Author: Helen Weil
Helen is a Chicago native and grad student at the University of Minnesota. Her work has previously been published in The Tower Literary Magazine, BirdHouse Magazine, and Kalopsia Lit.
Atlas is the first of us to leave home.
That’s not quite right.
Mom was the first to go. She left on a red backboard and found a new home in the cemetery down the road. I wonder why she was in such a rush to go. I wonder if she knew something we didn’t. Maybe the soil is a softer place to rest than a bed with a husband in it.
Back to Atlas. His leaving is not quick, no bandage ripped off pink skin. It comes like the rumble on train tracks long before you ever hear the horn or see the smoke. His leaving is college applications and then boasted acceptance letters, plans and circled dates on calendars.
We can all feel the change coming like the receding tide before the tsunami. We spend his last day with us at the beach, Sisyphus floating aimlessly in an inner tube, Atlas and I tossing a frisbee back and forth. When we get hungry, we all squeeze onto our sun-bleached picnic blanket for lunch and try to soak up the closeness. We have never been far from each other before, and though that used to cause rolled eyes and elbows between ribs, it now is coveted.
Sisyphus holds up better than Atlas and I expected. We knew it would hit her hardest. But her tight smile stays in place through the ride home, through a rare home cooked dinner, through a movie we all pile into the living room to watch. Atlas picks the day’s activities, the meal, the movie. We don’t talk about why. It feels like it’s his last day on earth.
Dad is the first to go to bed. The credits roll and he ruffles Atlas’s hair, kisses the crowns of Sisyphus’s and my heads. Sisyphus goes next, and both Atlas and I catch the wobbling of her lower lip. We let her go. She needs time to lick her wounds in private, and we know she’ll find us when she’s ready.
Then it’s just Atlas and I. The oldest and youngest.
There is too much I want to say. I say nothing, and he doesn’t say anything either. After a long moment, he stands and offers me a hand up. He squeezes mine once and lets go. I watch him walk up the stairs and close his bedroom door with a quiet click.
I stay up late, willing the time to slow down, to reverse. One more night, I beg. Just one more. Because Atlas is my brother, and he holds up my family’s world. I’m not ready to fall.
Time keeps marching forward. I pick myself up and go to bed.
Atlas’s leaving brings Sisyphus into my bedroom in the middle of the night. It’s rare for her to climb into my bed for comfort. Atlas’s room is directly across the hall from her’s, and she can always find her way there, even blind with tears or the fear that often follows her out of her dreams. But the night before Atlas leaves for college, his bags packed and stacked beside the front door, Sisyphus chooses to take the extra steps to my bedroom.
Sleep is creeping over me, but the creak of my door knob twisting startles me back out of it. Her cheeks are stained with tears, and her shoulders are curled in like a supernova getting ready to implode. We stare at each other for a moment, her face shining in the soft twinkling of the string lights that stretch above my bed. Wordlessly, I throw back the sheets and she lets go of the door knob. I know why she’s here. The ache in her matches an ache in me, and it comes from knowing that everything we’ve ever known is about to change.
Fact: Atlas’s bed will now lay empty most of the year; a relic or a tomb.
Fact: it will become a sharp thorn that draws blood every time we walk past the closed door.
Sisyphus and I don’t know that second one yet, but we can sense it coming. We lay side by side under my covers, dark green like a lush garden, and more tears slide from the corners of her eyes toward her temples.
“I’m not ready to let him go,” she whispers.
“Me neither,” I whisper back.
“What do we do?” she asks.
I turn to look at the stars reflecting in her glassy eyes. “We let him go.”
Not five minutes later, Atlas pushes open my door, ready to save the day one last time. He slides in on Sisyphus’s other side, and the three of us hold each other tightly. Her fingers dig crescent moons into his arm, but he doesn’t complain. He is well-versed in that.
In the morning, he leaves. Dad takes him to the train station, and that’s it. A family of four now a family of three.
Sisyphus is not the next to leave, though she is a year my senior.
She has a weight to bear like our brother. Where he cradles his burden in his palms, she pushes hers up a mountain with no peak in sight. Always with the promise of when I reach the top, when I can finally let it go and watch it roll away, when my arms are finally free. Then I’ll think about what’s next. Then I’ll learn to breathe again.
The boulder slips. Though her hands are scraped up and bloodied, she dusts herself off and tries again.
She’s stuck. She just can’t see it.
Dad pushes her to go. To fly like he once did.
“Look how that turned out,” she snarls at him, gesturing to broken wings and scars from dripping wax.
He holds his chin high and says, “Even if you fall, you still get to feel the warmth of the sun on your face.”
The boulder slips. She begins again.
Because Sisyphus does not go, I am the next to leave. There’s something nipping at my heels, something with fangs and a forked tongue, something like fate. I’ve known how to run from it since before I had words for it. I never learned to stop, to stay a spell when potential friends offered me a place to rest. I preferred to keep moving. Less collateral damage when the thing chasing me inevitably catches up.
I know how my story is meant to end. And isn’t that the real tragedy? Half the fun is the bated breath as you wait for the grand reveal, the big twist.
I don’t attempt to change my story—I am as sure of my fate as I am that the sharp teeth on the thing behind me will hurt, even though I have not felt them yet. Instead, I do what I know best: I run. I get out, cutting ties with reckless abandon, so that when I do reach the ending, I’m not dragging Sisyphus or Dad or, hell, even Atlas, though far as he is, down with me.
I don’t go to college like Atlas. I take odd jobs here and there. I’m always somewhere new. I’m always smiling at strangers and telling them I’m not from around here, and when they ask where my home is, I kiss them until they forget they asked.
For a brief moment, I stop feeling hot breath on my ankles, and I pause to breathe. The path I’ve taken stretches far and wide behind me. Look how far I’ve come, I want to say, but there’s no one left to hear me.
I meet Orpheus in a bar, and at first he’s nothing new. Just another faceless body for me to find a bit of warmth with. But he moves as if hearing a beat meant only for him, and his words come out honeyed like lyrics to a love song.
“Orpheus,” he says, offering a hand to shake. His fingers are nimble and calloused, the hands of a musician.
The thing chasing me might not be my downfall after all. It might be him.
“Eurydice,” I reply. It feels like ink on a dotted line.
Sisyphus leaves last, in a rare moment of reprieve, and Dad is left alone, as Icarus was always meant to be. Clipped wings don’t get you very far, and he always knew that he was fated to watch his children leave, one by one.
And then he leaves, too. He settles down in the plot beside Mom and follows her somewhere we cannot go.
Sisyphus slips. The snake sinks its fangs into me. The world is too heavy for Atlas to hold, and we all come crashing down.
Sisyphus goes home to an empty house meant for five. The weight crushes her. She becomes unrecognizable. Poison moves through me with each heartbeat, and I’m too weak to keep running. I join her, and the house now has two ghosts.
In my childhood bed, below string lights that burnt out years ago, I feel small and helpless. Though I was born last, I never truly felt like the baby of the family. Once Mom was gone, Sisyphus needed delicate handling, and Atlas was something to dote on, to shower with praise. I faded into the background. I could handle myself, so I did.
But now, I fall back into a role I’ve outgrown. I need my big brother and my big sister. I need my dad. I need my mom. I need someone to take care of me.
At night, Sisyphus lets herself into my bedroom. It is pitch black in here, but she has learned the way to the empty side of my bed. We hold each other. This time, we know not to let go.
Atlas finds his way home to us. A girl, Pleione, comes with him. She eyes the empty bottles, the collecting dust, the piling kitchen table bills, but does not say anything about them. Instead, she offers kind words and sympathetic looks. Her hands are soft. They have never known a heavy weight. Her legs are slim. They have never known running.
Late at night, I can hear murmured words exchanged between the two of them as they huddle together in his too-small bed. I press my ear to the wall. “It’s too much,” he cries. I hear her shush him. She tells him that it’s okay, that he can set down what he’s been carrying.
I almost laugh. Don’t you know who he is? I want to ask. He is Atlas. This weight was his birthright. He will always carry it.
When I went home, I didn’t tell Orpheus that I was leaving or where I was going. He finds me anyway, and he offers me a way out. All I have to do is take his hand and not look back.
But how can I not look back? They are my brother and sister. I will always look back.
Orpheus leaves me with a kiss he hums into. It’s almost a song. I almost ask him to stay.
In the end, I don’t watch him go, and he doesn’t stop to see if I’m following him.
Atlas finds the old picnic blanket in Dad’s closet and takes us to the beach. Pleione comes with. Though she cannot see the ghosts of our childhood, pushing up through the cracks in the sidewalk that we trip over, she makes for decent company.
In the water, I hold onto Sisyphus’s inner tube. I don’t let her drift away from me. Atlas and I throw the frisbee. Pleione joins at one point. When we break for lunch, the blanket is too small for four, so Sisyphus drags her inner tube over and sits in it instead. She does it with a smile. I lean my back against it and watch Pleione peel an orange and hand every other segment to my brother.
Somehow, Pleione becomes family.
That evening, Sisyphus and I sit at the kitchen table to start working through the overdue bills. Nearby, Atlas and Pleione cook dinner side by side. I look at them and see a shadow of what I could have had with Orpheus. Sisyphus hands me another envelope.
Sisyphus does not tell us where she finds Merope. She comes home with her one day, and it’s like she was always there to begin with. Merope, with her shy smile and eyes that never quite meet ours, is an interesting match for Sisyphus.
Atlas calls them a pair of orchids. “They’re probably the only two people who know how to take care of each other,” he says.
I clink my wine glass against his and watch Sisyphus and Merope chat on the living room couch, so tangled that neither one has a definite beginning or end. Merope’s hands are scarred, her fingernails broken and jagged. It seems as though Sisyphus has found someone who can help her with her weight, someone to catch it when she slips.
Sisyphus takes a breath. It comes out easy.
The house has five again. Atlas and Pleione marry in the backyard below the willow tree we climbed as children. She makes a promise to shoulder the weight with him, and their rings are made of every precious thing the world has to offer. Sisyphus and Merope don’t marry, but they are so close that they become SisyphusandMerope to everyone who knows them. It is a commitment of its own.
Sometimes, Orpheus visits me in my dreams. His voice is like the sweet sap from sugar cane, but around his hands are a pair of snakes, mouths open, poised to strike. Our love story was doomed, but I find that I don’t mind much. I have my brother and sister, my two sisters-in-law, and the promise that someday I’ll go to the dirt beside Mom and Dad.
This is freefall, inverted. This is flight. And the sun is so warm on my face.