The secret

This is what I do every Sunday. It’s a ritual. Like Church.

I watch as children pick at the wadding seeping from their seats. Like sores that won’t heal. The grimy fibres pool on the floor by their chair legs. The mothers don’t stop them. You can see it on their faces, in their eyes when they look up. It takes everything for them to be here.

Some of the boys overcompensate with confidence. They slouch on their chairs, hips forward, legs out, one hand in their coat pocket, the other texting on a BlackBerry. I see them chewing their lips. I see their eyes flickering at the other boys in the room. At the children. At the clock.

I shatter the silence by opening my can of Coke. Diet, Monday to Saturday. Full fat on Sundays. I sip it, let the bubbles singe my tongue. I gulp.

The warden comes in and opens the door for us. We queue, and one by one let a male or female prison officer wave the metal-detector wand over our bodies. Pat us down. Even the children. We all head to our regular tables. We don’t talk to each other. We don’t ask questions. That’s just the etiquette.

I watch Eddie bowl through the door. He walks slow, rocking side to side, smiling cockily when he sees me. His eyebrows betray his secret. He acts like he knows I’ll come, but I know he’s scared I won’t. Every Sunday, just a little, he’s surprised.

We don’t hug – we’re not the Brady Bunch. We sit and ask each other the same questions.

How are Mum and Dad?

Is the food alright?

How’s Benji doing?

Are they treating you ok?

How’s the shop?

The answers are always the same. They’re fine. It’s good. The dog’s fine. I’m good. It’s fine.

Every Sunday, the same.

But today I asked another question. I thought about your awkward smile and your cold hands. I thought about your dark eyebrows, and your ears – just a touch too small for your features. I thought about every conversation we had, in the darkness behind my eyelids.

I thought about when I first saw you and about when I saw you last. I thought about the two years of you coming into the shop, of me freezing with nerves and thawing once you’d left. I thought about the times you spoke to me and my clumsy words, tumbling out my mouth. Hiding in the store room, being sick in the small, damp toilet. Smiling as I rinse my mouth out. Closing my eyes and seeing your face.

‘Would you do it again?’

This wasn’t part of our usual agenda. My brother had to stop and think. But only for a moment. He spoke without a quiver of faltering.

‘Of course. I’d do it tomorrow.’

Eddie tried to move the conversation on. Our usual agenda was completely out of the window.

‘You’ve had a haircut.’

‘I haven’t.’

‘It looks different.’

‘Thanks. It’s not.’ I looked at my Coke can, he looked at my hands.

He stuttered, ‘I really would, you know.’

I looked up at him through my eyelashes.

‘You’re my sister,’ his voice was so certain, so assured. ‘I’d always do it again.’

Underneath my tights I felt the skin on my legs prickle into goosebumps. I rubbed the back of my neck and thought about the grotty note in my bag. Crinkled and crusted with a year’s worth of dirt. From the last day you came in. It rots, a dirty secret. Another one.

I think about you every day. I think about the nights I spent in bed, our conversations in the dark behind my eyelids. I think about the conversations you had with me, the ones I’ll never know about. In your room, behind the thin skin of your eyelids. In your dark.

Eddie doesn’t know about our secret lives, lived on our own together. He thinks you were just a guy. Everybody thinks you were just a guy. We know you’re not.

He looked uncomfortable. He ran his hand through his hair and looked at the grain of the table. ‘And you, you’re… now you’re…’

‘I’m fine, Eddie. Really I’m fine.’

He nodded. I saw the anger flicker across his face, storm through his veins. It only lasted a second. Then he’s calm. He looked up at me and smiled. He was Eddie again. The Eddie he was before I ruined him.

There were so many times before, when I wanted to tell Eddie about you. About everything you meant in everything you didn’t say. I wanted to tell him how you made me feel every time you came into the shop, when you smiled at me. I used to imagine the day you’d walk in and tell Eddie how you felt about me. Eddie would be protective at first, of course – he’s my brother. But he’d smile because he’d see how good you were, like I saw how good you were. Then we wouldn’t have to keep our relationship hidden behind our eyelids. Eddie would be happy for us. And we’d be happy.

I stayed for an hour, like I always do. We talked about things we always do. The holidays we went on when we were little. The caravan. Our old house and the fights we’d had. We talked about life when it was normal.

Then I left. And I came here. I’m sorry I haven’t been in a while, I’m worried someone will see me. Someone who’ll tell Eddie, or my parents. I’m worried I’ll see your sister. She looked so small at the hearing. Listening to Eddie explain why he did what he did. That’s when I felt guiltiest.

I still don’t understand why you treated me that way. I know we keep going over this. But I don’t. You acted like you didn’t know me. Like you were embarrassed by me. You pretended you didn’t love me. We never said it but we both know it’s true.

I’m sorry that I ruined Eddie. And I’m sorry that I ruined the way your family remembers you. I’m sorry that it happened. But you shouldn’t have treated me that way.

Eddie doesn’t know I lied. Nobody knows. Apart from you.

I’ll never be able to say the words out loud again. I’ll never be able to write them down again. There’s mud underneath my fingernails and across my cheek. It’s cold and damp and sticks my tights to my knees. It’s in my hair. It’s on this paper.

I’ll write the words down once, to admit them to you. I’ll say them into the envelope. Then I’ll place it, folded in half, into the small hole I’ve made in the soil above your body.

I won’t be able to come again. I can’t face it.

But I’ll still always think of you. And at least we’ll have the conversations behind my eyelids.

I love you.

You didn’t rape me.

by Bee Pahnke

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