Joyland

New York |

Baby of the Family: An Excerpt

by Maura Roosevelt

1979

The repeated, echoing bangs of the shutters during Hurricane Mattias, that violent, threatening racket, was the sound that heralded in the end of Brooke’s parents’ marriage. Outside, the Caribbean wind shrieked through the macaw palms and slammed into parked cars. Brooke was thirteen and had been living on the island of Barbados for three months. She had moved there with her family, of course, but it didn’t feel like it: in Boston she had lived in the middle of so much noise and excitement. Being the third of four children, she was overcome by daily chaos, and she loved it. But Peter had died in May of last year, and after Peter’s death—after the service at King’s Chapel, the burial in Brookline, and the reception at the Harvard Club, where Brooke felt herself watching the whole scene from above the crowd—the volume in her young life turned down. Afterward, her older brother, LJ, disappeared into his last year at boarding school and Kiki to her college a few hours north of New York City. And their formerly rowdy, joyous, parents stopped speaking. Now in Barbados, they didn’t say a word, either to each other or to her.

In August, after Brooke and her mother had gone to see her mother’s parents on the North Shore of Massachusetts, just as the old Mercedes was turning onto Storrow Drive, Corney had announced to Brooke, “It looks like your father got the ambassador job. We’ll move to Barbados in two weeks.” And that was it. That was all the information Brooke was given. Her possessions were packed for her by a moving company. She was taken out of the school she’d gone to since she was five years old and told she’d do eighth grade at the International School of Barbados. Brooke had two weeks of sleepovers at her friends’ houses, crying to them underneath shared sleeping bags as she admitted that she was terrified to live in a place she had never been before. Her friends had cried too, and their parents had come in with cookies and brownies and promises to buy plane tickets so the girls could visit each other. But Brooke never cried in front of her own parents. She knew, even at thirteen, that it was her responsibility to maintain a semblance of normalcy. At one of those final sleepovers, while Brooke was walking up the stairs from Amanda’s basement, she had heard Amanda’s parents talking in their kitchen. Her father said, “Carter’s been looking for a way to pay back the Whitbys for years. And with the death of the boy, I’m sure it seemed that now was the time to offer Roger the ambassadorship.” Amanda’s mother responded, “And after that gubernatorial disaster, everyone knew they were in need.”

Brooke’s family had moved in the middle of hurricane season. The US ambassador’s residence in the Caribbean was a big house with yellow shingles, four stories tall, with salmon-pink shutters that the staff closed every time a storm was coming. The shutters were giant, made for creatures larger than humans, and Brooke never knew how the staff was actually able to close them. Did they have poles they used from the outside, or hooks that caught the shutters from the inside? When the charcoal plumes of storm clouds rolled in over the ocean, the shutters would be instantly shut, as if by magic.

The first two months in Barbados were terrifying. The island’s dirt roads and strange desert cacti; its fields of craters. She felt as if she had landed in a haunted dream, and that soon her imagination would dissolve this hallucination and return her to the stable, joyful bubble she had always known. But as the weeks added up, along with the number of tropical storms they weathered, her fear grew. It seemed that this off-kilter world was now her reality. The safety of her former life was gone forever.

Her father had to host dinners most nights when he was in town, with visiting dignitaries or minor celebrities who happened to have grown up on other Caribbean islands. “The residence,” as they referred to it, was always bustling: not only with the family and the eleven staff members who worked there, but also with local politicians and business owners from Barbados and the other islands. When these people were around, Roger would cheese his toothy smile and hum even, as he organized papers and poured iced tea and snapped on his State Department poncho. When the staff or company was there, it was as if he had been inflated with life again. But as soon as other people left, as soon as the last of the staff members turned around, he would deflate. He wouldn’t even look at Brooke, and Corney also appeared to be trying her hardest to just stop existing. She had her own bedroom now, where no one else was welcome. She never attended dinners with her family or the important visitors. Corney had become silent, thin, and blank. She had not asked Brooke once how she was fairing in school.

Brooke was miserable. Mosquitos loved her, and giant welts popped up all over her body, sometimes growing to the size of quarters. Although she’d gotten her period twice that previous spring, it had mysteriously stopped coming after Peter’s death. By the fall, she’d withered down to eighty pounds. Although there were four other American girls in her school, they instantly decided that Brooke was stuck-up and banded against her. She had already read all the books assigned in English class, and the math was geometry she’d learned two years prior. An embassy staff member named Derelin drove her to school every morning, and she was supposed to take the bus home after sports practice. But usually Brooke would skip soccer—the only sport offered there—and spend an hour walking home alone. She took her time as she walked along the road banks, darkening her white Keds with the sand-turned-to-silt from the nightly rains. It was on those walks that she sometimes spoke out loud to Peter. “This is just temporary, Pete. In our family we go to boarding school, so we won’t have to do a walk like this many more times at all.”

By the end of November though, Brooke was beginning to make one friend, a girl named Kaylia whose parents were from Senegal by way of London. Kaylia had lived in Barbados for three years, which made her a veteran at the international school. She had heard Brooke playing “Greased Lightning” on the recorder during music class and shrieked in excitement. And so the girls began to spend time together after school, usually at Kaylia’s house, which was smaller but altogether less somber than Brooke’s.

The day that Brooke finally invited Kaylia over to watch her video of West Side Story in the embassy screening room was also the day that Hurricane Mattias struck. It had been raining for twenty-four hours, but the news reported that Mattias had been downgraded to a tropical storm.

The girls were watching Maria look down on Tony from the fire escape, when the lights flickered twice and then all the electricity in the residence went out.

“Eeee!” Kaylia screeched, hugging Brooke closely. “A blackout!” Brooke hugged her friend in return, giggling. Even she was used to the power outages, by that point. There were kerosene lamps fixed to the walls for just that reason, and as soon as the rooms turned dark, footsteps would patter down every hallway, the staff scurrying around to light the wicks. But the day Mattias struck, Brooke also heard a loud bang from outside, one that she’d never heard before. Then she heard it again: banging once, then twice.

Derelin poked into the screening room, holding a long-handled lighter. “Ready to camp out in the dark, girls?” He was a kind soul, with a constant smile. He said he’d just been speaking to Chef Cara, who reported that all the ice cream in the freezer was going to melt. “Cara says we have to find something to do with it.”

“Have you ever had waffles with ice cream? We had those the last time I was in Amsterdam,” Kaylia announced.

Derelin gave the girls a thumbs-up, but just as he was turning to deliver the order to Cara and her kerosene cooktop, Brooke stopped him. “Derelin, what’s that strange banging? I’ve never heard it before.”

“The shutters,” he nodded. “Very odd: the fasteners on them all snapped off today. Must have been wind. No worries though. This is just a little storm. It will pass quick.”

But by the time the girls were at the end of the long dining table, waffle crusts and humps of melted spumoni ice cream on large plates in front of them, the storm had been upgraded, and most of the staff, even Derelin, had run through the hard and fast raindrops to their nearby homes.

The two girls were in the dining room alone when they heard Roger yell from upstairs. “It’s not fair, Corney!” It was a gravelly yell, with one word slipping into the next: a sure sign that he had been drinking.

Brooke gripped the side of the table. Her father could not do this in front of her one friend.

“I think you should call your parents,” Brooke whispered. “Who knows how long our lights will be out. If you call them now they could probably still come and get you.”

Kaylia looked hurt. “No way, my parents would never drive in this weather. And my lights are probably out too. You know what, while the lights are out, we could put on a play! We could practice West Side Story.”

Brooke shook her head as she walked into the kitchen. Roger’s voice from upstairs echoed through the house again. “You let it happen!” he screamed. Panic spread through Brooke’s limbs.

“What’s your phone number?” Brooke called through the open kitchen door, picking up the receiver of the wall-mounted rotary telephone. But before Kaylia could answer, Brooke heard that there was no dial tone whatsoever. The line was dead.

Something upstairs crashed to the floor.

“What was that?” Kaylia asked.

Brooke shook her head and grabbed her friend’s hand. “Let’s go to my room.” But by the time they made it to the front hallway, Brooke’s mother was running down the stairs in front of them, wearing a long cotton nightgown with a brown stain down the front of it. Roger stood on the landing above, leaning over the wrought iron rail. The entire entryway flickered from the kerosene lamps.

“You let your child die!” he screamed down to Corney. Brooke flinched. She wanted to cover Kaylia’s eyes and ears at the same time. Instead, she simply stood in front of her friend, as if she could shield her from the scene.

Roger continued yelling. “You are his mother! You were supposed to prevent that. You let him die.”

Corney was by the front door now, her hand on the handle. She displayed no emotion at all. She could have been in a trance. The shutters banged loudly, and rain seemed to not be falling from the sky but rather throwing itself in reckless waves against the windows on either side of the door. Brooke saw the palm trees by the driveway curving all the way over themselves, bending as if they were animate beings, taking a low bow. Corney, keeping her hand on the handle, turned around, and with a nearly comatose expression said, “You ignored him because you wanted to be governor. You left our baby all alone when he was dying. You are a goddamn monster.”

Roger must have run down the stairs then, but it happened so quickly that Brooke didn’t see him moving. When her father was next to her mother, he punched one arm forward and through the long glass window beside the door. A smack sounded, then glass shattered to the ground. Brooke found her own arms around Kaylia, embracing the torso of her new friend who was stunned into absolute silence.

Roger crouched over her mother and she screamed, prompting Brooke to drop her friend and run toward her parents, embarrassment be damned. Corney, on the ground now, was being throttled around the neck by Roger’s left hand. He had a large shard of glass in the other hand, which he held to his wife’s chin. Roger huffed, “That boy was my one hope. He was going to do the great things that I can’t do. And I can’t un-see him. He is everywhere I go. He pops up in the trees and on the beaches of this terrible island. Our son is everywhere but here. And it’s your fault. You were supposed to be his mother.” Roger was crying.

Brooke’s mother didn’t move at all. She was a stunned fish, unblinking. It appeared, for a moment, that she wanted to be speared and eaten.

“Stop it!” Brooke yelled. Then she grabbed her father’s arm and pulled it away from her mother’s neck.

Roger turned, apparently in shock that anyone else was in the room. Roger looked at his daughter and dropped the glass in his hand, letting it break into smaller pieces on the floor. Then he opened the front door. Wind ripped through the opening. The clattering and banging was deafeningly loud. Roger walked outside with one blood-covered arm and continued walking down the front path, through the middle of the hurricane.

“Stop!” Brooke cried. “Where are you going?” She began to follow him, but her mother, from her huddle on the floor, grabbed Brooke by the ankle.

“Don’t even think about it,” Corney said. “Let him go wherever he wants.”

A palm frond blew into the house just as Roger disappeared from sight down the hill. As Brooke closed the door, she couldn’t help herself from thinking she was cursed because her father had loved Peter more than he loved her. He had always been more animated, more excited and enlivened when Peter was around. Peter had brought out the best in her father, while she had been basically ignored by him. He had loved his son—the one who was supposed to grow up to be better than him—so much that the fact of losing him had pushed him to potentially killing himself at that very moment.

A voice from the second-floor balcony of the ambassador’s residence asked, “Will he be okay?” It was Kaylia.

Brooke hadn’t even noticed her go upstairs. She looked up at her friend and experienced sincere humiliation for the first time in her life.

Corney, without picking herself up off the floor, said in the clearest, loudest voice she had used in months. “No, girls. That man is beyond help. He’s hexed. It does not matter if he’s okay.”

This is an excerpt from Maura Roosevelt's debut novel, Baby of the Family, available now from Penguin Random House