The Family

John Christopher

They wanted her to die, the other people in the house. Her family. And they were not subtle about it. Theirs was not a heritage of silence or awkward dinners, but of visible rage, and open, exposed delight. They asked her to die all the time. They asked her to die when they called her down to breakfast. They suggested she die while she brushed her teeth in the morning. They marveled at her friends for finding new and innovative ways to die. (It was true: scrolling on her phone, Raven was confronted with the revolting glamour of the arranged corpse. Claire in her summer frock, lying dead in her boyfriend’s arms; Tara, slim thing, hanging from a hawthorn tree. They were so tacky. She liked them all and left heart-eyes emojis in the comments.) In the car, Raven felt her mother’s eyes watching her from the rear-view mirror to see if she was dead, or dying, or at least trying. She left supplies in the backseat and around the house: thick rope, pastel-coloured pills, dark vials of poison. Whenever you’re ready, she said casually. Raven was moved by this encouragement but something in her recoiled from it, too. When her brother died, her parents praised him lavishly. His hadn’t been a particularly unique death – a tumble down the stairs – but she guessed they were relieved he pulled it off in one go. Raven watched him run around the garden from her window. He fell down again and again to the cheers of her dead parents. He stuffed his mouth with stones and chewed his teeth to bloody stumps. Cut and dirty, he yelled up at her: Now that I’m dead, nothing can hurt me. It doesn’t matter what happens to my body. Ugh! she screamed back. You’re such a boy!

The day after she died, Raven’s mother woke up a little later than usual. I feel fine, she insisted, heating her cold hands over the whistling kettle. I’m just a bit slower, that’s all. It’ll take me a bit longer to get my bits done. Her hands reddened and bloated from the steam. She looked at them curiously. She banged her stiff limbs and felt nothing. My god, she said, I can’t feel a thing. She admired her arms. I look wonderful. My skin has a lovely sheen. She turned her unnatural glow to Raven. Be honest now, she said, her eyes red, bulging, terrified. Do I look like I died happy? Her father died the way he closed doors at night: quietly, firmly, careful not to wake anybody up. He sat dead on the couch and stared dead out the window. When she was younger they used to sit in the living room and listen to his records. Mingus, The Clash; she liked what he liked, and he really liked that. But now that he was dead, he had no interest in music. Turn that off! he barked. But it’s Joe Strummer’s anniversary! Raven protested. We always listen to this on Joe Strummer’s anniversary. She lifted the needle when she saw his face contort in pain. I don’t hear what you hear, he told her gravely. Not anymore.

I love you, she said pretty confidently to her mother before going to bed. Her mother turned to face her with a crooked mouth. I don’t know if I love you, she said. How can I know that I love you until I’m sure that I can lose you? But I don’t want to die yet, Raven complained. Well that’s it then, her mother snapped. That’s my heart broken. You’ve gone and broken your poor dead mother’s heart. But I don’t know anything yet, Raven moaned. I haven’t done anything. I want invitations, missed trains, chance encounters. I want – I want – But how could she know? It escaped her. She had never made anything with her hands, her own hands. What did that mean? A weight with a sound trapped inside plunged through her. She would follow it if only she knew how. I personally don’t see what the issue is, her mother said. I’m actually hurt that you don’t want to die with us, your family. You’re selfish, Raven. I don’t want to upset you but I can’t control the things I say. Each morning when I stop pretending to sleep I recognize you less and less. What if one day I mistake you for an intruder? What if I kill you in self-defense? Oh, how mature, running to your room, slamming your door. Raven pressed her palms against the wood to keep it closed. We used to be such a happy house, came the strange voice from the other side.

Raven went out into the garden after breakfast to check on her lilies. She thought they were kind of hideous but it was important, she felt, to be able to care for something you don’t necessarily think deserves it. They weren’t there, and the earth was disturbed. Her mind flew to foxes, cats, and then she found her mother in the shade, wringing the necks of the lilies with filthy dead hands. What the fuck? Raven yelled. Her mother didn’t hear her. I’ll run her over in the Fiat, she muttered. I’ll poison her bolognese. Crushed glass like in the movies. Oh, good morning sweetheart., she said, looking at Raven. Then she continued the strangling. Does she sleep heavy? If she sleeps heavy I’ll put a pillow over her face. Chainsaw will do it, her father suggested from the window. Chainsaw will do it, her mother agreed. I’ll wash her body. I’ll wash her body. No one will say I didn’t love her.

But Raven didn’t want to die. Not yet. Eventually, yes, she would want to die. She had considered it, obviously, but only ever as a sort of extreme solution to a migraine, not as a viable choice. Death to her remained a sensibility, and she knew better than to be pinned to her sensibilities. But her death would be in her own time and on her own terms. What those terms were, exactly, she didn’t yet know. But the terms would be hers. She deserved that at least, didn’t she? Did they think she couldn’t make decisions? That angered her. She directed her anger at the chair, at the dead mother sitting in the chair, the dead brother knocking down the chair, the dead father picking up the chair. Her anger would engender a fresh bone in her body, she feared, and it would block all visitors from her heart. She seized the chair and threw it. It smashed and sent pieces everywhere. She picked them up, the pieces, and headed into the garden. Her mother came out, alarmed. What are you doing? Her eyes bulged. What happened to my chair? There were three sticks of wood lying crosswise on the grass. I’m stacking my regrets, Raven said. She was embarrassed of her life. It was hers. She was determined to live it. Go on, said her mother. Tell me. Raven said: That’s private. They are my private regrets. Fine, her mother said, her voice wobbling. I can’t make you open up to me. She disappeared, then returned with her arms full of branches. She tossed them on the grass next to Raven’s pile, dwarfing it by comparison. Show off, Raven muttered.

Raven woke with her mother’s hands holding her face. Her skin glowed in the dark. Whenever I open a door, she said, I brace myself for your swinging body, for an attack of smell. I’d cut you down and cradle you and wail. You know that, don’t you? I have in me a howl for you. It’s been pacing back and forth for so long. When will you let me release it? When Raven didn’t reply, her mother said: I may not be able to feel when I’m on fire, but I can still be hurt, Raven. You don’t understand, Raven said. I want to know when I’m on fire. I deserve to know what that feels like. Her mother just looked at her. Suddenly there was nothing between them. She got up and went downstairs, leaving the bedroom door open. Raven got up to close it, but something drew her downstairs. Her brother’s door was open. All the doors were open. She entered the kitchen squinting. The fire was tall in the garden. They were all there, in varying stages of cremation. Her mother, the last to go, stepped into the flames just as Raven stepped outside. The heat struck her face, then retreated, like its name had been called from somewhere else. Afterwards, Raven looked at the ashes. She would sweep them in the morning. She went upstairs and closed all the doors. She climbed into bed. She tried to sleep but couldn’t. She sat up. She looked at the molten darkness. Everything was the same, and yet, looking around, she wasn’t sure. She no longer felt sure that this was her room.