He was ugly and Sarah couldn’t understand why she kept looking at him.
They were at the breakfast table. Sarah had slept at Elizabeth’s house and now she was staring at Elizabeth’s ugly older brother Carl.
He was heavy. Not fat exactly, but big and spongy. His skin was pale and his hair straight and dark brown, almost black. Constellations of tiny red bumps covered his cheeks and there was a film of sweat at his hairline. Sarah noticed he was wearing the same Star Wars t-shirt and stained jeans he’d had on yesterday.
Carl ignored the girls. He’d brought a book to the table. Sarah couldn’t see the title, but it was a paperback with yellowing pages and tiny print. Carl squinted at it over his bowl of Cheerios.
“More cereal, girls? A drink?” Elizabeth’s mother asked, gesturing with a pitcher of orange juice.
Elizabeth kicked Sarah under the table which meant the same thing as rolling her eyes. Both girls smiled, shook their heads, almost laughed. Sarah took a bite of cereal to regain her composure.
Carl looked up and caught Sarah’s eye. He held her gaze a moment then twisted his mouth slightly and went back to his book. Sarah looked into her cereal bowl; a puddle of milk at the bottom with a single O floating in it. Had Carl sneered at her? Was that his attempt at a smile? His gesture had been fleeting and she couldn’t tell what he’d meant by it. Why should she care anyway?
Elizabeth whispered in her ear, asking her what she wanted to do now. They had two hours before Sarah’s mother would pick her up.
“Let’s go do something in your room,” Sarah said. “I want to get dressed.”
Elizabeth’s bedroom was the exact bedroom Sarah would choose if she was given the choice of all the rooms in the world. It was small, almost square, with cream-colored walls and white trim.
The wall behind Elizabeth’s bed was painted with a mural of a forest. The trees at the edges of this forest were big and they got smaller toward the center of the picture to give the impression that the trees were numerous, the forest deep enough to get lost in. The greens and blues were infused with a sense of sunlight and warmth. Like Narnia, Sarah thought, and she longed to climb into the painting and have an adventure.
Opposite the mural, on the other wall, Elizabeth had a desk and a bookcase. She had all the Nancy Drew books, The Lord of the Rings series, and lots of books about horses.
Sarah pulled a clean pair of jeans and a yellow long-sleeved t-shirt from her backpack.
“Let’s work on a new story,” Elizabeth said. She sat at her desk, flipping through a spiral notebook.
“Okay,” Sarah said. “That sounds good.”
She turned her back, slipped on fresh underwear, her clean jeans and shirt. She balled up her pajamas and stuffed them into her bag. Then she sat on the floor and looked up at Elizabeth who was still turning pages.
Elizabeth picked up a ballpoint pen and put the cap-end between her teeth. She gazed up at the ceiling and assumed a pose of deep thought. Sarah repressed the urge to roll her eyes; Elizabeth was so dramatic about everything.
Sarah reached for the notebook.
“Let me start,” she said. “You always make the story about horses.”
“Okay,” Elizabeth said, shrugging. “Go ahead.” She handed Sarah the pen and sat back in her chair, looking at Sarah, challenging her silently.
Sarah felt Elizabeth’s eyes on her. Sarah knew Elizabeth thought she was the inferior writer; the inferior everything in fact. She needed to write something good; something that would make them both want to keep working on the story.
The Forest, Sarah wrote at the top of the blank page. She smiled. This was a story she’d wanted them to write for a long time; the story of a girl who stepped through Elizabeth’s wall mural into the forest.
The pen made a scratching noise as Sarah wrote. She began a second paragraph.
“Almost done?” Elizabeth asked, sounding bored. Sarah nodded without looking up.
“I’m going to take a shower,” Elizabeth said. “I’ll be back in a couple of minutes.”
Sarah nodded again. She’d have to stop soon. She couldn’t write more than three paragraphs; that was their rule. Three paragraphs, then the other person got a turn, then they’d switch back. They’d been writing stories like that all year.
Elizabeth gathered up some clothes and a towel and shut the door behind her. Sarah finished the last few sentences and set the notebook down, her three paragraphs finished. Now she’d have to wait for Elizabeth to get out of the shower.
She went to the door and opened it part-way. She heard music. It sounded like the radio, mistuned so there was static mixed in with the notes of the song. A murmur of voices came from the kitchen. She heard Elizabeth turn the shower on.
Directly opposite Elizabeth’s bedroom door was a floor to ceiling bookcase. Sarah went out to the hall and examined the shelves. The shelves were crammed with books, two rows deep. Regency romances with swooning, ball-gowned ladies on the covers, science fiction books, Shakespeare plays and other kinds of poetry, an old set of World Book Encyclopedias.
Sarah couldn’t see the titles at the very top but she sat cross-legged on the floor to look at the books on the bottom rows of shelves. More romances, a few detective novels and, horribly, a tall paperback with the title The Joy of Sex. Sarah felt her face flame and she stood up quickly. As she turned toward the sanctuary of Elizabeth’s room, she heard another door open to her right. It was immediately slammed shut.
Sarah paused. That was Carl’s room. He must have opened the door and then, seeing her in the hallway, slammed it shut again.
Irritation swept Sarah’s embarrassment aside. What was with Carl anyway? Why should he slam his door and change his mind about coming out of his room just because she happened to be standing here?
Urged on by adrenaline, Sarah walked up to Carl’s bedroom door and knocked loudly.
She knocked again, louder.
Carl opened the door. His bulk filled the threshold and Sarah took a step backwards. His looming physical presence was strange and gave her a queasy feeling.
He started to close the door again but Sarah put her hand on the door as if holding it open, though she knew she couldn’t really keep him from slamming it shut if he wanted to. From the bathroom at the other end of the short hallway, she could still hear the shower running.
“What?” Carl said. It sounded like a bark.
Now that she was face-to-face with Carl, Sarah didn’t know what to say. She didn’t really want anything. She just hadn’t liked that he hadn’t wanted to be in the hallway because she was there, but she couldn’t tell him that.
“What do you want?” he said again, his voice impatient.
“Um…,” Sarah said, her mind searching itself for something to say.
At that, Carl seemed to give up. He went to sit at his desk, adjusting his desk lamp over some kind of project. Sarah looked into his room, realizing she’d never seen it before. Her eyes were immediately drawn to the wall on the opposite side of the doorway.
“You have a mural too,” she said.
Carl sighed. “Will you go away if I let you look at it?” he said.
Sarah nodded, her eyes on the mural. It was also a forest but where the forest in Elizabeth’s room was full of light and sun; this mural was a wood lit by moonlight, full of dark shapes and shadows. There were vines trailing from branches, dark trees of chromium red and purple. Deep greens and midnight blue; the milky moonlight falling through the canopy to the forest floor.
“There’s a bird,” Sarah said, as if to herself. On the branch of one of the trees near the center of the mural sat a painted black bird, a tiny white dot shining in his eye. A crow, Sarah thought, or a blackbird. She remembered a Beatles song her mom sometimes sang:
Blackbird singing in the dead of night
Take these sunken eyes and learn to see
She wondered if Carl knew that song. Sarah knew he was waiting for her to leave. As she turned to go, she noticed that the wall opposite his bed was covered in framed art.
“What are those?” she asked.
“Just my Lego art,” Carl said, looking at the carpet.
Sarah saw that the pictures were made of different colored Legos arranged to recreate famous paintings. There was one of that girl with the big pearl earring. Another was a seascape with choppy, white-topped waves. There was a pirate that Sarah recognized as a famous illustration from Treasure Island. Her father had read that book to her so many times, she’d know that picture anywhere. There was a sort of abstract one with red and blue squares connected by straight yellow lines; and one that looked like a portrait from the front and the side at the same time.
“Where did you get those?” Sarah said.
Carl looked up.
“I made them,” he said.
“No way,” Sarah said. “How?”
Carl gestured toward his desk with his head. Sarah walked over and saw it was covered with a Lego painting that wasn’t quite finished. Sarah recognized it at once, the Mona Lisa.
Carl had mostly finished Mona Lisa’s face and hands and was working on the background. There were tiny Lego pieces scattered around. A 12-drawer cabinet next to the desk had several open drawers. They were full of Lego pieces, sorted by shape and color.
Sarah stared at the image and at the Legos. If someone had told her they made art out of Lego pieces she would have thought that sounded silly. But standing here, in Carl’s room, she was moved by how detailed the work was, how intricate. The Lego paintings were complicated and beautiful.
“That’s amazing,” Sarah said.
“My mother frames them,” Carl said. “I’ve told her a thousand times that the whole point of Legos is that you take them apart and make something else, but she won’t listen.”
“I don’t blame her,” Sarah said. “They’re incredible.”
Carl shrugged but he was looking at her now.
“You can put a piece in if you want to,” Carl said.
“Really?” Sarah said. “I do want to.”
“Here,” Carl said. He picked up a light grey piece, flat with two nubs on top. He put it into her cupped hand, and she felt his fingers linger in her palm a moment longer than they needed to. A tremor of something run up Sarah’s arm.
“Put it here.” He pointed to the space where the Lego fit and Sarah carefully pressed the piece into place.
They stared together at the Lego painting. Sarah let her fingers rifle the tiny pieces in one of the open file drawers. Then she heard Elizabeth’s door open and shut. Elizabeth was out of the shower and would be reading what Sarah had written; picking up the pen to add her own paragraphs. Sarah knew they’d somehow manage to be about horses.
Sarah felt Carl’s eyes on her.
“Thanks,” she said, meeting his gaze. She felt strange, looking into his eyes; like she was revealing too much of herself.
Carl turned back to his desk, running his fingers over the Lego Mona Lisa.
“No problem,” he said.
Sarah left Carl’s room, feeling his eyes follow her. When her next turn came with the writing notebook she knew she’d keep writing about the woods, but now her woods would be the moonlight woods from Carl’s room. The half-illuminated mysterious woods she might never have seen if she hadn’t knocked on his door. She put her hand in her pocket and felt the tiny piece of Lego she’d taken from Carl’s drawer and went to find Elizabeth.