The kid knew about the diary. He’d found it months ago in his sister’s side of the closet, which he explored almost every day. It was on the top shelf, in between sweatshirts, a conspicuous little notebook with a padded yellow cover and an engraved silver padlock to safeguard its content. He’d thought about looking for the key just to take a peek, but even he knew that meant crossing a line. Besides, what could a precious girl like his sister have to hide?
That Sunday afternoon, however, an unusual thirst for vendetta clouded his judgement. He needed a juicy secret, something his siter kept from their mother. If such a thing existed, he would find it in those pages for sure. Even precious girls must play in the dirt.
He entered their room with that mindset. The afternoon light was gentle. Filtered by the shutters and softened by the embroidered cream curtain, the glow only amplified his desire to disturb the order of things. He was the one at fault, no doubt about it, but his sister shouldn’t have ratted him out to their mother like that. She knew her little brother was supposed to attend a birthday party. It’s not like he had many of those. Kids at school called him a loser (on a good day). Anyway. He’d already taken money out of his piggy bank for the crayon box. That was the rule at home. If the kids wanted to go to a birthday party, fine, but they had to pay for the gift. After his sister complained, their mother grounded him for a record three weeks. No television, no arcade on Sundays, and of course, no birthday party. The punishment seemed disproportionate to the offense. Hence, the vendetta.
He loved her in a boyish way, but love, nevertheless. She couldn’t stand him for some reason. It was as if his presence alone sucked the joy out of her. Her smile vanished. There were no more jokes to tell or songs to sing, only an obstinate frown. In retrospect, maybe it wasn’t his fault. Maybe she felt comfortable enough to be herself at home. Miserable. Unsatisfied. Still, taking her frustration out on her little brother did no one any good.
In her defense, there were plenty of reasons to be mad at him. The kid was no angel. There wasn’t a day he wouldn’t ignore the simple terms of their forced cohabitation. He wasn’t supposed to touch her things, especially the dolls from her childhood and her stationery, neatly organized in the top two drawers of her desk. Her stereo, in particular, was off-limits. It was her most valuable belonging, her treasure. The kid agreed to everything and complied with nothing. He spent hours going through her things when she was out with her friends. He tried on her clothes. He gave her dolls intricate hairdos and did their makeup using her pencils. Sometimes, he draped foulards around them to create gowns. She was unaware of these infractions for the most part. He knew how to hide his tracks.
Stealing things was risky but not impossible. He only took items like index cards and paper clips. He used his sister pencil sharpener, hole puncher, and stapler, which he once broke. The high-stake prize, however, remained the stereo. He’d been saving money to buy his own and took advantage of hers in the meantime. He did that any chance he got, which was almost every day.
The previous day, however, everything went wrong. As his sister babysat for the neighbors’ twins on Saturday morning, and their mother was in the basement doing a week’s worth of laundry, the kid listened to True Blue at moderate volume, lip-syncing in front of the mirror, his sister’s brush as his microphone. Something about that album—the cover and the percussions and the violins and the lyrics. The ecstasy was almost worth the drama that followed. Almost.
As part of a strategy perfected over time, he would note where the tape had been left and rewind it to the same spot at the end. That day the operation should have been easier than normal since he just needed to go back to the beginning of side one, “Papa Don’t Preach.” That never happened. During “La Isla Bonita,” the music swirled and stopped accompanied by a familiar, tragic noise: a jam inside the player. A thick drop of sweat ran down his low back as he looked at the stereo in horror. When he found the courage to press eject, the compartment opened, but the tape remained stuck inside. With his heartbeat in his ears, he removed the cassette, pulling the jammed tape as delicately as he could. That’s when he heard the front door slamming; his sister was already home. She caught him like that, wide-eyed on his knees, the tape of True Blue in between his fingers, the cassette sitting on the floor, gutted. Her fury descended upon him, ferocious and unforgiving. She didn’t hit him but berated him with insults. She called their mother with the painful cry of someone who’d been stabbed. He begged her not to tell. He even offered his savings to buy a brand-new cassette, but she ignored his plea. When their mother emerged from the basement alarmed and reeking of bleach, she found her daughter in tears and her son shaking.
The kid hummed a funereal version of “La Isla Bonita” now, slowing down the melody under his breath. He went through his sister’s drawers and shoeboxes, her jewelry box, her beauty case. The search turned up no key, another sign that—he knew it!—she must have secrets. Girls like his sister wouldn’t survive without secrets.
She was pretty, full of energy, involved, a solo vocalist for the church choir, and the neighborhood band’s lead singer. Girls loved her because she was loyal and connected. Boys loved her because she was the ringleader of a group of seven sixteen-year-old girls related to each other by blood: the cousins. When he didn’t want to be them, the kid loathed them. They walked around town in a straight line, holding hands, speaking in code. They looked alike, each with her own style, making them irresistible and confusing like assorted candy. Boys traveled from nearby towns just to admire them. So, if his sister had no secrets, the diary would at least contain gossip about his cousins, leverage the kid could use for his revenge.
After an unfruitful hour, he resorted to plan B: pick the padlock. He didn’t know how to, but if MacGyver could do it, so could he. He stole a pin and a paper clip from his sister’s stationery drawer and sat on the bed with the diary on his lap. He grabbed the padlocks and pulled it, and, to his surprise and delight, the thing clicked. His sister had forgotten to lock it, or the padlock was for show. Either way, he got what he wanted—access to the diary—but not what he expected.
The entries were infrequent and regular, in blue ink, neatly organized by date. He went through the first pages with caution as if the pages could trap him inside a hostile world. His breath hissed through his nostrils. The more intimate the content, the more oppressive his guilt. And yet he couldn’t stop reading. Curiosity turned into preoccupation, the thirst for vendetta into persecutory empathy. He couldn’t recognize his sister on those pages. He read some paragraphs twice and even three times just to make sure. He even thought that perhaps the diary belonged to someone else, but his sister’s harmonious handwriting was unmistakable.
The girl in the diary was loveless and insecure. She didn’t like her body, her clothes, the size of her hips, the texture of her hair. She used violent words to talk about herself. Ugly. Dumb. Fat. Those were the words. Like his sister, the girl in the diary prayed and sang in church, but instead of a forgiving father, her god was a sadist who took pleasure in torturing women. The girl in the diary went to the same parties and visited the same mall. She had the same group of friends, but sometimes they kept things from her and left her behind, a dead weight with a paralyzing sense of responsibility. There were boys’ names, familiar and unknown, friends never boyfriends, buzzing around her as a means to an end: get to the cousins. And there was a name that kept coming back, a special boy she liked. He confided in her but stopped calling when he found another girl, prettier, skinnier, friskier.
A detail struck. The girl in the diary was oblivious of her talents. The kid had to stop reading then. He put the diary where he’d found it and lay on the bed, his eyes heavy, his heart racing in his stomach. His sister indeed had secrets, and she, like him, was alone with them. He wished he could hug her; tell her she was everything he wanted to be. That he played with her dolls because they reminded him of her. That he used her pencils and pens because he wished he could draw write the way she did. That he listened to her music because he wanted to dance with her. That he was always going through her stuff because, when she wasn’t around, their house felt like a coffin.
In the end, the kid didn’t get what he wanted. Worse. He now had to live in fear that one day someone would find out about his sister’s vulnerability and take advantage of that. Overwhelmed by all those feelings, too many at the same time, he closed his eyes. He didn’t want to feel anything for a while.
It was dinner time when he woke up, his senses caught in the confusion of a dreamless afternoon nap. The melancholy of a wasted Sunday weighted heavily on the house. In the kitchen, their father sat at the table with a beer in one hand and his head resting on the other, waiting for their mother to serve pizza. His sister was on the phone with one of the cousins talking in whispers and half sentences. Their mother took the pie out of the oven, and the smell of protection filled the kitchen. They sat at the table.
Afraid his sister could read his transgression in his eyes, the kid kept them down. He noticed the charm bracelet on her wrist. Among its silver charms, a pair of little keys. The sister caught him staring at her wrist and snapped.
“Nothing,” he said.
“Don’t start, you two,” said their mother. “I had more than enough of you this weekend.”
“What happened?” asked their father.
“Nothing,” they all said at the same time, then put pizza in their mouths and chewed the Sunday away.
Renato is a queer American (and Italian) writer. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Ellipsis Zine, Fiction International, Not One of Us, Storyscape Literary Journal, and Adelaide Literary Magazine, among others. He has recently completed a novel. He lives in Brooklyn. He/his/him. More at renatobarucco.com.
© 2021, Renato Barucco