Christmas Day, light snow falls on the rhododendron forest outside of Knoxville. Matthew has gone to the airport to pick up his father. In the kitchen, Lucy bakes cookies. Butter and cinnamon crowd the house.
Mark asks me, "You're coming back for New Year's, right?"
I sit on his bed, one hand on his ankle, and say, "I don't know."
He shifts his legs away from me, kneecaps shining through the skin like doorknobs. "Well," he says, "we don't always get what we want."
The next day, Matthew drives me to the airport. At home, I make a cup of tea, sleep a little, get the call.
"This is it," his sister Lucy says.
The airlines won't grant me a bereavement fare. "Ma'am, you're not really family," the reservation agent says.
"And besides," I think, "he's not dead yet."
On the bus from New York City, small children grumble, chant the childhood car-trip refrain. My right leg tingles with sleep. I imagine arriving too late. The grey-eyed house stands silent, locked tight. My back to the rhododendrons, I rest my face against a pane. My breath clouds the glass; there is nothing to see inside.
When I do step through the back door, Lucy is still in the kitchen. The radio is still on. Now, though, the house smells of bleach. She shakes her head. He hasn't eaten, has hardly opened his eyes since I left.
His bed, a rented hospital contraption, dominates the living room. I perch on the side, watch him breathe, his head tilted back, mouth open.
He stirs, mumbles. Lucy and Matthew return to the room.
"I have to get my hair done," he says, "and then I am going to meet Mom." The long dead mother, whom I'm said to resemble.
Lucy, her head still wagging, clicks her tongue.
Matthew pulls back. "I'm glad Dad didn't have to hear that," he says and steps out to join his father who is smoking on the porch.
"Shut up," Lucy calls after him.
Even I, fag hag, homo fellow traveler, psychic twin, am taken aback. Egged on by my own misgivings, I glare in Matthew's wake, then rummage in my bag, pull out a hairbrush. Working from the ends inward, I smooth, straighten, and untangle, then arrange Mark's bangs in an arc across the forehead. When I am done, he is fluffy, the newly hatched chick of a predatory bird.
A day or two later, he opens the hollow furnace of his eyes, looks at me, and sees his mother.
"Are we there yet?" he asks.
Katherine Gleason’s stories have appeared in Best American Erotica, Alimentum, Cream City Review, Ducts.org, La Petite Zine, Mississippi Review Online, Monkeybicycle, River Styx, Southeast Review, and Windy City Times. She won first prize in the 2007 River Styx Micro-Fiction Contest, was a finalist in the 2008 Southeast Review’s World’s Best Short Short Story Contest, and earned an honorable mention in Glimmer Train’s August 2008 Very Short Story Contest.