Uncle was always there for the misfortunes in our lives. Not out of loyalty – not the way I saw it. He would come to spectate. Each time he would hover, a helicopter circling the rest of us, always watching, but too high up to say or do anything. Most importantly, he was too high to care.
I was outside with Snowball when I first met him, a shadow skulking in the cool shade of Mother’s trees. He was a stout, wispy-haired man, barely taller than me, much shorter than Mother, and yet – and yet . . . I could not meet his eyes. Something about him prevented it.
Then the snake shot out. Then Snowball was yelping. Then we were rushing to the animal hospital, and Mother was shouting, and I was shivering in my seat. Uncle vanished from my mind.
Later I would find out, sitting alone in the ward (for Mother could never stand the smell of dogs), that the snake had been a pet store specimen. Not indigenous. Meant for enthusiasts. I sat in my chair, and I pondered.
Midnight. Mother hauled herself back inside, face weathered. Uncle was moving into our shed.
Even a month after Snowball’s recovery, Uncle continued showing up whenever something went wrong; otherwise, it was as if he were a ghost. Papers would go missing. Mother would yell. He would listen. Then, soundlessly, he would creep back into the shed, never running into me, definitely never running into Mother and life would slither on without him. Almost. It would have, if not for me.
One day, I asked Mother what Uncle did for a living.
“Don’t bother with that,” she snapped, fighting with the prawns in her wok. Despite inviting him to feed off of us, she never liked discussing the man. It seemed to me that, as far as she was concerned, he was unemployed, a freeloader. Briefly, she glanced at me. “And what are you doing reading magazines at this hour?” A frown. “You should be studying. Don’t you want to go to uni?”
My fingers stiffened on the yearbook. I’d found it in Uncle’s luggage the day he moved in, and I’d been an avid reader ever since. At present, I was scouring the photographs – Uncle’s copy had Mother’s face scribbled out in black marker. I never knew they’d gone to the same school.
Like a rabbit caught chewing wires, I ducked into the book – and why shouldn’t I have? What could I have told her? That I thought her brother had tried to kill my dog? I might as well have said I wanted to go to England, marry a Prince, and curtsey to the Queen.
Mother squinted at the cover through a veil of loose hair. First came confusion. Then, understanding. Angry, bushy brows collided in the meridian of her forehead. The spatula cracked against the kitchen counter.
“Put that down! What are you doing with Uncle’s things?”
“I was just – “
“Go bathe your mutt.” She jerked her head at Snowball, who was currently scratching at his scar. “Look! It’s getting the house all dirty already.”
I got up. I squeaked my way over freshly-mopped tiles. Snowball and I left her muttering to herself.
“I swear, if another snake doesn’t get him, I will . . . “
Soon, I found my first Uncle-story. It was in a magazine dated back to around the time Father had been freshly cremated. I recognized the style from his yearbook essays.
The text started out innocently enough, with a calm, well-mannered family man making ends meet in the old town area. His wife cooked breakfast; he did lunch. The daughter was odd, quiet, had no other interests or friends apart from a dog.
Then one day he got hit by a car.
There was no mention of whose car – if none of us ever found out, why would Uncle have? This was the once upon a time, and the once upon a time was easy. What followed up was the hard part.
Fractured ribs, a punctured lung. Half an hour too long before he got to the hospital (Mother couldn’t drive back then, see?). No time to say goodbye. His money willed to his wife; his assets willed to his wife; all his poems willed to his wife; the empty house in the suburbs given away to an orphanage. Two people at the funeral. The end. I inhaled.
Uncle had coveted that house for a long, long time. It was why Father had never told him about the will, what was to happen to it. We’d never told him either. So how had he known?
I set the magazine down. No, this was different from his essays. His essays could hang, a cliff without an ending. He could finish with ‘It was all a dream’ and ‘Then he fainted’. But the adult world wanted something more . . . I gripped the edge of the table, forced myself back into Father’s old empty chair and pondered, and pondered.
The second time I met him was in the week leading up to New Year’s Eve. That week Auntie fell down and broke her leg, so she couldn’t cook on her own, which sent her braving the house of nameless relatives, so she would not have to spend the New Year alone without her husband again. All this I learnt from his latest story. He’d published it in the local newspaper – and he’d exhausted himself with it.
The whole week long, he was even more of a useless lump than usual. Everyone else would be preparing the next meal indoors, while he would sit there in the rocking chair with his banana leaf, staring and fanning, gazing and dreaming himself into a sweaty stupor. Why? Inspiration, he would say.
I would tell him, a basket of something over my shoulder and one foot through the door, that it wasn’t right to let his wife and Mother do all the cooking, that he was grown and able-bodied, and he had responsibilities.
And he would sigh.
Obviously, I would give no indication of knowing his secrets, knowing his inspiration didn’t come from banana trees and quiet streets. If I had . . . would he still have shaken his head and ignored me?
One afternoon, he grabbed me by the sleeve as I walked past. “I’m stuck in limbo,” he ranted. “I’m stuck and I must get out.” His eyes were hazy, drunk on sunlight. Normally, I would have pulled away from something like that, but something in me felt he was on the verge of revealing vital information, a tempting, succulent scrap. He let go.
“You know,” His words came out as a growl. I recoiled. “It’s not a crime. You all act like it is. It’s not a crime for a man to be chasing dreams.”
He would have continued, maybe told me more, if not for Mother. Mother marched out that instant, declaring there were rats under the panels, and someone was going to do something about it. Part of me was relieved; part of me, indescribably frustrated. It was because Uncle leaned back, suddenly apathetic again, suddenly silent, waving her goodbye, or waving her off, his eyes looking everywhere except for her. His lip sneered, and I doubt I was meant to see that.
There was no story from him that week.
Snowball had escaped narrowly the last time; the next time, we weren’t so lucky. The next time was a little pink pellet in a puddle of bloody vomit.
Mother never liked Snowball, so I could see the angle Uncle was shooting at. He kept insisting she’d done it. Wasn’t it strange that she was the only one at home? (He’d left his shoes outside – I’d seen them.) Didn’t I think she was angry after Snowball chewed through the carpet yesterday? (Snowball was only near that carpet because he’d let him in “by accident”.) Didn’t I see the rat poison she bought? It was the same brand. He said it so many times, I almost believed him.
I buried the body. The grave was so small.
Crouching there, unable to cry, unable to think, unconscious but for the narrow eye in my brain that was constantly on the lookout for Uncle, I saw him: he was pacing by the shed, with shadows thrown over his face like a velvet stage curtain, almost so he could watch the scene playing out for new developments, drama, action . . .
I didn’t let him have it.
The next few days saw him deteriorate. It was a spectacle. Left with nothing else to keep me sane, I occupied my hours alternatively visiting the grave and watching him fumble around his shed. Already diaphanous and flimsy, he seemed to crumple further, a butterfly regressing into the shape of its curled, slimy cocoon. Gone were the dazed, dreamy look and the brooding moue. This man was cracking.
I’d deprived him of a story, I’d thrown him past a deadline empty-handed, and still, I wasn’t satisfied.
Snowball was gone.
Without the imminent threat of Uncle’s secret activities digging into my skull, suddenly this overwhelming, raw hollowness was everywhere.
I wish I’d told. I wish I’d run to someone and told – back when the cobra happened, back when he was just an old man and not this mysterious silhouette of a being with a god complex. There I sat in a corner of my room, shaking and sweating, my school supplies untouched on my bed and Mother pounding at the door, demanding to know if I’d fainted. After that, Uncle went on a long trip to the coast.
A year passed. A new novel hit the bestsellers shelf. The blurb?
The psychological drama of the century – following the death of her dog, a girl spirals into insanity trying to uncover who was responsible. What she finds is shocking . . .
“Mother, come and look at this.”
“That’s Uncle, isn’t it? That’s his pen name; he wrote the story.”
“Don’t be silly, girl – Uncle . . . Uncle doesn’t have a pen name. Besides, he just got back.”
“But you see – “
“Go do your homework.”
“What do you mean ‘no’? Wait! Where are you going?”
Nighttime. Outside the window, ink washed out the sky, black and sticky like resentment. By this time, I had it all. The stories, the poems, the awards, the critics, the reviews that turned from disparaging to reverent over the years. All were spread about my table, entrails before a taxidermist. What I wanted was something else. What I wanted was proof. But proof of what?
(“It’s not a crime for a man to be chasing dreams.”)
I had nothing to show that he’d orchestrated those events. It all had made so much sense to me back then, back when I had something to lose and needed something to blame. Now was a year later. The most I could prove was that he based his stories on real life.
But these weren’t his stories. I felt a strange possessiveness over them. Looking at the bunch, I saw my family: my family suffering, my family bleeding, my family hurting . . . And he? He was the helicopter. I felt looted, raided, scavenged. Carpet-bombed.
I cleared my table. Mother was planning to send me to the psychologist in a few weeks; she’d left the pamphlet on my desk two days ago. I crumpled it up and tossed it in the bin.
How long would it be until Uncle’s pen next ran dry? And who would he target next? Mother?
Snowball’s doggy bed sank in the corner, empty.
The dry air crackled and crunched the night I approached the shed in Mother’s backyard. It had to be. I was setting fire to the lot of it.
For the only time, I saw the structure up close. It hunched over a bald patch of the garden, inhabited by a few red mushrooms rather than a carpet of grass. A skinny path sidled confidentially up to the door. Treacherously, the roof swayed left and right with the wind, as if in fighting stance. I slipped inside.
As I set to work dousing the wood with kerosene, I saw something big. Something massive. The workspace. It was a gallery of unused ideas. I gaped at the walls, papered with running, dancing illustrations, words and plans. He could have stopped. He could have stopped writing about us, using us after the first time, or the second, so why . . . ? The smell of kerosene burnt my nostrils.
Still, Uncle slept on. He could have stopped after getting his first work published; I could have continued without waking him. But I didn’t want to.
“What . . . What are you doing here?” He stirred slowly as if he was trying to thwart me, to make me suffer impatience. I wanted a confession. I needed a confession. He faltered.
“I don’t understand, all those were accidents . . . “
“Tell me the truth.”
Whether he was responsible or not, I realized, this shed was burning down. So, despite his staring, I continued pouring the kerosene, and I drew out the match. At some point he caught up. I saw the dreams blip out from his eyes.
He stood, and he told me I already knew the truth.
“I don’t know,” he rattled, hand drifting automatically to take a cigarette – but he stopped himself. “There wasn’t a choice, you understand? I had to. I was stuck. I couldn’t create anything without it!” Suddenly, he turned, sweeping across the room to the workspace next to the door, and he slammed his fist into his desk. It came away covered in oil. “Not anything decent . . . No . . . It wasn’t just the stories . . . I needed the energy to write – energy I didn’t have, never had . . . Didn’t your mother ever tell you about the yearbooks? They stopped me from writing, because I just didn’t have the guts for it! All this . . . gave me life, my own story to tell . . .”
His breaths tore up in the dead night. A sigh. His eyes glanced upwards, calculating, before drifting slowly to the path outside.
“And I suppose I felt all of you owed me something . . . for being the failure.”
Then a wet tearing noise came from above us, from the roof that was falling, falling . . .
I watched him burn; or he watched me burn – it was hard to tell. Then, like the hand of God wrenching his image out of perdition, I saw him pulled away, and away, until it was only myself falling to charred broken pieces.
I wondered what his next story would be called.