“Hi, Sugar,” she whispered and I blacked out, standing straight up as her pinked mouth moved and the wind blew and my heart crimped along the edges. I should have slammed the door in her face, yelled profanities at the closed structure afterwards, but instead I stood frozen, arm suspended above the handle.
The top of my head tingled. This is a nightmare. And then I thought I hate her.
“I took a taxi, well a plane first, I came to help you know,” dark blonde hair lay in drenched strands plastered around her face; black lines streaked down each of her cheeks. She was backlit by the porch, by the rain, and I shuddered.
It was 10 p.m. exactly – I remembered seeing the green numbers on the microwave as I’d scooted, confused, through the kitchen to answer the insistent doorbell.
“Can I,” her voice squeaked. “Can I come in?” Still I stared, the seconds taut between us, all ability to form syllables lost along the distant space of the more than ten years since we’d last been in this place together.
There was movement at her side and a furry, barking head poked itself from her fuschia purse and into the porch light. She tugged the chihuahua out with ringed hands and shoved the offensive creature toward my face.
“This is Rocky.”
My insides screamed but as I opened my mouth, finally finding my words, there was a pressure on my elbow where Ben had presented himself.
“You need to get out of the rain,” he reached for two of her three large suitcases as he glanced at me. We shot each other telepathic messages until he shrugged and widened the door, inviting her inside with a wave.
As they melted into the house behind me, I moved into the rain and sat on the wet porch as if I could float away on the sea of the storm.
I’d spent the entire 8-hour plane ride back to Omaha drinking mimosas, one after the other like cheap beads tucked along a string, and wondering how I could fix the chaos that was my life.
I’d been back for a few days, but hadn’t found the information I so desperately needed.
“Tell me again how you found out Dad was sick?” It was easiest to direct my anger at my 25-year-old twin.
The oppressive green walls of our childhood kitchen had not faded with time, and I sat at the scratched oak table with Ben pestering him for answers yet again. This had become a ritual since I barreled into town the previous week, but his explanations never seemed to satisfy.
“Reese, we’ve been over this. I found a dozen pill bottles in his medicine cabinet. It didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out something was up.” My brother leaned back in his chair and exhaled. His espresso-colored hair stuck up at different angles, a sea of exclamation marks.
“But why were you going through his medicine cabinet in the first place?”
He tapped out a beat on the table in front of him and smiled. “Would you rather me tell you I needed a band-aid or are you okay with the fact I always go through people’s cabinets when I visit?”
“You count moving back in with Dad for two whole months as a visit then?”
“Don’t nitpick my terminology, sister. Your twenty questions are almost up. And then it’s my turn, I have some questions for you about Charlie.” Behind black frames, his dark eyes were infuriatingly calm. We’d looked at each other like this so many times through the years, his stormy eyes as familiar to me as my own, our prolonged stare full of unspoken questions and an overarching understanding, the mountain of unsaid things between us prodigious and daunting. I sighed and shook my head.
“Ben, don’t be lame. This is serious.”
“Okay, actually, I’ll save us both time. Let’s re-cap for the upteenth time. My company is starting a branch here in Omaha. You do remember I work for a marketing firm?”
“I will not deign to answer such ridiculous queries,” I punched his arm.
“Right, well, said Big Deal Marketing firm sent me over to little ‘ole Omaha to be the project manager for our latest plant since I’m a native and ‘know the vibe.’ Maya came with me for the first week, because we hadn’t been up to see Dad since Christmas, and we like to come a couple of times a year anyway. You know, like kids do.”
“Don’t. Just don’t.”
“So here we were. Here, also, were the pills and a little thing called cancer which Dad had hidden from all of us. I called you right away. Anyway, he’s at the end of his treatments. I knew even though …” Ben trailed off at the sounds of bustling behind me.
The determined click of heels and smell of wisteria meant I didn’t need to turn around to know whom I’d see.
It had been two days since Bernice, formerly known as Mom, had shown up like an apparition – more like a nightmare – in the night. I couldn’t stand the sight of her.
The last two days had been a dance of avoidance between the two of us. The day before she’d waited outside the bathroom for me and even at 7 in the morning her slightly chubby five-foot, two-inch frame was bejeweled from head to toe. Her blonde bob was coiffed into big curls, tightly sprayed. I tripped down the hallway in my hurry to escape.
“I only want to help.” Her hopeful yells chased me down the hall in surround-sound.
Her version of being useful was to give us each worried looks in turn and spend hours in the kitchen concocting a variety of casseroles, soups, and hams. She was from Mississippi and her love language was of the greasy variety.
“And why is she here?!” I mouthed to Ben. “Why now?”
He shrugged. We didn’t invite Bernice, didn’t expect to see her, but I wasn’t accounting for her strength of personality, her need to be at the center of any drama. Lord knows, she loves to be needed. I was still confused how she found out about Dad in the first place, but didn’t have the energy to ask.
She ran toward Ben with a weepy look and open arms, and I left.
I ignored Dad’s prone figure on the couch and headed outdoors.
The air was warm, dense, and replete with the sounds of insects chattering. I plopped onto the porch swing and gave myself a push. I had always loved our front porch, it had been my favored escape for as long as I could remember. When things were tense between my parents or when everyone had been in the house for hours glancing through each other rather than at them, I’d abscond being a Hamilton and look for better things outside our walls.
Vines grew along the western side of the porch, sprawling, darkened in the golden hues of the late afternoon light. I’d sneak out in the summer, late at night to be alone and breathe in the air of the stars and dream about a new family and life far away from Omaha.
Dad, the ever-eager architect, had made many changes to our house over the years, but my favorite would always be the pillars and planks that comprised the front porch.
My first and only kiss for a long time was with Carsen Finkle, after a swim meet in the fifth grade, right outside the pool where I’d just won my heat. But in subsequent years, I’d had my share of kisses on this porch. The summer of my eighth grade year, after Bernice left, I made out with the entire track and field team on this porch. Ben finally put a stop to it, storming out and ordering Philip Dyer to go home and tell his friends none of them were welcome to come back.
Ben grew more protective after our parents split. Dad worked later and later at the office, so it was Ben who cooked our dinners and biked the packages of hotdogs and macaroni and cheese home from the grocery store.
Dad ate his dinner cold when he finally made his way home, long after Ben and I had headed upstairs to our separate rooms, separate lives. I knew this because I once went back downstairs to talk to our father after I heard the door close firmly upon his entrance, a bolded period at the end of a sentence.
I descended the steps covertly and paused in the kitchen doorway. The tiles were cold beneath my toes, the only part of me brave enough to enter the room. There was my father, head bowed, pushing around the congealed dinner we’d left him hours earlier. My mother had bought us a set of bright red plates around the time I was five, she said it gave our family a bit of class and energy all at once. That night Dad’s tater tots and pizza looked an offensive shade of yellow against the ruby-tinted circle before him.
He held the edges of the cheery plate, and it wasn’t until I moved closer that I saw the tears at the edges of his eyes, vivid and insistent. I turned on my heels and left without a word. He noticed neither my presence nor my absence and in later years, Ben and I dubbed our teenage years “Dad’s Black Hole.” Even before she left, he’d grown absent, cool, distant.
I came home early from school a week later, not bothering to excuse myself at the principal’s office. I couldn’t be at school another second, so I instructed Ben and Charlie to tell the teachers I was sick if they asked and biked home in a fury.
Dad’s truck was parked out front and I raced inside, suddenly cheerful at the thought of a whole afternoon with my father. He stood in the kitchen, his back to me, packing up the red plates. One after the other, he settled them into a large brown box. When he got to the last plate, he held it for so long I thought he’d fallen asleep, but without warning, he turned and threw it at the far wall, shoulders heaving, sobs leaving his body in stuttered cadence.
The crash of it hitting the corner sounded deafeningly through the afternoon quiet of our kitchen. I jumped.
He propped himself against the counter, as if the granite top would give him the strength he needed for a lifetime alone.
I moved forward then, tentatively reached to pat his back and convey that I, too, felt weak, let loose.
After a long pause, he turned and offered a forced smile.
With that he shuffled over to the stacked boxes. He walked with a slow limp, and for the first time, I noticed grey at his temples.
“Wait!” I raced to where he’d halted in the doorway.
“I want two of them.” I placed one of the plates on the kitchen table and aimed the other one at the facing wall.
“This sucks.” I threw the red plate hard and watched it fracture into its new configuration.
“Reese, honey,” I whipped around fiercely, and he stopped himself.
We stared at each other over the expanse of the kitchen.
Finally, “I’ll sweep it up later. Be careful for now, don’t walk around on that side of the kitchen in your socks.”
He didn’t ask me about school or where Ben was.
As he escorted off our dishware, I took the second red plate up to my room and reverentially placed it beneath my second pillow, the serene pink roses on my pillowcase reassuring any viewers all was ordinary.
Ben stood in my bedroom doorway, his frame shadowed in the hallway beyond where the sounds of the kitchen television floated up to the second story. His face was darkened, but I could see the lines of hope, worry, tiredness, spreading themselves across his forehead.
“Reese?” I didn’t realize I hadn’t answered and wondered how many seconds or minutes had passed while he stood there, waiting. I motioned him in without words.
When Ben and I were kids, I’d sneak into his room almost every night after Mom and Dad tucked us into bed. We needed to dissect the events of the day. We were as quiet as could be, but almost nightly Dad would yell from the bottom of the steps for us to get back into our own beds. The ritual stopped sometime in our early teenage years, when our family structure had disintegrated into a hundred unrecognizable pieces, and communication had been relegated to the category of artifacts.
Ben had lugged the cumbersome box TV from the basement and placed it on my desk. I couldn’t see which VHS sat on top with a bag of M&Ms and a bowl of popcorn, didn’t ask what it was, but I wasn’t surprised when Hayley Mills came to life across the screen.
The Parent Trap was Ben’s favorite childhood movie, and I pompously indulged him with a viewing when I could. It was a treat generally reserved for the rare Christmas I came home, but it had already been three years since that happened.
Ben has always been fascinated with other twins’ stories, even fictional ones, and therein lay the only explanation I could find for his long-standing loyalty to this movie.
His girlfriend, Maya, said his guilty pleasure was cute.
I teased him that Jung and Freud would point out the obvious – he had a subconscious drive to lead our parents back to one another, but he shrugged it off.
“Thanks for this,” Ben lobbed a fuzzy blanket at my head as we leaned against the pillows and drifted back to California 1961.
I responded to work emails all morning, and by mid-afternoon, I drifted through the silent house to the kitchen. The sun slanted sideways through the windows creating a friendly pool of light on the counter where Ben had meticulously lined a row of full shot glasses across the length of the granite.
“Drinking again, brother?”
“Please darling, I never stopped.” I rolled my eyes at his bow tie and the two empty shot glasses off to the side.
He motioned for me to sit down and before I could refuse, he pulled a package out from under the counter.
“It’s for you, and here’s how this will work. I’m going to ask you a question and you will tell me an answer. For the sake of your conscience and liver, I recommend the truth. I am Sherlock Holmes. We will drink if I think you’re lying.”
“Umm, I’m Sherlock. You’re Watson, and I’m not playing.” I scrunched up my nose.
“As I was saying, when all the shots are gone and the whole truth is out and about, you may have your precious package. By the way, it’s heavy – could it be gold? Please do introduce me to Croesus when you get a chance.”
“Bennjjjjiiii. Your absurd game doesn’t even make sense, you weirdo.” I tugged at the edges of my t-shirt. “And why aren’t you at work?”
He took a slow sip of the water with his left hand and ignored my eye rolls.
“I took off early. This is Scotch, rum, bourbon, some of Dad’s fancy Irish whiskey, vodka, gin, and tequila. As you can see, I’ve arranged them from lightest to darkest, but we may proceed in any order you’d like. This one here is water; you’re welcome.” He strummed his fingers along the counter and paused for effect. “For example, how is Charlie? I only hear from him on occasion, and you were with him up until two weeks ago. What’s happening with my brother? Don’t be pithy.”
“He’s not your brother, you nob.”
“Oh, but he is. As our lifetime neighbor and subsequent best friend, he is better than any brother Carl and Bernice could have given me.”
“Charlie is, you know, Charlie. He’s getting jobs left and right. He’s full of charm and natural talent. Everyone loves him. Everyone wants him. He has enough ideas for the next five years and is always on the lookout for something new. He only launched the media company two years ago, but he’s ready to add a video component to our team and a product line and, and, and. He’s great. May I have my package now?” I forced a polite smile.
“I need a re-cap. You two graduated photo school four years ago and got an internship or two together. Then you each set out to freelance on your own, but you signed up to work with him three months later. Am I missing anything?”
“Ben, you make it sound like I didn’t try. Three months is a long time and you don’t know everything that happened. You’re not always as smart as you think you are. Working with Charlie was the wise choice.” I reclined my arms on the counter.
“You mean the safe choice.”
“I mean the choice that made sense then.”
“And now? You’re content, working with him still? Are you considered partners or is he your boss? Actually, hold those answers. Which shot are we doing first?”
“Hey, that’s not fair – I answered your dumb question.”
“Aha, you did.”
“Ben! It’s three in the afternoon.”
“Reese, Reese, calm down. Alcohol should be consumed with joy, not angst. I’m thinking you’re thinking gin, so here you go.”
He successfully blocked my lunge toward the package and shook his head, nodding toward the drink.
“Bottoms up, babycakes.”
“Charlie is great, ecstatic actually. He loves that we work together, tells everyone we make the best team. And we do. He loves the fashion side of photography, so he’s in his element. By the time he’s 30, you can officially say your best friend is a big deal. He’s well on his way. Just remember you heard it from me first.”
“You’re still pulling the best friend card, are you?”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“I mean it’s easy and a cop out. I’m both surprised and not surprised that after all these years you’re still trying to fly under the radar of the whole best friend notion. I thought you were better than such small-mindedness.”
“Now you’re making me angry. You don’t know anything about it.”
“Okay, fine. Are you happy?” He sounded somber.
“I mean, I’m happy. Of course. I’m a photographer traveling the world with my best friend. People would kill for my job. I am the poster child for a happy life.”
I batted my eyes and grabbed a full shot glass which I threw back without his nudging and continued. “I guess I always thought I would go a bit more in the documentary direction, be more gritty with my work, but that can come later. These photo shoots and experiences are invaluable and a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I mean, I met and photographed Taylor Swift. I’m living anyone’s wildest dreams.”
“Wait what?” I took Ben’s brief interruption as an opportunity to snag another shot, and as I slammed the glass on the table, my cheeks flushed.
“Well, you know Charlie’s parents. They know everybody. So we got in as assistants on the shoot. It was small. But still. I held a reflector from ten feet away.”
“Did you actually talk to Taylor? How have you never told me this before now?”
“I mean, no, but she said ‘Hi’ to Charlie right before the shoot. Of course, who could resist his handsome face? She probably wanted to date Charlie.”
“And then write a song about him.”
“She probably kissed him!”
“And then wrote a song about said kiss,” Ben slid a shot glass of rum in my general direction and plowed forward. “Sister dear, you’re looking a bit green and we are getting off track. Speaking of dating, are you and Charlie snogging?”
“What, are you Harry Potter now? And is this rum?” My nose touched the glass. “You know I hate rum.”
“Then drink it fast. One, two, three, go.”
“No, I’m not dating or snogging Charlie! No. Not then. Not now. Wow, I’m feeling the gin.”
“Are you sure it’s not the rum?”
“He’s adorable. Brilliant. Hilarious. Too-much-to-handle. My best friend. Gorgeous. Have you ever noticed his lips? Of course you haven’t. Well I have, and Charlie Beck has great lips. Not that I’ve ever touched them. But they sure do look nice on his face. Only it’s not like that.” My sentences ran together.
“Then what is it like? I’m not an idiot. I know there’s always been a little something between you two. You’ve loved him forever; I knew it after the one Halloween party when the three of us dressed as the Three Amigos and sang ‘My Little Buttercup.’ I was Chevy Chase playing the piano and you two were Martin Short and Steve Martin singing. I saw you fall in love with him that night.”
“Sure, Dr. Phil. Sure.”
“Reese, mine eyes have seen the glory.”
“Maybe I have thought about settling down in a cottage built for two with him. So what! But Charlie will never, and I mean never like me like that. We are Snoopy and Charlie. Period.”
“Wait, are you Snoopy or are you Charlie?”
“Okay, okay, Snoopy, I didn’t mean to get your fur ruffled. But speaking of drinking…”
“I said nothing about drinking.”
“Here’s your Scotch. Drink it like a good girl.”
“He’s too busy becoming famous to think about love anyway. At least that’s what he tells me.”
“But you love him.”
“I mean. Whatever. We’re best friends. You’re best friends with him too – does that mean you’re going to marry him? Does Maya have a little competition? So you have noticed his lips. I’ll need another Scotch when I break the news to her; make it an entire bottle.”
“Your belligerence has earned you your fifth shot. Dealer’s choice. There’s a lot more where that comes from. Ah, the Irish whiskey, an excellent choice. Speaking of the Irish, how are things in Ireland these days?”
“Oh, ya know. Green and magical, as always.”
“So. Did you make any friends while you were over there? Anyone to write home about? Anyone special?”
“You are spectacularly annoying.”
“The fact that you just enunciated ‘spectacularly’ correctly lets me know it’s time for our next shot. Let’s go for the bourbon and save the vodka for a clean finish. So what’s up with Irish men sending you packages?”
“Oh wait, that’s from … He’s this guy I met when I was there three years ago. It’s not a big deal.”
“Sister, Irish Santa Claus beamed you a package from halfway around the globe. That’s not nothing.”
“Is it going to sound bad if I say we met at a pub?”
“Only if you had six shots with him. Keep going.”
“Well, he’s nice. And gentlemanly. Our age. He studied his undergrad at one of those proper schools, Oxford or Cambridge or something.”
“Oh, you mean Hogwarts?”
“He’s getting his Master’s in writing at some fancy university, and he lives on a sheep farm with his grandpa and dad.”
“You’re making this up. Sheep farming writer, yeah right. Take a shot, take two for that matter.”
“Whatever, Ben. He’s a really, really nice guy. A good guy.”
“He sounds boring.”
“Right? Only he’s hot. I mean not.” I blushed. “He’s smart, but he never talks down to me. He’s quirky and witty in an understated way. We hung out every day for two weeks straight when Charlie and I were there assisting for that Guinness shoot three years ago.”
“I’m sure Charlie loved him.”
“Well, they never met. Charlie doesn’t know about him. It never came up. He was busy during the trip, so I was busy. Blake, this guy, and I only got to hang out a couple of times on this past trek to Ireland before you called me back to the home front. Thanks for that, by the way.”
“You’ve been dating an Irish guy for three years, and you’ve never once mentioned him to dearest me or Charlie? Drink this vodka, and tell me exactly how hot he is.”
I took the glass, threw it back and continued. “Ughhh, no, we’re not dating. We’re letter writing. We’re friends. We’re nothing.”
“You’re ‘letter writing?’ What the hell does that even mean?”
“Like I said, he’s clever and wants to write for a living. You know how much I hate social media, so when we met three years ago, he asked if we could write letters, and I agreed. He said something like, ‘I find handwritten epistles of this variation modish in a manner little else in this frenetic world is.’ I didn’t understand half of it, but it sounded like fun.”
“Really, it did?”
“It is fun. Remember having pen-pals from South Africa in third grade? Blake and I have never even exchanged numbers; we thought it would be more real this way. And Blake is one of the nicest things in my life right now. It’s simple. He’s simple.”
“Can you use the word simple one more time. And there’s no love there? Reese, people don’t just write letters. Tell me you’ve kissed.”
“Well, don’t you ask a lot of questions.”
“So that’s a yes.”
I avoided eye contact, only smiled.
“How did this Blake get our Omaha address? That’s pretty creepy, Reese. Creepy Irish man who refuses to be on the grid knows where you live. I’m imagining a hobbit looming over me in my sleep tonight.”
“Hobbits are from New Zealand and leprechauns are from Ireland.”
“Well, technically …”
“Shut up. Sending him my specific geographical location is a habit now. You know I travel a lot, so I have a stack of postcards in my purse. I send him one as soon as I land any place new I’ll be for more than two weeks. I think I even mailed it on my way to the airport when I left Ireland. Like I said, it’s uncomplicated. He’s probably been the most stable part of my last three years. Hey, what’s that?”
By the time Ben turned around, my package and I shoved past Bernice who stood like a fixture in the kitchen doorway.
“Don’t forget to hydrate,” Ben called after me.
I closed the door to my room with epic force, the noise reminding me of the headache that was slowly making its entrance. I settled into the middle of my sagging mattress and opened the package with more anticipation than I’d known in ages. A dear, black box sat inside.
As I held my camera close, I allowed myself to rest in the peace of something familiar. It wasn’t until I grew aware of the wet on my hands, saw it on the black of my camera that I realized I was crying, sobbing really. I rocked back and forth, slowly taking it all in; an old friend had come to visit.
After a few moments, an hour maybe two, I noticed the protruding corner of something else in the bottom of the box. I pulled out a book and ran my fingers over the front cover, taking note of the bumps and worn edges. It was Tolkien; I’d never seen Blake without it. I opened the cover and skimmed the pages. It looked tired, its pages yellowed from age. It smelled musty and keeping it flat was a chore, as its permanent place seemed to be his back pocket.
The inscription on the title page stopped me short:
To my dear, darling son. Blake, you ever bring me great joy. I love you everywhere and back. A billion times forever. Never forget. Love, Mum
Not all those who wander are lost.
All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.
Courage is found in unlikely places.
Still round the corner there may wait, A new road or a secret gate.
And deeper in the box still, I saw a note, folded. I held my breath as I opened it. The sound of the paper unfolding sounded loudly into my room. Scrawled in dear, familiar writing, it simply said,
Reese, I found your camera after you left the house in a hurry. Sorry it took so long to find its way back home. Know that I am here if you need me and when you’re ready. With hugs, B
It was enough.
I laid back on my pillow, closed my eyes, and let my thoughts carry me to sleep.
When I woke up three hours later, I forgot for a moment that I was back in Omaha, that Bernice was in town, that life as I knew it was on a decided pause. For sixty seconds squished in a blissful row I was content, relishing in the feeling of a lazy afternoon and toasty covers.
And when I remembered, when it came back to me piece by painful piece, I went to find my brother.
“Want to go outside?”
We sat in our tree house until after sundown, poking sticks along the crevices of the wood. The two of us had built these four walls together one summer, all hammers, nails, and heart. Charlie was in acting camp that year and when he came home, we blindfolded him and marched him promptly to our new beloved resort. It was our feeble attempt to imitate the Swiss Family Robinson, and I loved it more than I loved most people. We’d dragged an old rug out here, pieces of cloth had been hammered to the windows. I’d hung a shelf and snuck out a few of Dad’s books to brighten the space. The boys mocked my domesticity, but I spruced up our mini home with every treasure I could find. With Dad’s guidance we’d waterproofed our home away from home and even after all these years, the interior was as dry as straw. Now the decorations looked tired, put out. They added a wistful ambiance to our hideaway.
I imagine it was an hour before either of us even spoke and for once Ben broke the silence first.
“Remember that time you had a sleepover up here with Sarah and Natalia, and you wouldn’t let me come? So I snuck up after you were asleep and stayed just to prove myself to you.”
And so it began.
“Remember that time Uncle Paul brought us a birthday cake to the family reunion, only he’d forgotten to add sugar?” We stopped going to family functions around the time we were 11. First, because Mom was too busy to make it happen and Dad didn’t even notice. Then because Mom left.
“He was always so strange. I always thought you looked a little like him.”
“Stop! Remember that time Mom was so angry that she threw both her shoes at the kitchen wall?”
“They were her red heels. She always had a thing for the loud colors. I think the marks are still on the wall.”
“Oh yeah, right by the hutch.”
“Remember that time we smoked a cigar with Anne in the field before prom?” There were no parents around to take photos, but we’d learned self-sufficiency, and shot an entire roll with Charlie the hour before prom. I went with Charlie; he’d broken up with his girlfriend the week before. I hung on his arm, ignoring the glares of his ex and her friends.
“Oh sweet Anne.” Ben sighed. “The one who got away.”
“Speaking of proms …do you remember that time you went to prom with Cambria VanHolteren, and she tried to kiss you right in front of Bernice?” We both were laughing. “Or what about that time I caught you kissing Naomi out by the shed? I didn’t even know it was your first time. You kissed her a lot more after that. I always see her drinking gin at The Upstream in the Old Market every time I’ve in Omaha in the last five years. I’m pretty sure she’s not over you yet.”
“Remember that time Andrew spent the summer here – the summer all his pants were too short, not the next year? We called him Tristan all summer just to mess with his head.”
“Remember that time I made you cry because I wouldn’t let you borrow my bike to go visit Jaylene?”
“Ughhh, you were the worst with bike sharing.”
Then we simultaneously hushed and stared at those stars.
The luminous fireballs held our united gaze, stalwart and true.
Even when the world was crumbling, falling into a thousand minuscule bits at my feet, those Midwestern stars were peace. They were home. And tonight, they were exactly what we needed.
Ben coughed. “I remember our parents laughing together late at night after we’d gone to bed. I remember movies and pizzas on Friday nights. I remember Dad filling the kitchen with Mom’s favorite flowers on their anniversary every single year and taking the day off work every year for her birthday.” He ended in a whisper.
“Why do you refuse to re-live the happy moments from our family? You act as if any joy we shared was something contrived, ethereal, from someone else’s story, not ours.”
“Because she left us Ben,” I squinted at him, unable to move. “And never returned. Why aren’t you as mad as me?”
Ben looked down at his hands before he continued. “I don’t understand why Mom left us – that’s something I can’t talk about with her, no matter how she tries to bring it up. But I refuse to accept that our lives have been all bad, as if we are the victims of some poorly-written novel. I remember us as a family. There were some happy times with Mom and Dad too.”
“Maybe we were, once upon a time. But now?” I held his gaze.
He shook his head and laid back down flat on his back.
“When are you leaving?” My voice rang tight. Bernice was awake and in the kitchen when we finally went back inside and the sight of her looking so smug and settled sent a spike of anger through my gut.
Bernice, who’d been roosting atop a stool, looked startled and put down her pen.
“Well, sugar, I only want to be helpful, so as long as your dad is sick, I can be here to cook or run errands or take him to the doctor’s or whatever.”
“Ben’s here. He can do all those things,” My arms were statues across my chest.
“Uh, well, technically speaking maybe, but also I’m working so I can’t do everything.” From his place at the fridge, Ben ignored the daggers I shot in his direction, grabbed a spoon and dug into his cottage cheese.
“Sweetie,” Bernice looked uncomfortable.
“Don’t call me that.”
“It makes sense for me to be here. You both need to work. I can work from here. It’s no bother for me, really.”
As Ben inched his way closer to my side, my nostrils expanded three sizes.
“It made sense for you to be here before too, but where were you then?” The snarl shot around the room.
“Reese, sugar, I did try, but …” her lips trembled.
“No, you clearly didn’t,” I stomped away before either of them could respond.
And just like that, we were transported back to square one.