before people start asking after her – hiding in the kitchen, moving canapés from one end of a tray to the other. She tries to calculate the fullness of the house with just herself versus the fullness of the house with twenty-nine guests versus the fullness of the house as it was in its “natural” state – Mum, Dad, Meredith, Jeannie. None of them strikes what should be a median point; this house, Jeannie thinks, has never been balanced.
Dad’s old boss has been holding court in the living room for almost half an hour by the time she finally emerges, accepting the sympathies of people she only vaguely recognises with nods and faint smiles. Aunt Caroline rescues her before she can be intercepted by their old piano teacher Mrs. Wong; Jeannie pushes down a kindled spark of resentment for the woman’s presence. Jeannie certainly didn’t invite her, and for a moment she pauses to prod at the vehemence of the reaction. She never had much interest in piano, let her lessons taper off gradually in high school; piano was always Mer’s thing, until it wasn’t.
She frowns to herself as she remembers, now, why it wasn’t, and finds yet another thing about her brother that she never really understood. When they were younger, when she was much younger, piano was all Mer cared about. But the memory is too young and soft and distant to provide any answers, and she wonders how many years it will be before he ever stops being such a mass of contradictions. She remembers admiring him, wanting him around, pouting at her father until he took her to visit Mer at school when Mum was sick.
She still wants him around, but he isn’t here. But she reminds herself; she didn’t really expect him to come. If he had, it would have been exceptional. She’s got no right to be upset. She’s got plenty of right to be angry.
“Jeannie, dearest,” says a voice, and Jeannie looks up from the tiny sandwich Aunt Caroline has just shoved into her hand to see Mrs. Leevey, the neighbour from across the street, tilting her head sympathetically. It makes her stiff grey curls move in an unnatural way, like the rattling shift of beads. As a girl, Jeannie found Mrs. Leevey puzzling but harmless, an idle amusement for silent scorn and always reliable for fresh cookies in exchange for gossip that Jeannie quickly discarded. The summer she was eleven, Jeannie worked in Mrs. Leevey’s garden to make the money for a new bicycle, because Dad thought she should earn it – and because the bicycle Jeannie wanted was too expensive, which Dad didn’t say. But Jeannie was always good at math.
Mrs. Leevey never liked Meredith, not for one minute of his life so far as Jeannie knows, and when she was a teenager Jeannie found that amusing – used to call Mer at school to laughingly relate the disapproval of a woman even Jeannie privately considered inconsequential. She liked Jeannie because Jeannie didn’t boast.
Mrs. Leevey raised five sons who all went out into the world to become moguls of the retail management world, and constantly insists on retelling their every exploit. Fortunately she seems to have absorbed enough tact in her old age to refrain at Richard McKay’s memorial service.
“I’m so sorry,” Mrs. Leevey is saying, pressing a dry, perfumed kiss to Jeannie’s cheek. She pats the place she just kissed, like Jeannie is still eleven years old. “And where’s that brother of yours?” She makes a show of looking around, as if she hasn’t already made sure that Mer is absent before she approached.
“He couldn’t get away from work,” Jeannie says, and feels herself scowling before she knows it. “Or so he said.”
“Jeannie,” says Aunt Caroline, chidingly, patting her arm. “You know how important his work is.” She says to Mrs. Leevey: “I’m sure he tried.”
Jeannie wants to say she’s sure he didn’t, that she knows he didn’t, but she keeps her mouth shut because she doesn’t want to feed the renewed anger licking hot at the back of her throat, doesn’t want to make a scene.
Luckily, Mrs. Leevey is there to do it for her. “Oh, I don’t believe that for a minute,” she says, in a whisper that’s pitched to carry across the room. “That boy never cared one whit for his poor father, even after all he did to put him through school. No gratitude, that’s what it is.” Mrs. Leevey shakes her stiffly-curly head, clicking her tongue in a parody of regret.
Jeannie is taking fierce joy in Mrs. Leevey’s petty jibes, keeping her face carefully blank as they carry on, carefully blameless. She’s surprised when Aunt Caroline, who has been mostly silent, listening with a stiff smile, sets her drink firmly down on the nearby food table and crosses her arms.
Jeannie is astonished to see that she is angry, really angry, white around the eyes and mouth like Jeannie hasn’t seen her since she was a little girl, when she heard her telling Dad how Mer almost died, could have died on their own kitchen floor of anaphylaxis while they were elsewhere with the favoured child. It was after Jeannie was diagnosed with epilepsy, and Mum and Dad had taken her to the Mainland to the big hospital, leaving Mer home alone, which should have been fine, but the TV dinner Mum left for him was tainted with lemon zest and he had a reaction. He didn’t check it because Mum gave it to him and Mum always checked. But Mum was worried about Jeannie, who had been throwing up and miserable and frightened and small, trapped in the grip of her body’s own malfunctioning electric impulses.
When Mum heard, she went white and bloodless and hurried them home, but nothing was ever said about it, at least not around Jeannie.
Jeannie felt stunned and guilty then, because little or no she understood what died meant, and certainly what anaphylaxis meant, and knew most of the terminology Aunt Caroline, a career nurse, rattled off to drive home her point. And what, her younger self wondered, would have happened if Aunt Caroline hadn’t come?
Now, Jeannie feels confused, watching as her prim, sweet auntie reduces the towering small-worlded arrogance of Mrs. Leevey into her component parts, red-faced and silent. Jeannie doesn’t catch the beginning, tunes in as Aunt Caroline is saying: “…before you make any further unqualified judgements about my nephew’s gratitude you might take into account that Richard was a bitter, arrogant jackass. He never once made that boy feel wanted, never once considered anything beyond his own disappointments and how all of them were the fault of other people’s failures. He was my brother and I loved him but nothing excuses the way he treated Meredith.”
Mrs. Leevey’s mouth opens and closes, and Jeannie thinks, teetering on the knife’s-edge of inappropriate, uncontrollable giggling: She looks like a fish.
“Out,” Aunt Caroline is saying, then, when Mrs. Leevey says nothing. But then the small woman is hitching back on her nasty little smile; in Mrs. Leevey’s world, unmarried women over forty with politics do not figure into her league. She addresses Aunt Caroline like a child.
“Oh, come now, Caroline. You’re exaggerating, and in any case…” she favours Jeannie with a conspiratorial smile that makes the hair rise on the back of Jeannie’s neck, strangely defensive. “This is Jeannie’s house, not yours, and we have…”
“I think you should leave,” Jeannie says, and hardly even feels the words leave her mouth, but then they’re out, glowing in the air like dying sparks.
Like a fish, she thinks, watching the new shock bloom over Mrs. Leevey’s features. Bloop, bloop.
“You heard me,” she says, faintly, and Mrs. Leevey snaps her mouth shut. She spins around on one patent-leather heel and the crowd parts as she wafts out the front door on a cloud of grocery-store perfume.
“Jeannie, sweetheart?” Aunt Caroline says, once the curious silence has settled back into the low hum of people talking in low, respectful voices.
“Hm?” replies Jeannie, absently, because she is still staring at the red-painted front door where Mrs. Leevey slammed it behind her. She really doesn’t know why she said that, but loudly repeating itself on a loop in her head is the jeering certainty that Mrs. Leevey is an only child. Her heart is beating hard, and when did that happen? She wants to punch Mer in the face, and she misses him so much right now that it hurts.
“You’re a good girl,” says Aunt Caroline, and hugs her tightly.
|chandrimacleod @ gmail.com | Comment on LJ|