Gurgling Flamingos by Stina Trollbäck

When my older brother, Ibo, told me five minutes ago that there is mildew in the basement, I said that mildew looks like the sound of an electric screwdriver. He shook his head at me and walked out of my bedroom.

My younger brother, Orion, is a pink song. When he blinks his eyes I see coral pink music notes. He is a magenta treble clef when he slams the door to the bathroom by accident.

When my dad buys groceries, he sounds like my mom’s hands look when she folds empty cardboard boxes. When he puts his shoes on, he sounds like the firm fabric of a red pleated skirt.

I stand up. I walk to my older brother’s room.

“Can you empty the dishwasher today, Ibo?”

Ibo doesn’t answer. I walk to Orion’s room.

“Orion, can you empty the dishwasher?”

Orion says he has to shower.

I go to the kitchen.


When my mom told my dad about the mildew in the basement, she looked like the straps of denim overalls. She told him she was worried Orion would tell friends at school and that their moms would think our house is dirty. She likes to hide these things. My dad calls it “bending bushels of barley.”


Ibo comes to the kitchen a few minutes after I finish emptying the dishwasher.

“Ibo, your footsteps sound like overcooked eggplant.”

“Are you wearing pink mascara, Annika?” he replies.



I walk past him, back into my room.


I hear my dad come home with grocery bags that rustle like the color of poppies, and I hear him unloading the groceries the way my mom folds milk cartons. I hear him tell my brother that the mildew cleaner is coming tomorrow morning.

Ibo walks back upstairs.


My mom comes home from her office at the museum a few minutes later. I hear her nod of acknowledgement to my dad. I hear the popping milk bubbles in the bowl of cornflakes with blueberry jam in front of her when she sits down.

I know that she is sitting with cobalt blue posture at the dinner table and that my father is sitting on the kitchen counter grading white papers.

Orion’s door opens. He runs out and down the stairs to the kitchen.

His voice is the loudest in my family, like fuchsia. “Mom, I painted part of Annika’s wall today!”

I feel my mom start smiling. “What color did she let you paint?”

“She said I had to do pink--” he raises his voice, directed at me, “which was annoying. But it looks really good. You guys should go look at it.”

I laugh, look at my wall, and come downstairs, too. “If you don’t like pink, you didn’t have to paint at all.” He doesn’t know I think of him as music.

My mom touches my back as I walk over to the refrigerator.

My dad adds that he’s only gotten to paint big red shapes.

“Vermillion shapes,” I correct.

My mom says that maybe I can paint the basement when the mildew is gone.

I tell her that she and dad should do it.

They shrug.


My mom and dad build an imaginary line of pillows between them when they sleep; it is as fixed as the amount of air between the basement ceiling and the basement floor.


Ibo doesn’t want to paint a part of my wall. He sees the paint on my wall as tangible discomfort, but I doubt he knows he sees it that way.

He stands in my doorway. The incandescent light in the hallway rims his frizzy, dark hair with a halo of yellow.

Ibo asks me to come with him to the deli down the street.

Mom fell asleep looking like a blue bell while putting Orion to bed.

We walk past my dad, who is shaving over the kitchen sink with a red razor. My dad tells us he has ten dollars in his back pocket.

Ibo looks at me with raised eyebrows.

I take the ten dollars from my dad’s back pocket. The bill is crumpled like a dry, crushed poppy.

“You should wake Mom up, she’s in Orion’s bed,” I say to him.

“She must be tired then. Maybe it’s best I leave her there.” He gives me a faint smile.

We walk outside.

“What are you getting at the deli, Ibo?” I ask.

“Ice cream.” His skin is as uncomfortable as sandpaper. He’s walking at a pace much more violet than his usual indigo.

The lampposts on the street are reflecting yellow light onto the ground, complementing Ibo’s pace.

I think Ibo feels like he is a secondary color. He used to be primary and blue, but he doesn’t know he has turned purple.

He is walking a half step in front of me.

“Don’t try to fix them, Annika.” His voice is dry.

He doesn’t think that when our mom rolls her shoulders back she looks like our dad when he is chopping chives.

He buys his ice cream.

He doesn’t think that Mom dropping her keys looks like Dad taking out his contact lenses.

I buy lemon sparkling water in a glass bottle. “They’re the mildew,” I say.


“Mom and Dad are the mildew.”

“The mildew will be gone tomorrow,” he says.

I walk faster.

He doesn’t.

I am being absorbed by the yellow light from the lampposts.

Ibo walks in the deep purple shadows from the trees, and I don’t feel my eyes trying to distinguish the shades of purple.


When I wake up the next morning, the mildew cleaners are are already leaving. I hear them talking to my mom.

“Keep an eye out for traces of mildew within the next few weeks. Mildew spores can remain in the air and resettle on surfaces. You’ll want to schedule a follow up procedure -- one cleanse is not likely to eliminate. Watch out for musty smells everywhere in the house, not just in the basement.”

My mom nods and thanks him as she closes the door. When she locks the door, her ring finger has one less ring than usual.

She reaches out to brush my cheek with her fingers as I pass her.

I walk to the basement. There are splotches on the ceiling and wall where the mildew was. It looks as if my mother and father, cobalt blue and poppy red, have been scraped off the wall with a butter knife. The splotches sound like a electric screwdriver.


My mom doesn’t ask my dad to help her take down bowls from the top shelf anymore; she gets a stepstool.


I hear the coral and violet sounds of my brothers in the kitchen, and I feel figmented mildew spores drifting through the doorway as I pull the basement door closed behind me.

I lean against the kitchen doorframe.

Orion bangs the silver teapot on our stove with his elbow while reaching for a mug. Boiling water spatters across the counter. A few sizzling drops land on his fingers.

Ibo’s shoulders vibrate like a tuning fork as he laughs at Orion.

When Orion stops waving his hand around like a kite in a tornado, he fills a bowl with water and submerges his hand.

“That was graceful,” Ibo says.

“It’s Mom’s fault,” Orion quips. “She was hogging the bed all night, so I slept weirdly. My spine hurts.”


“I swear, Ibo! Also, look. My bacon pieces look like a fortress.”

“I don’t see it.”

“You have no imagination.”

“What do you mean I have no imagination? You’re my imaginary friend, Orion!”


“I control you.” Ibo smirks.

“I’m real! Ibo stop it!”

“No, you’re not. I made you up.”

I walk into the kitchen.

“Annika, tell him I’m real!”

Ibo stands up and walks upstairs.

Orion frowns and swishes his fingers around in the water bowl. He is making the water eddy, creating miniature whirlpools as magenta drips from his fingers.

I sit and watch him in buttercup yellow silence.

My dad walks down the stairs smoothly like a ripe raspberry being rinsed. His red presence reflects on the white walls in the kitchen.

“Good morning,” he says. He looks tired. His teeth are stained light blue from arguing with my mom.

My mom comes downstairs. She does not look tired. She looks at me, then at Orion.

“Annika, have you eaten? Orion, are you still hungry? I can make scrambled eggs.” Her teeth are stained red.

“I burned my hand, Mom!” Orion squawks.

“I’m fine,” I say.

My mom gives Orion an ice pack and fixes his hair.

We sit evenly spaced around our round, grey dining table.

When Ibo walks back into the kitchen, he disrupts the even spacing, squeezing his chair between mine and Orion’s.

Our silence swirls in circles on the table; our colors mix and create jarring white flecks and blurs. The rainbow-white-grey starts to float and wriggle around the room.

I can taste the dissonance.

Everyone is still, but the tension is squeezing my fingertips.

Ibo makes eye contact with me. He looks at my parents.


He breaks the discordant stillness: “One of you needs to move out.”


The pink of Orion’s cheeks reflects in the water that is swelling in his eyes. I hear his breath trembling.

“You’re nineteen. You move out.” My dad’s tone sounds like a bitten red apple.

My mom’s voice follows, “You can’t say that to us –”

“I never –”

“Maybe if you –”

“I’m just saying that we can’t live like this.” Ibo’s squawk is resonating.

Orion is crying. He’s making us pink and anguished.

I feel my neck elongating to match my mothers. My shoulder blades are tensing.

My dad’s teeth are clenching like a bird closing its beak.

Orion’s gurgling breath is turning us into flamingos.

I can feel tears gurgling behind our eyes.

We are a flamboyance of flamingos standing around a gurgling pond. We’re turning white, shivering. Our legs are snapping. We are each flapping one wing.

“You don’t have a right, Ibo. You don’t know what–”

“Allen –”

“Stop it.” I cut my mom off. She is still looking at my dad.

Tears dribble down Orion’s pink cheeks.

“Come,” I say, and I stand up. The rest don’t stand until I’m by the stairs, ready to walk up.

Orion pushes his chair away from the table and follows me, then my mom does. Ibo and my dad stand at the same time.

We walk to my room.

My lungs are deflating.


I sit down on my bed.

My fingertips are ice.

They stay standing.

I point at my wall.

My mom notices first. “Why did you do that?” she asks, open-eyed.

There are spattered white and grey paint build-ups coating much of my yellow, pink, red, blue, and purple painted wall. The big colorful shapes have been tarnished by the stale clusters.

Ibo smiles. “It’s supposed to be mildew,” he answers for me.

My parents are flamingos, melting in the doorway.

I’m crying. “I feel contaminated,” I say.

They nod.