Malcolm had called round four times in as many weeks and I didn’t want to encourage him with direct eye contact or meaningful silences. So I avoided looking at him, and kept up a steady stream of light babble.
Mama stumbled into the room, holding my baby brother. She looked about wildly.
“Mama?” I jumped from my chair. It rocked a deep arc behind me.
“He can’t breathe!”
Malcolm said, “I’ll get the doctor, ma’am.” Without waiting for an answer, he ran out the door at a good clip.
The doctor gave us horrible tidings—my brother would perhaps not live. When he whispered “Spanish Influenza” to Mama, she about collapsed; we’d all read the newspaper accounts.
The doctor nailed a sign next to the mailbox that read “Under Quarantine.”
“Can’t Malcolm go home? He didn’t come in past the front room,” I protested.
“I’m afraid he must stay here, young lady,” the doctor said with a smile, like he was doing me a favor.
Weeks of fear and exhaustion followed. Mama and Papa were wracked with coughing and worry. Between them in the bed, baby brother.
I didn’t catch so much as a sniffle, and neither did Malcolm. The two of us shuttled up and down the stairs with cold compresses, chamber pots and broth; with medicine brought in brown bottles and deposited at the fence line.
I grew quieter each day and, as I did, Malcolm’s tongue loosened. He chatted about his trouble-making brothers and his horses. His voice was scratchy but kind.
My baby brother died—his expression just faded until dull, then blank and gray.
Malcolm dug a grave in the backyard. Doctor’s orders: don’t bring the body to the church. My mother wailed so the windows vibrated as Malcolm pressed his boot against the shovel to break through the sod.
Afterwards, Malcolm sat whittling at two pieces of maple for a cross, said, “How do you spell his middle name?”
The man hadn’t slept more than three hours at a stretch in over a week. He had boiled sheets and run up and down the stairs. Now he worried about getting my baby brother’s name right.
I looked into his eyes, straight and steady, and spelled it out.
About the author:
Sarah Overland is a native Minnesotan who has lived most of her adult life in Norway. A recovering management consultant, she now spends her time raising three children and writing novels. This is Sarah’s first published work.