Instead of living in his parent’s basement, my cousin Rob lived in their attic, like a bat, and he reminded me of a common household pest in every way. My room was directly below the attic with my bed positioned right under his. His bed was loud and squeaky, and my sister Jamie was always in it. I couldn’t sleep for the turning of my stomach with every whisper, creak, and muffled laugh that came from overhead, every night.
Every noise that hammered away at my head forced me to think about simpler times, like when Jamie and I first got here a year ago, last spring. It was a bitter cold day in March, and we were almost 2,000 miles from Connecticut, thrown suddenly into the dreary folds of Nowhere, North Dakota.
My uncle had picked us up at the airport, looked at us like he was sorry, given us both a hug, and then helped us carry our suitcases to the car. He wasn’t sorry about North Dakota—and he should have been—but about how our parents were dead, which is what had brought us here in the first place.
It had been over a decade since we had last seen Rob, and now we were all grown up and he was a man. He could not hide his selfish excitement as he came ambling out of their old farmhouse to greet us, and when his big eyes fell on Jamie like the flaming orange sunset, I just knew all of this was going to happen.
At first, Jamie didn’t really talk to anyone. She did a lot of thinking, sitting and staring. There were a lot of mysteries still surrounding the deaths of our parents—such as where the rest of their body parts were—which I think haunted her. It also made for some intensely awkward moments with Uncle Mike, who hadn’t talked to Dad in years and didn’t quite know what to say to us now either.
Soon enough, though, Rob had Jamie coming out of her shell. He took her swimming, took her walking in the woods, got her up early for hikes and breakfast. She was smiling again and even started laughing. Everyone just seemed to forget all about the terrible things that had happened. I, Matt—the wallpaper, a fixture—was the one left to take up the memories while they were busy having all the fun.
Every time Rob and Jamie sped away in his new Dodge, driveway dust clouded up in my face and filled my head with their filth. It wasn’t bad enough that they carried on like this under the noses of Uncle Mike and Aunt Misty—who had so humbly opened up their home to us—but then, on top of it, they had to know that I could hear every movement, every murmur as I lie awake at night, grinding my fists into my head to drown them out.
Sometimes I heard other noises in the house, too. Footsteps, whispers, knocking from above and below. Sometimes I didn’t know who was up at night doing what. Noises would seem to come from two places at once. It felt at times like there might even be a ghost in the house. Maybe Mom or Dad. But lately my mind was preoccupied only with Jamie and Rob.
So one night I got bold and decided to go up to the attic, just to know for sure if their affair was real, and if it was all in the name of torturing me. I didn’t make a single sound as I went up the stairs. I peeked into my sister’s room on the way down the hall, just to be sure. Empty. My aunt and uncle snored in their bedroom, tossing and turning in their ignorance.
When I climbed the narrow stairs and reached the thin landing, I was already close enough to put my ear to the door. I could hear them talking in low voices but I couldn’t understand what they were saying. I heard movement and then giggling and kissing noises. Wet kissing noises—the foulest sound of all.
These were two people who had clearly lost touch with reality. I listened for another minute and then accidentally let out an angry sigh. My sister heard it. They stopped whatever they were doing and I heard a quick sound like someone darting up in bed. “What was that?” she asked breathlessly.
I covered my own mouth and bounded down the stairs as quietly as possible. I closed my door behind me and listened. The noises upstairs stopped. Sometime later, maybe an hour or so, I finally heard my sister’s soft footfalls as she came down, crept past my door, and went back to her bedroom in shame.
The next morning, two very long faces paced around the kitchen. Rob’s eyes were red and shot from me to the floor to her, and then to my uncle. Jamie ate slowly and exchanged long worried looks with Rob, which would end as soon as my uncle turned in their direction. My aunt stood in the background like an ugly lamp, reading the local paper so quietly she might as well have not been there at all.
This nonchalance irked me. The tension was thick, as they say, and yet my relatives were oblivious. I needed to say something fast.
When my cousin got up, he put on his baseball cap and let his dishes clank in the sink. “Bye, everybody,” he said quietly, hesitating in the doorway, then disappearing down the hallway to get his things for work.
“Bye, Rob,” Jamie said quietly.
I waited quietly as well, for the door to close. And then, before I could control what I was saying, I stuck my fork out and I said, “Jamie, we need to talk. I know all about what’s going on.”
My uncle, surprised by my sudden loudness, choked on his orange juice and turned toward me. My sister was frozen, just staring at me.
“Matt, this is none of your business,” she said slowly, trying to say more to me with her wide eyes than with her words, but I wasn’t listening to any of it. “Please Matt, don’t.”
“What are you two talking about?” my uncle interjected. Even the great intellect Aunt Misty put her paper down.
I spoke. “Jamie, as your brother, I want only what is best for you. And this isn’t right. It’s sick. You’ve got to stop.”
“What’s got to stop?” my uncle asked, agitated but curious.
“Don’t, Matt.” She shook her head slowly, looking increasingly worried. The beginnings of tears gathered on her eyes. “Everything’s fine, okay? Just stop.” She flinched as I pounded my hand on the table. I said nothing, only glared. She added quickly, “Just leave it alone, Matt. Leave it.”
“Now hold on a sec,” my uncle said, starting to look angry.
“He’s your cousin,” I hissed, remaining deliberately vague, feeling the very power of my own suggestion.
“Whoa now, okay. What is this about?” my uncle asked, standing up.
I finally addressed him. “Uncle Mike, Jamie is spending an inappropriate amount of time with Rob, and you should know about it,” I answered calmly.
My sister got up quickly and left the room. I heard the front door open and then slam shut.
“Rob!” she yelled from the porch. “Robbie!”
I let her go. That was all I did, and it was the right thing.
"Dakota Morning," copyright 2017 Amelia Cotter (first published in Black Oak Presents: A Journal of Mid-American Culture, Winter 2010 Edition, 2010)