something small

By Sarah Cullen

The crowd of people looked like a huddle of penguins greeting their mates after a long day of fishing. Wails of connection raised amongst them: fathers hugged mothers; mothers hugged children; children hugged each other. I walked through the huddle, head down, watching my feet meander through the labyrinth of legs with polished shoes and pointed heels. I was careful in the path I made; I did not want to be stopped. Yet, I was found soon enough.

“Beanie, there you are. Come here.”

I was soon wrapped, no, suffocated in a hug that seemed to never end. The strong arms of Mrs. Stiller wound around me tight, holding me there. Her cat-clawed nails etched circles into my back as she held me to her bosom.

       “We are wondering when you would get here. Is Livie with you?”

       “No, I haven’t seen her.”

Mrs. Stiller furrowed her brow and began to gnaw at her nails. They were bright red today; it looked like she had just hunted prey and now was licking the blood from her claws. Realistically, I wouldn’t put it past her. If we were in the wild Mrs. Stiller would be a lioness, queen of her own jungle. I thought about her prowling below, lying in wait for some unfortunate catch that she would gladly sink her teeth into. If we were in the wild, Mrs. Stiller would probably hunt something like me: timid, small, and far too trusting.

       “I just don’t know where she could be. And today, of all days, I need her to be here. Where is she?” Her eyes were scanning the room feverishly, hoping to land on where Olive could be. The harder she looked, the deeper her claws dug into my shoulder that she took a hold of to balance herself in her hunt.

       I shuddered away. “I will look for Olive and I will send her to you when I find her.”

She gave me a weak smile, “The toasts are starting in 20 minutes, Beanie. Find her,” and walked away. Relieved, I turned to the spread of food.

There was everything that I could possibly want. The desserts were on their own little island of sugar and heavy whipping cream. Boxes of crackers lovingly displayed on dollar store plastic trays; ham and cheese cubes with colorful toothpicks stood in rank next to an array of veggies that was mostly just broccoli. Mountains of casseroles flooded the counter top: green bean, sweet potato, yellow squash. My mom’s lasagna (vegetarian, of course, for Olive), sat in the middle of it all. All the colors seemed to have a grayish-tint to them; like the food was sad to be eaten. And no one was eating it; how could they? 

I filled up a tiny napkin with provisions, rationing the desserts that were quickly disappearing from the table. The mass of people seemed to grow bigger by the minute and began to swell around the food. I quickly slipped past the shoulders and pushing elbows that fled to the comfort of food, and stepped into the office in the back of the house.

The shades were drawn tightly, preventing almost every bit of light from warming the room. A huge leather couch sat, crammed into the corner, blocking the bottom shelf of books from the reach of curious hands and prying eyes. As a child, I often curled myself into the space between the couch arm and the bookshelf when Olive and I would play hide-and-seek. Sometimes, I would spend hours there just breathing in the smell of worn leather, probably well-loved and overused—a relic of Mr. Stiller’s college days; his first adult purchase. Sitting on the folds of the cushions now, it seems impossible that I ever fit in such a small crawl space. My frame was so small, but I felt big then.

I’ve always been small, my limbs never surpassing the height of five feet, but as a child that never bothered me from maneuvering around the world at the same, if not faster, pace as everyone around me. My mom used to call me her “Little Bean” because I would just spring up all around her, and it stuck. Now, no one ever calls me Elizabeth, just Beanie.

I sank into the leather as I ate my snacks with eyes scanning over the perimeter of the room, taking in things that I had never been able to see from my hideaway. A large, heavy dark-wood desk stood in between twin windows. The sides were intricately detailed: small flowers congregated in the corners with vines that were carved with such precision they looked real. To the side, a globe stood on a stand untouched and collecting dust. Abandoning my napkin, I stood up and inspected the globe. Mr. Stiller had made little nicks on the countries he had visited: a few in Europe and most of South Africa were marked; England, where he and Mrs. Stiller said “I do,” had a little heart drawn next to it in Sharpie. I moved to spin the globe in its axis, but it would not budge. Pushing up against it, the world split in half revealing a small collection of the nicest whiskey, bourbon, and vodka I had ever seen.

“You never let me down, Mr. Stiller.”

I took the bourbon and found some glasses in the bottom desk drawer. Tucking the bottle securely under my arm, I set out for Olive. Tiptoeing up the staircase I came to her room.

“Olive,” I said. “Are you in here, because your mom is pissed that you’re not downstairs.”

        No answer.

“I’ve got something for you, Livie, where are you?”

        Still no answer.

I set the bourbon down on her desk and poured a glass. “Fine then,” I said to the stuffed animal collection on her shelf, “I guess I’ll be drinking alone.” Cheers.

Taking long, thoughtful sips of my drink I realized I hadn’t been in here for a while. Not since the basement was finished. Her walls were a museum of our lives; her shelves an archive of our childhood. Taking in Olive’s room, I observed each piece: soccer and volleyball trophies that everyone on the team received for ‘sportsmanship’ stood, frozen in athleticism, on her dresser; pictures from kindergarten until our first day of senior year were arranged in a collage above her bed; a fish bowl filled with fake flowers from A.C. Moore sat on her nightstand. I picked up the orb of glass.

Lola, I thought.

Pennville had not had a summer that hot since 1936, and that was 70 years ago. The town did not know what to do. Businesses closed, pools extended their hours, moms grocery shopping lingered a little longer in the frozen section. The July sun beat down hard on the pavement making it impossible to walk barefoot without burning your feet.

My sisters spent all morning squeezing lemon after lemon into my grandma’s old pitcher, mixing too much sugar in to cover the tartness. Jamie, only five then, sprawled her crayons on the kitchen floor, her masterpiece waiting at her fingertips. As Lucie collected cups and a shoebox for money, Jamie scrawled out the words “Leminad 5 sents” on bright yellow construction paper, barely legible, with a small drawing of a deformed lemon in the corner. They were going to sell warm “leminad” to the golfers on the course this afternoon. I pitied the golfers; they would regret the nickel as soon as they took a sip.

I laid on my bedroom floor with the windows open, listening. The birds woke me up that morning along with the sun. In summer, I never drew my blinds. The warmth of the day would creep through my window until I felt its gentle nudge. But this morning it was the birds. The nightingale had been going all night, singing a song I could have sworn sounded like “Ode to Joy.” The lark took its shift as the sun began to rise and a choir of chirps and twitters continued to form as the morning progressed. A fan blew on my face, slowly ventilating the refreshing air every few seconds.

I remember thinking I could have laid there forever. The sounds of summer swelling around me; the sweat of relaxation dripping down my temple; the distant murmurs of Lucie and Jamie making a mess. I closed my eyes for a long time, letting myself feel the moment. My carpet was beginning to itch my skin, but I ignored it. A small knock began in the distance, but I ignored it.

Then it began again, only louder. Then, once more, but it was no longer a knock so much as a rapping, powerful and urgent. Rising, I went to my window and peered below. Olive.

“Olive, what are you doing?”

She looked up at me and smiled. “I knew you were home,” and without so much as a warning, the girl began to climb the drain pipe.

“Olive, what are you doing?!”

With grace and precision, I watched Olive maneuver up the side of my house. Using the brick and growing vines to steady her footing, she scaled herself up to a small patch of roofing and skipped over to my window sill. Olive was always nimble, good on her feet and her hands. That’s why all throughout high school every coach wanted to recruit her. It didn’t matter what sport, she could do it all.

“Took you long enough to hear me,” she said, sliding over the window sill and onto the floor. She walked to my mirror and began to brush her hair, which had gotten so blonde in the July heat from our hours outside.

“I was asleep, I think.”

“You think, or you know?” She shot me a little smirk in the mirror.  “You can’t think you’re asleep and not be asleep. If you’re asleep, you’re asleep. Simple physics.” Olive had a great habit of speaking with confidence on all matters, even if what she was saying made no sense at all.

        I caught her gaze again in the mirror. She had the biggest eyes I had ever seen; always had. They looked like two green planets tethered to her face by her eyelids, like they were the only thing keeping them in place. When Olive was born, her eyes took up her whole head. Mr. Stiller used to tell us this story: apparently, he was so hungry from waiting in the hospital for the 36-hour labor that Mrs. Stiller had to go through, that when Olive came into the world her bright green eyes looked exactly like two Sicilian olives to him. Those watchful, innocent eyes followed him everywhere, but he could not shake hunger-induced the image from his mind, and it stuck. Olive with the olive eyes. Even still, when she gets upset her eyes bulge so far out of their sockets that Mrs. Stiller will say, “Let me get my martini glass in case one of those things falls out. No use in wasting a perfectly good olive.” I watched her Sicilian eyes focus on a knot in her hair.

“I was asleep,” I said, rubbing the weariness from my eyes, “and you ruined my nap!”

Olive shrugged, the brush still untangling her sun-dyed hair. Single strands sticking to her black shirt. Wait, I thought, looking at her more closely. Olive was dressed in all black. A thick, wool turtleneck hung around her body and fell just to her knees, like it was trying to weigh her down. The black slacks we had to buy for our 5th grade choir concert looked like capris on her; she had grown so tall in the year that her legs now took up most of her body. Her patent leather church shoes hugged her feet without socks. I blinked at her.

       “What are you wearing?” I asked, getting hot just looking at her, “It’s July.”

       “Oh this?” She tugged at the sweater, “I’m happy you asked.”

She pulled a wrinkled piece of construction paper out of her back pocket and shoved it in my hand. I stared at the sheet. A small picture of a purple fish with x’s for eyes stared back at me, with a message written below it:

Lola Stiller—A Betta Fish, but an Alpha friend.

May 2005 - July 2005

“I don’t know what ‘alpha’ means,” she said, “but my mom said to write it.”

“Lola died?”

“Yes, Beanie,” she said, in mock exasperation. “Around 8:30 this morning she was found dead on the stove top. At some point in the night, she jumped out of her bowl in order to, I’m assuming, make a grand statement about the impermanence of life. That’s the only reasonable explanation because she had everything a fish would want: water, a tiny castle, food––and me as their owner.”

Olive looked at me, realizing her tone, “At least that’s what my sister said. And I am here to formally invite you to the funeral.” She got up and grabbed the paper back from me. “Sorry, this is the only invitation I made.”

I sat, baffled, with the afternoon sun shining directly in my eye. It seemed just last week we had gone into the PetSmart in the strip, sandwiched between Marshalls and Party City. Olive worked all school year to get an A-average on her last report card. She was the type of person who only worked hard if she knew there was a pay-off. Mrs. Stiller bribed her with a fish and I swear, I had never seen Olive read so much in my entire life. The girl pored over her workbooks and take-home readings like her life depended on it, and she got an A. When Olive wants something, she wants it bad and she wanted this fish. She had only two requirements: big and purple. Lola was both of those things. There wasn’t a fish bowl “special enough” at PetSmart so, we went over to Marshall’s and sifted through flower vases, fruit bowls, and water glasses until we found the perfect space for her. Olive carried her all the way home, careful not to let the water bag slosh too much on the drive. Once she was done arranging the pebbles, castle, and plastic shrubs in the bowl, Olive sat and watched Lola swim around that bowl for hours. Olive doesn’t love many things, but she loved that fish.

She always had a flair for theatrics, but behind the beads of sweat that were forming on her forehead from her outfit, I could see how hurt Olive was. I couldn’t get the image of Lola’s violet body arching out of the bowl, free-falling through the air, directly into the stove top burner out of my head. Her fins fatally curving into the cold ceramic surface until she was nothing but a pale lilac speck in a black sea.

She moved her face in front of my fan, “You have to come. Lola needs her family there.”

“Of course I’ll come, Livie.”

Olive stood up, fanning her sweater out over the fan’s breeze for a few minutes and then, turning to the closet, began to dig through my winter bin. “The dress code is black. You also have to cover your shoulders,” she said with her back to me, “we want this to be a nice event.” She emerged with my black turtleneck shirt that was a hand-me-down from our babysitter. I cringed at the sight of it.

“It’s July, Livie.”

Her green eyes held me in their gaze; a warning. I took the shirt from her extended hand and slipped it on over my shirt. A small smirk swept across her face. “And the velvet shoes,” she said.  I slipped them on without thinking, my toes pinching with discomfort, and we set out.

Mr. Stiller had dug a small hole in the backyard of their house, in between the rose bush and the holly tree. He was wearing all black. A pool of sweat made his shirt cling to his back. Lucie and Jamie had returned from their lemonade stand three dollars richer. Mrs. Stiller had a black scarf draped around her head, her sunglasses and red lipstick making her look like a widow. Olive placed herself quietly next to her dad, who held her shoulders as if for support in the sweltering heat, and stared at the ground. There we all stood, circled around a tiny grave, dressed for winter in July, before a small rock with Lola’s name written in Sharpie and a coffin made of coffee filters.

Olive didn’t shed one tear.

“There’s no point in crying over something so small,” she told me.

The sound of Mrs. Stiller’s heels clacking against the hardwood was deafening. I could hear her pacing the hallway upstairs, perhaps fixing her hair for the hundredth time this afternoon. The sound reminded me of the grandfather clock that faithfully stood in my grandma’s house for years. Rhythmic tolls on the hour. Ding, dong, ding, dong. Click, clack, click, clack. A sort of worried lullaby. She was anxious, I could tell, to start the toasts. Olive was still missing. 10 minutes. I tossed the bourbon back, letting it burn the back of my throat and warm my chest, and waited for Mrs. Stiller to click away.

She echoed down the hallway. Slowly, I slipped out from Olive’s room, bourbon tucked under arm, and wandered silently through the entry. The sun was lowering in the sky, reflecting grid-like shadows on the walls of the corridor. I peeked into every room, each one the same: shades drawn, beds untouched, crumpled tissues sprinkled across the floors.

The door of Mrs. Stiller’s room stood ajar, the only indication of use. I pushed against the heavy door only to meet the same gloomy disposition. The bed was unmade and seemed to be the only thing touched in the whole space. Abandoned projects laid scattered across the floor, piles of laundry sat in front of the dresser, unsorted. Three empty bottles of wine occupied the bedside table, keeping her wedding photo company. I looked at their faces: smiling, young. Mr. Stiller wore a top hat, “That’s the British way,” he told me once. Now a fading memory.  A small thud rose from the closet. Setting the bourbon and glasses down, I crept to the closet door.

“Mrs. Stiller?”

I pushed it open and there, amongst piles of button up shirts, argyle ties, and quarter-zip sweaters sat Olive, blankly staring and looking intoxicated. She had made a nest for herself with his clothes; wrapping her body in old college t-shirts that were well-worn and hiding her feet in wing-tipped boots twice her size. The hat he wore on our ski trip back in 2003 engulfed her head. All around her were socks, the basket apparently fell from the shelf.   

“Olive, what are you doing? I’ve been looking for you, Livie.” I nestled into her mountain of clothes, brushing the hair from her face to make sure she was functioning. Her eyes were glassy, but not from alcohol; the puffiness gave her away. She wiggled from my hands.

“This is the only stuff that still smells like him,” she said, diving her head into the pile of clothes and using his favorite blazer as a pillow. “It smells like him…”

“I know it does.”

“It’s like getting a hug, but not really.”

“Olive—”

“How long do you think it’ll last? The smell? Another week, maybe. A month? I’m afraid my mom’s going to sell all of this.” Her hand stroked the puff ball on her dad’s ski hat.

“She won’t.”

“She might.”

“Olive, she won’t.”

“Do you think she’ll get remarried?”

I didn’t know what to say.

“Never mind,” she said. “I don’t want to think about that.”

I could hear the scraping of chairs and moving of furniture downstairs; Mrs. Stiller was getting ready for the toasting. Hurry.

“She needs you, Olive.”

“No she doesn’t. She’s not upset.  Beanie, she hasn’t even cried yet. Did you know that? Not one single tear. How can someone do that?”

“Each person grieves differently.” Olive scoffed at me. “But that doesn’t mean they’re hurting any less,” I continued. “Stay with her, Olive. She needs you.”

So, there we stood in the huddle, circled around his ashes, Livie dressed in his clothes, Mrs. Stiller clutching her, both with tears that couldn’t seem to stop.

This was not something small.



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