Story by Maryse Meijer
Illustrations by Xander Marro
To celebrate Short Story Month, we’re publishing a new short story every week in May here and at mcdbooks.com. This week, we are delighted to publish an original story by Maryse Meijer (author of Heartbreaker) from her forthcoming collection, Rag. In “Rainbow Baby” Meijer gets dark. Real dark. It’s narrated by a young boy who is bullied by his dead older brother. He teases him relentlessly, makes him sneak Lucky Charms—all the things you’d imagine a living big brother doing. And then some. Like I said, it gets dark. It’s weird and brilliant and seems insane but in the hands of Meijer it all makes perfect sense. This is her great gift. Diving into the deepest, darkest parts of the human psyche and making our worst fears, our most painful losses, feel quotidian. She humanizes the inhuman. We’d like to tell you to “enjoy” this story, but that’s not really what Meijer is up to here. A warning seems more appropriate: this story will fuck you up.
It’s the first thing anyone sees walking into the house; my lopsided head, bent at a weird angle, hands and legs splayed like a starfish on a rainbow-colored quilt. In the picture I’m five days old, wearing a onesie that says “Sent from Heaven by My Big Brother Michael.”
You look like a total dumbass, Michael says whenever we look at that picture, which Mom had blown up and printed on a canvas so that it looks like a painting. Jesus fucking Christ.
It’s not my fault, I reply, and Michael makes me punch my own arm.
There aren’t any pictures of Michael in the hallway, but there are a few in the Dead Baby Album. Sometimes when Mom thinks I’m asleep she sits in the kitchen drinking hot chocolate and paging though the ultrasound images—Michael a white bean of varying sizes jumbled up against other white things—until she gets to the picture of Michael after he was born, so small and blue against her chest, his eyes sealed, dead.
Wah wah wah, Michael says. Just listen to that cunt snotting away in there. That kind of shit drove Dad crazy. That’s why he jumped ship.
That’s not why, I protest. He—
Shut it, Michael says. What the hell do you know.
Mom squeezes her eyes shut, tears catching in the lines beside her mouth as she presses the album to her belly. Everything happens for a reason, she always says, but when I see her doing this I’m pretty sure she doesn’t know what the reason is for anything.
Maybe I should go talk to her, I say.
No fucking way.
But she’s sad.
So? Turn on the video game or I’m going to lose my shit.
I go to my room and start the game. Nothing happens, Michael just dies over and over again because he’s not good enough at working the control and my hands slide all over the buttons. But he doesn’t care, he just likes the sound the game makes when his avatar gets crushed by a rock or falls off a cliff.
Do you think she’s still out there? I ask after a while. The house is silent and I imagine her falling asleep over the album, in the dark, all by herself.
Is she still out there crying.
Probably, he says, and dies.
I can see Michael; not out in the world, but in my mind, and sometimes in the mirror. He has a normal-sized face, but a tiny body, like the size of a kitten. He can’t make it do very much, and that’s partly what makes him so mad all the time. God fucking damn it! he screams, trying to get me to reach for the box of Lucky Charms on the high shelf in the pantry. It’s not snack time and I don’t want to get the cereal down because Mom likes a routine and she gets this look on her face if we break it, a kind of crazy zombie look, her fingers dragging at the skin beneath her eyes as she yells I just cannot do this today! Michael thinks it’s funny, but it scares me and I try not to do anything that will make it happen more than it already does.
Get the fucking cereal, he tells me.
Later, I say.
Just a handful, he insists, and I can feel his arm inside my arm, straining for the box. I watch my hand close around it, bring it down, open the top. The marshmallows, he says, and I sift through the cereal until I have a handful of charms. He brings them to my mouth and chews.
We shouldn’t, I say, mouth full.
Shut up, he says, you know you love it. I listen for Mom but I think she’s in her room. I put the box back, folding the bag carefully so it doesn’t crinkle. Michael sighs.
See? he says. That wasn’t so hard, was it, douchebrain?
It isn’t hard, in itself, just doing a bad thing one time, but he makes me do so many things, over and over. I get headaches, and at first Mom thinks I have a brain tumor and we go to a billion doctor’s appointments. But when I end up not having a tumor Mom says its migraines and she thinks it’s because I have allergies the doctors can’t figure out. I tell the doctor it’s because I get nervous. You’re ten, the doctor tells me. What do you have to be nervous about?
Michael laughs. I shrug. You’re fine, the doctor says, and then he opens the door to the waiting room, where Mom is, and says, He’s fine. But the headaches keep coming.
Every year we have a party for Michael. Mom wraps gifts and I open them. We sing and wear party hats and eat whatever foods she thinks are his favorites.
Carrot cake again, son of a bitch, he says. Michael hates carrot cake. I take a bite, but when Mom’s head is turned he spits it into a napkin before I can swallow.
Yummy, honey? she asks.
Great, I say, squeezing the napkin in my fist. We open the gifts; a t-shirt with trucks on it, a bag of candy, a big stuffed bear—things for a kid much younger than Michael would be now, things no one ever uses.
Oh that’s nice, Mom says. Isn’t that nice?
Yeah, I say, it’s nice.
It’s such a sweet bear. You can play with it. I’m sure Michael wouldn’t mind. Don’t you love that bear?
Michael just loves sharing with you, Mom sighs. He wants you to be happy. Happy, happy, happy. She puts the bear on my lap. Michael laughs so hard it makes me wince. I push the eyes of the bear in with my thumbs, feeling how empty its head is beneath its fuzzy face.
How do you know? I ask.
How do I know what, honey?
That he’d want to share anything with me?
She looks at me for a moment, then back at the bear.
Of course he would. He loves you.
Michael hates me, I say, not really meaning to. Mom gasps.
Honey what are you saying? Michael adores you, she whispers fiercely, leaning over the table as far as she can. He loves you so much. He’s why you’re here.
Tell that bitch I hate you AND her, Michael yells. Tell her she’s an ugly old cunt whose womb makes me want to puke!
I put my hands on ears and say Shut up and Mom claps her hand over her mouth and I say Not you, not you, but she isn’t listening, she’s just staring at me, and then she hits the table with her hand and shouts Go to your room!
Great, Michael says when I shut the door. Now that we’ve got that shit out of the way we can play Death Hunters 2.
I don’t feel like it, I say.
It’s my birthday. You have to do whatever I want.
You made her really sad, I say. I can feel him shrugging my shoulders.
She should be happy I hate you guys. That’s what brothers do, they hate each other. And everyone hates their mom. It’s normal.
I don’t hate you or Mom.
Yeah, you do, he snorts, and turns on the game.
I come out of my room around dinnertime but Mom isn’t in the kitchen. The cake and the candy and the bear are gone—she probably put them in the nursery, which still has his crib and the baby clothes she bought for him and everything. I open the fridge, pull out a yogurt, and eat it by the sink. I can hear Mom walking around in her room, on the phone with the psychic hotline. I wash my spoon and take another yogurt and leave it in front of Mom’s door. Michael doesn’t say anything. She thinks she’s the only one who gets tired of eating and washing her face and getting out of bed in the morning and that’s okay; I don’t know what she’d do if she knew it was hard for me, too.
Babies are the worst. We always have to look; I don’t know if Mom is checking to see if the babies are alive or what, but she literally can’t not go up to a stroller and poke her head in it. One time we’re in line to get Mom coffee at the café near our house and there’s a woman holding a baby against her chest. It looks really small, smaller than normal, and it’s wrapped in a blanket like mine in the picture, a big rainbow. Mom’s face goes all red and she starts blinking really fast and I pull on her arm to distract her but it’s too late.
Excuse me, Mom says, tapping the woman’s shoulder. Excuse me?
The woman turns, her hand cradling the baby’s head. Yes?
I had one—Mom starts to say, her voice very high, and I wait for it, for her to say Michael’s name, to tell her about how Michael went to heaven and sent me instead, a rainbow baby, a miracle, blah blah blah, but the woman shifts the baby in her arms, dislodging its face from her chest, and we can see that there’s something wrong with it—part of its nose missing, one eye closed and smooshed in—and Mom’s mouth moves but no sound comes out. She steps backward, right into me. The woman folds the blanket around her baby, covering it up, and I don’t look at her face because I don’t want to see how upset she is; I feel like I never want to look at anything ever again. We leave without getting any coffee and as soon as we get home Mom goes to her room and shuts the door. I make a sandwich and turn on the TV and Michael doesn’t tell me to surf for sex scenes. He just lets me do what I want. Mom doesn’t come out of her room and I imagine I’m alone, all alone, expecting it to feel weird and scary, but it ends up feeling kind of normal.
Finally I turn the TV off and get ready for bed. In the bathroom mirror I see Michael; he looks tired, his eyes redder than usual.
What the fuck are you looking at, he says.
Nothing, I say. I just can’t stop thinking about that baby.
Michael snorts. Yeah. What a freak.
At least you weren’t like that, I say as I get into bed, pulling the covers over my head. At least nothing was really wrong with you. You looked good, you know? Like, normal.
I was dead, douchebag.
Yeah, but—you weren’t messed up.
Michael’s quiet for a while; when he speaks his voice is softer than usual. And how about now, huh? What do I look like now?
I see him, his weird body shrunken beneath that big head.
Good, I repeat. You look good.
The next morning I wake up with a headache. It’s so bad I throw up twice, not even making it to the toilet. Mom comes in and starts pulling on her hands and moving her mouth like she’s talking to herself and I tell her it’s okay, she should just go to work, because she doesn’t have any more sick days and her boss will be mad, and she says Are you sure? Are you sure you’ll be okay? And I make myself smile and tell her Sure, I just need some juice and to sleep a little. When she’s finally gone I go to the bathroom and lie on the rug near the toilet, my cheek on the tile, trying not to move at all.
You want to make it stop? Michael asks.
Yes, I whimper. Yes, please, help me.
I will. But you have to do what I say.
Is it bad?
No, it’s not something bad, you baby.
I swear. Now stand up.
I don’t trust him, not really, but I do what he says because at this moment nothing could be worse than what is already happening. The pain in my head fades a little as I reach for the sink and pull myself up.
Good, Michael says. That’s good. You’re doing great. Feeling better already, right?
I nod. He smiles. Okay. Now, you see Mom’s bag? With all her makeup crap in it?
Yeah, I say, reaching for it.
Get the scissors out, he says.
Just get them.
I hesitate. A couple of years ago, in the middle of the night when I was still half asleep, he cut my bangs down to the scalp before I could stop him.
Just get them, Michael snaps.
I fumble through Mom’s makeup until I find the scissors. I pull them out.
Now, Michael says, taking a big breath. I can see his eyes, blue, like mine are in the rainbow photo, exactly the same except bigger and more grown-up in how they look at me, almost like an old man.
We’re brothers, right? he says.
Yeah, I reply. There’s one big throb of pain behind my eye and my knees wobble and I almost drop the scissors.
See that? That’s me doing that. And you know I can do it whenever I want.
I don’t want to do it. I actually really don’t like hurting you. So. Help me out here.
I just look at him. He sighs and my hand jerks. The tip of the scissors nick my arm.
Calm down. I barely touched you.
I try to open my hand but I can’t; my fingers seem stuck to the scissors. Do it, doucheface, he orders.
My hand shakes. I don’t want to, I say.
Yes you do. You want to help me, too, right? If you let me out, our problems are solved. But this is how it has to happen.
I’m scared of blood! I yelp, and now my chest feels like it’s shaking, too; all of me is shaking and I can’t let the scissors go no matter how hard I try.
Do you have any idea how much fucking blood that bitch lost when she crapped me out? My blood, mine, he hissed. This will be nothing compared to that. Nothing is going to happen to you. There just needs to be enough to get me out there.
I imagine myself on the white bathmat, bleeding, dead, and Michael in the corner, flexing his new limbs, slick as a seal, smiling a mucousy big baby smile. Mom would come in and he’d look at her, suddenly innocent, and step over my body so she couldn’t see me anymore. He’d take her in his arms, let her cry on his shoulder. Shhh, shh, he’d croon, It’s me.
Let me help you, he says.
I don’t want your help!
The tip of the scissors darts toward my wrist and makes a little dent in the skin, stinging. I hear the front door open and the pain in my head fractures, doubles, builds. A tiny line of blood appears when the knife moves sideways and then there is a lot more blood and a much deeper line and everything goes a black. The scissors stop.
More! he screams. Hurry! You’re fucking it up!
I can’t, I tell him, and it’s true, I really can’t, and the scissors finally drop into the sink, cackling against the drain.
Honey? Mom calls. Are you in there?
Yeah, I say, gulping air. Yeah Mom, just a minute, and I grab a towel and put it to my wrist. I can feel my heart beating in my arm like it’s going to come out, but it can’t, and if my heart can’t come out then there’s no way Michael can, either. We look in the mirror. Michael is sobbing, his shriveled limbs curled around his giant head, red and wrinkled and useless as he shouts, You fucking butt blaster!
I’m sorry, I tell him. You’re dead. I’m sorry.
Shut up! You shut up!
Please, I beg, just leave us alone.
Snot is all over his chin and I’m pressing the towel so hard against my wrist it goes numb.
Honey, open the door, Mom says, Lunch is ready.
Don’t, Michael hisses, don’t you dare! You finish it!
I can’t. I don’t want to. I squeeze my eyes shut and I imagine something covering his face, his body, a kind of black patch blotting him out. He was less than a pound when he came out of Mom, smaller than a person’s hand. I imagine scooping him up and putting him somewhere, outside, away from me, and closing the door. It should be easy. To get rid of something so little and helpless, something that hardly even exists. But it isn’t.
He goes on yelling. Shhh, I keep saying, she’ll hear you, but Michael isn’t listening and the door is opening behind me. I look in the mirror, to see what Michael thinks we should do, but it’s only my own head there, pale and afraid. Honey, Mom says, her voice rising in a panic, What is this—
Nothing, I say, hunched over my arm, I’m just—
But she’s got her hands on me, yanking at the towel until it falls, revealing my arm, how red and open it is, and for a moment we both stare at the wound as it pulses, strong, alive.
What did you do, she whispers, Oh my baby what did you do and Michael shouts in my voice, so loud he drowns everything else out, *You stupid bitch, don’t you get it? I wanted to live. I just wanted to live. *