The families on my street painted their houses strawberry, blueberry, Key lime, mango, one after the other like a roll of Lifesavers. None of the surrounding streets were so bright. My mother, a painter, said that colors keep the sadness away.
Our next-door neighbor, Mr. Frobosh, kept rabbits. If I was good, I could leave our lemon-colored house after dinner and hop the wooden fence into Mr. Frobosh’s backyard. He waited with bundles of carrot tops in his hands.
It’s important to be gentle because a rabbit can choose to die at any time, Mr. Frobosh told me, as he lifted the rabbit’s silky, panicked bodies from their sweet-sour smelling straw.
I loved to stroke their long ears until the racing thump of their hearts relaxed. Mr. Frobosh offered them the carrot tops, and we watched them eat in silence.
My mother painted an alien galaxy on my bedroom ceiling. When my mother drank whiskey, she’d climb on a step ladder with a paintbrush clamped between her teeth. If she was angry-drunk, an alien star collapsed in on itself, the paintbrush’s tip a furious black. If she was happy-drunk, new colors bloomed overhead.
If I left my bedroom window open, I could hear Mr. Frobosh’s rabbits at night. When the moon was full, they opened their bucktoothed mouths and sang. Their voices were thin and squeaky, but they also held a delicate beauty.
I listened to the rabbits sing their songs and felt my body float up, up, to my mother’s painted galaxy. The rabbits and I had an equal reverence for outer space. I wheeled in the darkness overhead, the tips of my fingers brushing my mother’s stars, while the rabbits in their hutch in Mr. Frobosh’s backyard sang a song of love to the universe.
When my mother fell in love, she painted the walls of our house hot pink. One color, bright, bright, like a firework just after it explodes. She fell in love with a man from a gray street. When he came over for dinner, he wore a blazer that drooped off his shoulders, he called me sweetheart, he had a mustache. His son came with him, a pale boy with white eyelashes, quiet. He told me his mother ran off to Reno with another man, one who wore a straw hat and laughed like a dolphin.
Why don’t you show our new friend around? my mother asked, her eyes shining bright with this new pink love. I took the pale boy up to look at the galaxy on my ceiling.
What happened to your father? he asked me.
Downstairs, we could hear my mother talking, the click-click of her heels. She laughed in color. The man she loved was silent, like a ghost.
I don’t have a father, I said.
The pale boy accepted this as if I were a bud that popped off the side of my mother’s cactus body. When I was even younger and I asked about fathers, my mother said she painted me on a life-sized canvas and I was so beautiful that she cried and when the painting of me saw her crying, it came to life to console her.
I’m a painting come to life, I told the pale boy, just to see how much he’d accept from me.
I like your stars, he said.
On our backs, we reached our arms out to the ceiling. As we got older, we’d lose the ability to float up and touch the galaxy. We’d hover a bit off the ground before falling back onto the carpet.
Grown up, all of a sudden. The boy stayed with us, but his father faded. If you squint, you can see his outline, thinly penciled in the living room. The boy stretched out and became my brother. My mother bought us bunkbeds and, at night, we looked at the painted stars and waited for Mr. Frobosh’s rabbits to sing. Generations of rabbits. Rabbits in love, rabbits with babies, growing, dying. Mr. Frobosh didn’t eat his rabbits. Instead, he buried their little corpses in a row by the fence. Little headstones, no names, no dates.
When we were fifteen, my brother fell in love with a boy whose mother sold multi-colored balloons on a street corner. Her balloons shouted glittery words: HOORAY! GOOD FOR YOU! They popped easily. My brother brought a rabbit to the balloon cart.
I brought you this, he said to the boy.
The boy frowned at a sheet of notebook paper, hair slicked back, pencil behind his ear. His body hummed with a young electricity, stutter, spark. I loved the balloon boy too, a little, but my brother saw him first.
A rabbit? the balloon boy asked. Behind him, the houses moped – gray. The streets sighed – gray. His mother’s balloon stand was the last spot of color before everything faded, dulled, lost its taste.
He sings, I said.
The balloon boy put the rabbit on top of the balloon cart and started drawing its portrait on his notebook paper. The rabbit washed its paws under the balloon boy’s electric gaze.
You guys live on the street with colors, right?
In the lemon house, my brother said.
Maybe I’ll come by later, the balloon boy said. He stuck his pencil back behind his ear, biting his bottom lip, trying to see if he’d gotten the rabbit right.
That night, the balloon boy floated up to our bedroom window. He dangled from a maroon balloon that said YOU’RE DOING GREAT SWEETIE in silver sparkling sequins. My brother slept, but I saw the moonlight glint off the balloon boy’s hair and walked towards the light.
Come on, he said.
I walked to the windowsill and hesitated, turned. My brother slept. Shadows on his pale skin. Downstairs, my mother painted blooming orange blossoms around the outline of what was once my stepfather. Love obliterates. I took the balloon boy’s hand.
We floated up to the night sky together. He held me in his arms, and I heard his heartbeat. Slow, confident. The stars above us shone brighter than the stars on my ceiling, bluer, colder. I shivered.
My brother loves you, I told the balloon boy, a confession.
Your brother was asleep, he said, shrugging.
I realized that it didn’t matter to him which one of us he scooped up. We siblings were the same, our hearts vulnerable like rabbits who could choose to die at any time. The moon smiled on us as I lifted my face to the balloon boy’s lips. My first kiss tasted like betrayal.
When the balloon boy brought me back to my bedroom, my brother sat, awake, on his bunk. Shadows under his pale eyes. He watched the balloon boy tuck a strand of hair behind my ear. He smelled the cold star air on my skin. After the balloon boy floated away, I couldn’t meet my brother’s eyes. His silence felt like the silence of the stars.
You were asleep, I said.
My brother bought a trench coat and a fedora and moved to the city. He was still angry, but he sent me brotherly noir postcards in the mail, talking about the strings that held a suspension bridge together, talking about a blonde under a streetlamp. The balloon boy and I married. His mother cried and popped every balloon on her trolley. He moved into our lemon house. My mother painted herself a doorway on the wall and got lost for days, wandering in flat freedom.
We owned the lemon house free and clear. I planted a vegetable garden. On Sundays, my husband tied balloon strings to our middles and floated us up over the clouds. Bright yellow balloons that said MR & MRS. Below us, the gray surrounding us stretched on and on, fuzzed out, and became static. The only real thing was the icy wind, the rabbit’s angel voices, our little house far down below.
One weekend, I tied a balloon to myself and floated alone to the city because I missed my brother. At first, it looked like the city was all black and white. I drifted in my bright yellow balloon, searching the shadows for my brother’s pale eyelashes. But then, the shadows deepened and changed. I found my brother in a phone booth, cigarette smoke swirling above his head.
Another one in the alley, he said.
Brother! I shouted from my yellow balloon.
I’ll call you back, my brother said into the phone.
My brother cut me free from my balloon and our shadows watched it float away.
My brother the PI didn’t have time to reminiscence, but he took me along with him to his next crime scene. Black, gray, white, shadow, and then her blood, red, on the concrete.
I took notes while my brother frowned at corpses in alleys.
Shouldn’t an ambulance come? I asked.
First, we’ve got to lay out the narrative, my brother said.
In the black and white city, nobody could bury a body until the story of its life was wrapped up in a neat bow. I looked up at the sky, watching for my husband’s yellow MR. balloon. I regretted floating into the city’s darkness.
Our house had darkness too, my brother said, reading my thoughts.
It’s lemon-colored, I argued. The rabbits sing.
But people disappear, my brother said, drawing a white chalk outline around a man sprawled on concrete.
Like who? I said, forgetting his father, that faint outline of a man, covered over with painted flowers. I forgot also, my mother’s painted doors, the places she snuck to without ever leaving the house.
My brother’s apartment existed only in the wedge of light that appeared when drunk patrons opened a bar’s front door. The bar was called MOONSHINE, but the MOON part of the neon sign was dead. Inside, my brother’s apartment was all light, yellow like our childhood home, yellow like the flowers in Mr. Frobosh’s yard, yellow like my husband’s balloon. One night, my husband arrived.
There you are, he said, shielding his eyes from the yellow light of my brother’s apartment.
Come back home with me, I said to my brother, but he owed the dead bodies their stories.
Drifting back to our colorful street, I thought about the gray houses that spread beneath us, and my mother-in-law crying over our engagement.
Do you think everybody’s house is sad? I asked my husband, but it was so cold my teeth chattered, and he couldn’t hear me over the howl of the nighttime wind.
Years pass in the lemon-yellow house, and my mother disappears further into her paintings. At night, I still hear the great-grandchildren of Mr. Frobosh’s original rabbits singing, their voices refined by generations of devotion. Gradually, my husband floated up to the star mural on my ceiling. He spends most of his time up there now, swirling among the stars. I feed old Mr. Frobosh’s rabbits fresh carrot tops. I am lonely, until, one night, my mother’s arm emerges from the wall, a swaddled baby held out to me like a gift.
I painted this for you, she says. It’s the last time I see her.
The baby’s eyes are purple. I kiss her rosebud nose. I try to show my husband, flipping like a dolphin on the ceiling, but his eyes are too far away, full of the blackness that seeps out between stars. Sometimes, I send up a balloon with messages (OLIVE JUICE, ATTA BOY) and he smiles.
I take my baby to the garden and show her the flowers, strawberry, blueberry, Key lime, mango, that dot the singing rabbits’ graves.
Colors don’t keep the sadness away, I whisper into her seashell ear.
My daughter is five when my brother returns, his trench coat full of cigarette holes like eyes. The city council is revitalizing the city, the health inspector shut down the MOONSHINE, and there are hardly any more corpses left in the alleys. It’s a good thing, probably, but my brother has lost his purpose. I find him one morning with his palm pressed flat to where his father’s outline used to be, flower petals unfurling between his fingers.
We have a daughter now, I tell him.
She, purple-eyed, reaches her hand out for her uncle.
Well, isn’t that something, my brother says.
Deirdre Danklin holds an MFA from Johns Hopkins University. Her fiction has appeared in Hobart, The Nashville Review, Pithead Chapel, The Jellyfish Review, Typehouse Literary Magazine, and Longleaf Review, among others. She writes an experimental book review newsletter, one month of which was published in CAROUSEL. Her nonfiction has appeared in CRAFT. She lives in Baltimore with her husband and orange tabby cat.
Rochelle Botello is a Los Angeles based sculptor. Her work has been exhibited in the United States and internationally. She has exhibited with Holter Museum of Art, Torrance Art Museum, Jaus, Launch, Coagula Curatorial, and Durden and Ray to name a few. Her exhibitions have also been reviewed in The Los Angeles Times, Whitehot Magazine, Artillery Magazine and Coagula Art Journal. Botello received a MFA from Claremont Graduate University.