Riding the Coaster

by Kip Hanson

My Mom is always cleaning my brother's bedroom. She changes the sheets, washes the windows, dusts the dresser, the nightstand, even the fucking headboard. It's like she's trying to get rid of a bad smell, one that only she can detect.

Ray hasn't slept in there for months.

Then last weekend the vacuum cleaner broke down. I was pissed that she made such a big deal out of it. I was sitting at the kitchen table doing my homework when I heard this whining sound, like the dog wanted out to pee. And that's when I found my Mom, keeled over on Ray's bedroom floor.

She was curled into this weird c-shape. She looked like a lazy comma. Her shoulders were heaving and her hands were pressed to her face. As soon as I walked in, she started making this gasping sound. I thought she was going to barf, so I ran to the kitchen and grabbed a paper bag from the pantry.

She has them all organized in there, stacked in a neat little three-step staircase, snack-sized bags on the left, grocery bags on the right, and never more than fifteen bags to a stack. Ever. I grabbed a lunch bag from the middle, destroying her perfect symmetry. Straightening it out would give her something to do later.

She stuck the bag over her face and started taking these deep hitching breaths, like she was a drowning victim. The sound of the bag crinkling was weird in the silence of the bedroom, which hadn't heard anything more than the sound of her cleaning since the cops left.

While she was getting her shit in order, I checked out the vacuum cleaner. She'd vacuumed up the lamp cord next to Ray's bed. It was coiled around the beater bar like high-test line on a hairy fishing reel. It was disgusting. Worse, as soon as she'd caught her breath, my Mom started bawling; there were tears and snot running down her double chin. I wanted to puke. "Mom. It's only a vacuum cleaner. Go lay down and I'll take care of it."

"But I miss him so much," she said. What a wreck.

"Mom, he'll be back, okay? He had to go away for a while, clear his head. That's all. Just go take a nap and I'll fix the vacuum. You've done enough cleaning for one day." Jesus, I wish she'd get over it.

She looked up at me with those sad puppy dog eyes of hers. "You're a good boy, Kyle. I'm glad I still have you, at least." I hate it when she gets like this.

Here's the deal: my brother Ray took off last summer. Nobody has seen him for months. And judging from the way my Mom acts most of the time, not just now but even before then, who can blame him? But still, ever since he left, Mom's really been off the cuff. I mean, she'd already been teetering on the edge: ever since she caught Dad banging that broad from the office, she'd been a basket case. And then he ran off with and took the bimbo with him. Ray leaving like that without telling anyone was the topper.

While she shuffled off to bed, I started fixing the vacuum cleaner. But first I opened the window; with all the Lysol she'd been spreading around, it reeked like a hospital. As I lifted the window, the smell of dead leaves and moldering grass hit me. The high school homecoming game was next weekend, and Ray had left right after the Fourth of July: it looked like he'd have some serious homework to make up by the time he got back.

He'd been gone for a week by the time my Mom finally called the cops. They came right over, two of them. The big cop, Officer Harkin, Harker, something like that, he looked around like he suspected everyone; he saw villains everywhere. You could tell this guy had read Ellery Queen novels and played long games of Clue straight through his teen years. He wanted to know why my Mom had waited so long to call. She started blubbering at that point, like he was accusing her of being a bad mother.

He asked us about Ray's friends, his grades, if he was doing drugs. He and his trenchcoat buddy went through Ray's stuff like he was a criminal. They even looked in the garage and under the porch: maybe they thought we'd hidden the body under there. They did find fifty bucks in his sock drawer, and Officer Harker asked why Raymond would run away from home and still leave that money sitting there.

And of course they found out about Lisa.

Lisa's father is some big shot prick lawyer out of London. Loads of money. When they started dating, I gave Ray a lot of shit about finally striking pay dirt and he got all pissed: I think he really loved that girl. But the big shot lawyer came home from work early one day and found Ray banging the apple of his eye on the living room couch. The guy wigged. He chased Ray out of the house with a baseball bat, and the next day sent his little girl away to live with family in England. I guess he figured there was no way Lisa could hitchhike her way home across the Atlantic.

Two days later, Ray disappeared without a word to anyone. Not even to me, his little brother.

I got a little nervous when the cops started searching his room. I knew there was a gun in his closet. I'd seen it in there one day, snooping around while he was at work, and knew he'd be in deep shit because he's only seventeen. But the cops never found it: the gun had gone missing, just like Ray.

I thought a lot about that gun after they left. I even searched the room myself, over and over again, hoping it would be like when you lose your house keys or your iPod: after looking in the same place fifteen times, they're right where you'd been looking all along. Because if I could find the gun, that meant he was coming back for it someday, right?

And then last Saturday, after Mom had her melt down over the vacuum cleaner, I found the note.

I'd put the thing back together, trundled it off to the hall closet, and came back in to fix the lamp. But when I leaned over behind his nightstand to plug it in, I saw a piece of paper. It was dangling there by one corner from the back of his nightstand. I don't know how she'd missed it; she must have cleaned that room a hundred times since he'd left. But there it was, folded in half, and written across the front in Ray's neat block-lettering was a single word: Mom.

My hands were shaking. I unfolded the paper and sat on Ray's bed to read it. The paper was dusty, and there were a few spots on it, like tear drops. It had been crumpled up and then smoothed out again, so that it had a soft leathery feel to it, like a love letter that's been read too many times.

It was a suicide note. He said he couldn't live without Lisa. He just wanted it all to end. I read it three times, my stomach doing flip-flops. I almost started to cry. Then I heard my Mom moving around in her room, so I folded it up, shoved it under the nightstand, and got the hell out of there.

At first I figured he never went through with it, and that he was washing cars or busing tables out in Spokane, or he'd finally made it to LA like he'd always talked about and was shingling the roofs of rich people's homes.

Because Ray always chickened out.

When we were kids, he was the only one who came home at night with eggs still in his pockets, and who always veered away at the last second from the plywood bike jump. At Six Flags, we'd wait in line for hours to ride the monster coaster, and when our turn came he always cut out of line. And killing yourself would be like riding the biggest, scariest coaster ride of them all. He just couldn't do it.

Mom's still cleaning his room, nearly every day. I want to tell her not to bother, but I can't bring myself to do it. She's in there now, vacuuming the carpet again. I think to myself that there's not going to be any carpet left by the time he comes back, and then I remember, and I suddenly hope she doesn't move the nightstand. And right then, the vacuum cleaner stops. I jump to my feet, I start to yell "No Mom, NO!" and that's when the screaming begins.

BIO: Kip lives in sunny Phoenix, where he wastes time chronicling the life of an exiled Nordic Warrior King at http://misterass.com. He’s been published in Bartleby Snopes, Every Day Fiction, Every Day Poets, Six Sentences, A Twist of Noir, and a few others, and also makes a few bucks on the side by writing boring technical articles (but don’t tell the IRS that). He writes to keep the flying monkeys away.