'AVERAGE SECRETS' by RICHARD LEISE

Jude lifted his glass of apple juice and drank slowly. Steadily. Most foods, if you vomited not long after eating, did not taste terrible. Chewing was also important. Chew well, and you puked baby food. If you hurried, because the food tasted great—or because you were hungry—the sensation, if not the taste (or both), was like vomiting fully formed pierogis, the effort both painful and blinding. Some foods, apple juice being one of them, tasted pretty much the same. Good even. Water was the worst. On the way back up, water—which, when thirsty, was refreshing, like breathing fresh air—tasted like sloughed skin, or dead cells, the liquid, like that which preserved a vaccine’s active agent, carrying the essence of what was being delivered, or purged (in this instance the ripped up and torn out insides of your organs). Just the thought made Jude nauseous. The idea of returning to school, however? This was worse. Jude reached for another piece of toast. He chewed slowly and carefully.

Mary, his twin sister, followed Jude upstairs and into the bathroom—however noisily, he always puked privately—and told him to wait.

“Why,” Jude whispered. He ran the faucet, and, gross as it was, filled a paper cup with warm water. “I’m not going back. She thinks she can make me, but she can’t.” He swallowed the water and refilled the cup. “I can’t tell you, Mary. I know how it sounds. Terrible. And it is terrible. But the feeling,” and he gulped the water. “The feeling is so bad, so scary, it’s not like I’m going to die, but something even worse?” He wiped his mouth. “Like I’m going to do something terrible? I’d rather be dead than go back to that place.”

“She is Mother, Jude,” Mary said. “She will do, and she will make you do, whatever she wants. Did you want to go back to school in January? Didn’t she promise that you wouldn’t have to go back until you were ready?”

They stood, side by side, staring into the mirror. Hopeless, Jude reached forward to touch his sister’s face. She remained in place, but his hand covered her reflection, skewing his perception, his fingers banging against the glass.

“Bitchfuck,” he lowered his hand. He wanted to lash out, but Mary wasn’t the problem. She didn’t deserve the words he had in mind. He studied the shower curtain. The pattern - black roses atop a bed of white roses - was confusing. The sight made him dizzy.

“You should’ve let me tell Mrs. C. about the bathtub,” Jude said. “You should’ve let me tell her something. You don’t think I know, but I know what Mother does. Her ways of punishing you.”

“I know that you know,” Mary said. “It’d be impossible for you not to know.”

“Then why didn’t you tell me to tell her?”

“Tell her what, Brother? That when I was five and wouldn’t eat my broccoli Mother put me in the bathtub in my underwear? That she filled the tub with cold water until I did what she wanted?”

Jude nodded. Defiant, this was a fair question.

“Think about it,” Mary said.

“Think about what?”

“Assuming Mrs. C. cared. And oh boy Brother, are you ever right, she would have cared. But what do you think would have happened to you if there had been an investigation? Let me fill you in. They would contact CPS. That’s what would’ve happened. At minimum. And fast.”

“Fast?”

“Child Protective Services, Brother. Mrs. C? The school? They would have contacted the authorities. The kid cops. That day. As in very fast, is what I’m saying. And what do you think would’ve happened? It’s not like we’d be sent to live with Grandma.”

“Grandma? What are you talking about? We haven’t seen Grandma in …. I can’t even remember the last time we’ve been to Long Island.”

“That, Brother. That right there is the point. Imagine where you would be, right now, if there had been, or if there was, a long, drawn-out, investigation. Picture where they would have placed me. And they never would have convicted her, or found her guilty, you know. She’s an idiot, but Mother’s not dumb. We would still be at home, living with her and Father. Only all of Endwell would know. You hate school now?” Mary glared at Jude’s reflection. “Imagine what living would be like if Mother suspected you had turned on her. Or if the kids from school heard from their parents what sort of mother we have.”

He made to speak, and then stopped himself. Mary made sense. He, as if an actor, directed to read from a blank piece of paper, had no lines; he had no idea what to say. Worse, if he said anything, it would sound dumb. His eyes burned and his throat hurt. If he wasn’t careful he was going to start crying.

“What happened and what happens? These are not acts of hate.”

Mary faded. And then, “She doesn’t think she’s doing anything wrong, Brother. Mother acts out of love. She’s just a terrible lover.”

“What? Love? How can you say that? No one hurts who you love.”

She pointed to the running water, said, “Turn that off.” And then, the air in the room still, “Mother is a fool. Mother is selfish. But Mother loves Father, and you, and she loved, and still does love, me. That, though, is the problem. Mother loves, but she doesn’t know how to love equally. She is not balanced.

“Brother. Of course you hurt the things you love. You hurt those you love more than just about anyone. You do not do so on purpose, you do not do so intentionally, but hurt, the ability to injure someone with our actions and our words, is what makes love possible. You cannot have coldness without warmth. But who you - or, to be clear, who Mother is incapable of hurting - is the person she loves not at all.”

“Stop it. You’re confusing me. Mother hurts you, Mary! And when she hurts you, she hurts me. And not just my body.”

Jude wept. What felt like sadness arrived like relief, and he lowered his head into his hands, his body sore and unforgiving.

Mother called from downstairs. In sing-song. She said to hurry up. That it was time to go.

“Mother’s calling,” Mary said.

The light in the room changed, the harsh fluorescence flashing, mellowing to become a brilliant amber, the bathroom’s objects, like the toothbrush holder and the soap dish, absent edge or glare.

Jude didn’t want to leave. He turned to face Mary, to—

“Don’t worry,” she said. “I know you want to, but Do. Not. Puke. Not now. Trust me, this will be better. Much better.”

“What will?”

Mary did not answer.

*

They left before Communion, the force of Jude’s effort to vomit creating, as bonus, a bloody nose. Puke both moist and stiff on his shirt, his nose crusted with blood the red of a dead geranium, he seemed, to others, surprised, as if he were unsure what had happened. Father Hours raised the chalice and the Host in the air, mumbling incoherently.

“Do not make it obvious, but push,” Mary said. “This is good.”

The church was full, and those parishioners closest to the family had gathered their things, scattering as if Jude were on fire. Others slid down pews, creating space. Father Hours lowered the Eucharist, bowed, passed something off to Deacon Joe, and kissed the altar. A boy rang a bell. A vestige, this. An echo from a bygone era.

Mary stood before him, visible from the waist up, halved by the back of a pew. Jude cocked his head, unsure, unable to fully hear his sister.

“Like you are blowing your nose. No. Like you are trying to make your face red. Yes. Like that. Don’t look, but you should see Mother.”

“Oh, June,” Sister Kruty whispered, waddling down their pew. In her yellow slacks and brown cardigan, the nun resembled a duck. “And Jude, you poor thing!” She reached out a hand, then slowly retracted. My goodness,” she whispered, more quietly. “He’s bleeding. Should he—”

“Thank you, Sister Kruty,” June smiled. “He’s just been fighting a little bug.” June spoke loudly, as if her response might calm those still scattering. June was identified. Well-known.

“Oh, but his poor little face. And it being so warm in here.”

Jude laughed. Mother and Sister Kruty frowned.

“Jude,” Mary whispered. “Pretend that you’re coughing.”

He didn’t know what was so funny, but there was something about Mother and Mrs. Kruty, like how they considered the condition of candleholders and the constitution of a sick and bleeding child with the same degree of concern, that struck him as absurd. Nodding, he affected gagging, and then began coughing, spraying blood all over his hands.

It was warm. Father Hours had not ordered maintenance to run the air conditioning. Normally, the large doors fronting the church would be open, allowing for a cool breeze. But it was pouring, and the wind and the rain, which picked up during the homily, had yet to relent, and was overwhelming, drowning out all other sound, and so the doors had been closed, the wooden pews sticky with humidity.

Because it was so warm, Father was wearing a light sweater in lieu of a jacket. He removed the sweater and made as if he might clean the mess, but Sister Kruty stood, waved a hand.

“Go, go, go, go, go!” she said. “I’ll get one of the custodians.”

Mother gritted her teeth and stared at Father. He cleared his throat and held his sweater in both hands, uncertainly.

“Father is so hopeless,” Mary muttered.

“We’re just going to clean this and—”

“I won’t hear of that,” Sister Kruty said. She didn’t move any closer, but the nun made it clear she wasn’t leaving. “You just get your little Jude on home, or to the ER, and I’ll find one of the custodians directly.”

“Or to the ER,” Mother mimicked, shaking her head from side to side, rising, ripping Father’s sweater from his hands and mopping the vomit from the pew, working with her back to Sister Kruty until the woman, flustered, disappeared.

“Appearances,” Mary said.

“What?” Jude said.

“What?” Mother looked over her shoulder.

“Nothing,” Jude said, a hand to his face, blood dripping from his fingers to the floor. “No one said anything.”


*


Nervous, Jude did not think the situation was going to get any better, but Mary, sitting beside him, insisted it would. Most of the vomit had hardened on his shirt, but, because he had a bloody nose, which continued to freely bleed, his shirt was a mess, and the slime, which had oozed to pool on his lap, its consistency like an over-medium egg, slid as Father veered around Cascadilla Lake and accelerated up South Hill, taking Triphammer Road towards Endwell General, the goo not quite spilling off himself and onto the seat, but, rather, congealing to form a large puddle. Used tissues dotted the well beside his feet.

Rain fell heavily, drumming the roof of the car. Father’s windshield wipers, whirring at their highest setting, cleared great sheets of water, and the sound and the motion, elements uncontrollable, added to Mother’s panic, who, in her hurry to escape the downpour, had taken a seat up front, a decision she regretted.

“Don’t tilt your head,” Mary leaned in and whispered, pretending to offer assistance. “Bleed.”

Jude nodded, tucking his chin to his chest. He cupped his hands, catching dime-sized blood drops. His neatly-trimmed bangs fanned about his face.

“Oh, honey, don’t nod your head like that,” Mother said, turning in her seat. “You don’t want your nose to - ”

Jude considered his mother. He opened his mouth to breathe, his teeth pink. The oxygen acted like an accelerant, bright red blood streaming over his top lip and into his mouth. He sputtered.

“Oh, Jude,” Mother said. “Tip your head back, honey. And pinch your nose. It’s the only way to stop that bleeding.” She covered her mouth with a hand. “Richie, maybe you should pull over. I don’t know what I was thinking, sitting up front like this.”

“You’re kidding,” Father said, checking his mirrors. He cleared his throat.

“Puke!” Mary hissed.

Jude was tired; he was unsure he had the energy.

“Do it,” Mary urged. And then, eying Mother, “Lean your head against the window, Jude.”

Jude rested his forehead against the glass. It was cool. He should listen to Mary. His sister was never wrong. Raindrops bulged from the window, or, when rattled, ran down the pane, long dizzy lines distorting his vision, pine trees and passing houses fluid shapes, their colors muted and blurred. The tires hummed, the vibration running the length of the car and shaking Jude’s brain. He took a deep breath and held it, catching the air deep within his chest, as if working to make himself burp. He exhaled through his nose, expelling globs of snot and blood, and then quickly inhaled, swallowing as much of the gunk as possible.

Blech. Gross.

Somehow, there was still some food in his stomach, and he lurched, coughing the mess into his hands.

“Good,” Mary said.

Mother lowered her head. She wept.


*


The beds were occupied by old men and even older women with dry coughs and heart conditions, their faces approximations of pain in no way similar to each room’s future’s emojis, here, in their present manifestations, simple smiley faces black and white, their expressions ranging from noncommittal to eyes x’s of pain, sweat - or tears - all but bursting off the page, curled posters taped to dusty walls next to cracked whiteboards. These were people who didn’t lie down, exactly, but, as if photographed while getting under the covers, were static, somehow both on their sides and their backs, their legs pressed together beneath white blankets, pale ankles and purple toes exposed, midsections and torsos rising as if these patients were erupting from fetal positions, elbows on mattresses enabling hands to support great heads of disheveled hair, or forearms covering closed eyes, efforts, these, to erase the too bright light. Others, like drunks, peered at everything with one eye closed, or, as if winking at no one, were busy relishing average secrets. Nurses came as if their reasons for arriving was leaving. They spoke too loudly, drawing out their vowels as if speaking to children or the mentally retarded. Bored or indifferent, the women didn’t hide their irritation, which edged upon hostility, understanding that they, one way or the other, would not see these individuals much longer, winging open and then pulling closed the blue cloth curtains which hung from arced tracks in the ceiling, creating the illusion of rooms. Sitting, when able, they released great sighs from their positions at the nurses’ station, sipping Coke through straws rising from their bright red cans, and chewing potato chips while staring at computer screens.

Cleaned up and administered an IV, Jude, warm beneath the covers and comfortable in a thin, cotton, medical gown, watched WWF on the wall-mounted TV. He refused a juice box and a Ginger Ale. A nurse placed these drinks atop his bedside table, anyways. Mother and Father were missing.

“I can’t believe Mother agreed to pay for TV,” Jude whispered. “It’s like staying at a hotel room.”

Mary stood in front of a curtain, a white cutout stark against the pale blue fabric. This made her blue eyes brighter, her dark brown hair in sharp contrast within the room’s unrelenting fluorescence. The blips and the beeps from the area’s machines were rhythmic and soothing. Jude relaxed.

“It is about appearances,” Mary said. “Mother knows she looks bad.”

“Huh?”

“Not taking you to see a doctor, a real doctor, sooner. Dr. Greene is for head colds and sore throats. Plus, she has lied to him. Many times. She wants to look like she cares.”

“Oh,” Jude said.

He was tired. Being sick when you were well wasn’t easy. And the way Mary spoke was confusing. Since there wasn’t much he could do, it was nice, for once, not to be called upon to do anything. But Mary cared, and he didn’t want her to leave. He said, “Now what are they doing?”

“You are being admitted. This requires paperwork and a lot of time.”

“Admitted?”

Mary explained, though he wasn’t paying much attention. Mother didn’t let him watch wrestling, and a man in shiny blue spandex was climbing the side of the ring. Jude smiled, amazed, when the man jumped from the top rope and kicked his opponent, a hairy, fat man wearing a black leotard, in the face, bounced up from the ring, and started stomping around in a circle.

“So they really think I’m sick? They’re doctors, Mary, how can they get that wrong?”

“They do not know anything other than what Mother and Father tell them, and how you present yourself to them.”

“Present?”

“A fancy word for ‘looking,’ Brother. As in how you appear, medically.”

She faded. And then, “Obviously, if you don’t eat you will die. They have no reason to believe you are anything other than sick. They called Dr. Greene and he must have said something, because they asked Mother and she started crying. But because I was sick so long ago, relative to you getting sick, anyways, they are not making a connection. Necessarily. But they told Mother and Father you need to stay here, for tests. And observation.”

The wrestler in the leotard raked his opponent’s eyes and kicked him in the groin. The referee pushed him back into a corner, and the two began arguing. The wrestler punched the referee, knocking him unconscious. Recovered, the wrestler in blue slid off the canvas mat, grabbed something from a table near a row of fans, and returned, carrying a 2 x 4. His opponent, seeing the weapon, raised his hands in fear and shook his head. Sweat fell from his long, oily hair. He fell to his knees, begging for mercy.

“All they know, because Mother lied, is that you have been vomiting, ‘on and off,’ for the past couple of weeks. And that you have had a bloody nose. That’s evident. Mother told them that you love school. She told them that before, the first time you refused to go to school, but she made you? Well, she left that part out. She told the doctors you were cleared by the psychiatrist, that the psychiatrist didn’t find anything wrong with you.”

“But I didn’t say anything to that woman, how could she say I was okay?”

Mary did not reply.

“So I’m going to stay here?”

“Not here,” Mary said. “This is the Emergency Room. You are going to a different part of the hospital. Because you are a child you will get your own room. They are going to run tests. Because you are right, the doctors do have it all wrong, they think you may have a parasite.”

“Huh?

“Worms. Or something like that.”

“Gross.”

Mary faded. Jude was content to sit in silence. His chest burned, and talking hurt. It had been worth it, though. School was horrible, but home wasn’t much better. Here, though. This was nice. There was no pressure. It had only been a few hours, and while things happened, things happened around him. Like Mary, in a way, all he had to do was be good. Stay out of sight. He would miss Mary, but, as usual, she was right. Puking at church was way better than puking at home. He wanted to stay.

The man in blue smashed the board across the other man’s face, knocking him flat on his back. The wrestler tossed the weapon out of the ring and the crowd cheered. The camera showed the referee, who, sitting with his legs splayed, realized the man in blue was pinning his opponent. Like a snake the referee slid in on his belly and, with a hand, slammed the mat once, twice ….

“You should have seen Mother’s face when they went over your condition,” Mary said.

The fat wrestler wiggled and wobbled his way until he was sitting, his thick white legs splayed before him. The man in blue, shocked, stood up, and, shouting, shoved the referee. The fat man got to a knee, and then pushed himself upright, making to kick his opponent in the back. But he was too slow. The wrestler in blue turned and caught his foot. The other man affected fear and started praying, saying he was sorry. The man stood there, holding his foot, laughing. The crowd went wild.

“Appearances,” Jude said, watching the match end, and then cut to commercial.

There wasn’t much in the room. The nurse, after applying the IV (his vitals were poor, and he was dehydrated), moved the table out of reach. The TV’s remote was on the table. Jude sighed. He was too nervous to pull on its cord, fearing the giant device would fall and hit the floor.

“Sometimes I wish you could, like—”

“It was bad enough,” Mary said. “But now it’s both of us? Both her twins with vague illnesses before high school? Even though they did not catch her, and never will, the looks people will give her, the thoughts they will have about her. Forever.”

Mary faded. If Jude didn’t know better, he would have sworn she had smiled.

Jude didn’t hate Mother as much as Mary. He didn’t like her that much, either, but didn’t Mary just say that she loved him, and her, as well? Mary wasn’t lying, but maybe Mother wasn’t lying, either.

Behind Mary and beyond the curtain the nurses at their stations, dressed in scrubs, waited for the day’s disasters to come wheeling in, people needing vaccinations against awfulness. These women were nothing like Mother. Mother was the disaster. Mother was the person who knocked people off their feet, leaving them to be picked up, pushed about on wheels. Jude didn’t know what to think. And Jude was getting tired of caring.

“I am sorry, Jude,” Mary said. “But Mother, until she is punished, can never be forgiven.” She drifted, and then, “Do you know what bulimia is? Anorexia?”

Jude didn’t.

“It is when you purposefully do something to yourself to make yourself skinny. Or to get attention.”

“But I don’t want attention.” He lifted an arm. “And look. I’m already way skinny.”

“I know, Jude. And, right now, no one has any reason to think you want attention, or that you are worried about your weight.”

“That’s good,” Jude said. “Isn’t it?”

“Yes,” Mary said. “The doctors are not concerned. But,” she drifted, the sounds of the ER swelling around them. “Technically, you are killing yourself. So they are worried about that. But I knew this would never work.”

“What?”

Mary ignored him. And then, “The good news is that bulimia and anorexia is pretty much a girl thing. The doctors, like everyone, believe Mother. That should tell you something. And not about the doctors. How this goes from here is up to you. How well you make yourself puke. At least for a while. If they catch on, and they will, then we—”

Mother appeared on the other side of the curtain. She had asked a question and was listening. A doctor, tall and thin, with a thick black beard and a shock of dark black hair, drew back the curtain and entered the room. Mother and Father followed. He introduced himself as Dr. Kush and asked Jude how he was feeling. He slid a stethoscope up Jude’s shirt, and, listening to Jude’s heart, frowned. Satisfied, he straightened, placed the stethoscope on Jude’s back, and listened to him breathe. Nodding, he straightened, and told him a watered-down version of what was happening. He asked if Jude had any questions.

Mary nodded.

“Yes,” Jude said.

The adults looked at Jude and waited. After a few moments the doctor said, “Yes? Go on.”

Mary subtly shook her head.

“Well then,” the doctor said. “In the—”

“I’m sure he’s just overwhelmed,” Mother said. She stepped to Jude’s side, placed a hand on his forearm. “Did you have a question, honey? Go on. Ask Dr. Crust. It’s okay.”

Irritated, the doctor checked his pager. “I’m afraid I have to go. But time is on our side. I’m glad you have questions, Jude. It’s important that you take control of your health. Right now, let’s get one of the nurses to dim these lights, and you can have a nap. I’m sure you could all use a good rest. It’ll be a bit before we have a bed,” he addressed Mother and Father. “But you’re in good hands.” He smiled and left the room.

After pacing, Father slowed to a stop at the foot of Jude’s bed. He cleared his throat and said. “I’m going to stretch my legs. Can I get anyone anything?”

Mother frowned, found the remote, took the room’s only chair, and repeatedly flipped through the channels before, with a sigh, settling on The Home Shopping Network.

 

Richard Leise is a writer and teacher working near Ithaca, New York. His work is featured in numerous publications, and he is at work raising his kids and editing his second novel.