By Emelyn Grace Jaros

The radio was less staticy that I remembered. Jason Aldean’s twang had only to compete with the whir of the AC and the rumble of tires against broken-up asphalt. One vent was pointed up at my face and drying out my eyes. I turned off the AC with a hit of a button on the rental car’s freshly windexed dashboard. I rolled down the window instead and let the hot wind sweep in the smell of manure and drown out the air-freshener tang. I saw motion out of the corner of my eye and knew that James had raised his hand to shield his nose and mouth. I put my hand out the window and carved the rush of air into waves with twists of my wrist.

I felt my muscle memory kicking in as I turning off the main road onto a side street whose sign was still bent from when Sam had taken it out with a John Deere our senior year. Back at the airport, James had asked me if we should program in the address. I said no. He said it had been a while. And he was right but I still knew every turn and could probably do these last 500 yards with my eyes closed—I could certainly do it drunk.

I signaled and steered the compact Honda onto the gravel driveway. The house was set back from the road, so that you couldn’t see anything more than the peak of the roof over the maples and oaks. The rocks churned under the tires and clinked off the car’s metal underbelly.

I pulled up in front of the porch and shifted into park. I put my finger on the button to shut off the engine but paused. “Don’t take any of it personally.”

James nodded and I pressed the button. The engine fell silent but we still didn’t get out. “We don’t have to stay the whole time if you don’t want to,” he said.

I opened the door and stepped into the blaring heat. James followed and walked up the sagging front porch steps by my side.

I stopped at the white front door. The paint was still scratched away, exposing the yellowed wood underneath, from where Lacy used to jump at it to be let back in. She had to be dead by now. I did the math in my head to be sure. She would be eighteen and I didn’t think that was possible. I know that that should make me sad but I didn’t feel it. I would later, maybe.

I tried the door even though I wasn’t sure if that was still okay. It was locked anyway. I knocked and the wood felt soft enough under my knuckles that I checked if the raps had left indents. They didn’t—none that I could see at least.

The door swung open and Mason stared at me. He had gained weight, his stomach swelling out against a stained white T-shirt. He stepped aside and said, “You find the place okay?”

We stepped into the living room. All of the furniture was the same, through a little lumpier and more scratched up. The floral curtains were drawn against the sun’s heat and the ceiling fan fixture threw yellow light over everything. The blades revolved slowly as if out of habit. Mason stared at me, challenging me to answer his question. His face was puffy. Maybe he was drinking more now.

“This is James,” I said, putting my hand on James’ arm. I leaned into him slightly as he extending his other arm to shake Mason’s hand. Mason glanced down but his arms remained static at his sides.

“How’s mom?” I asked as James shoved his hand into the pocket of his jeans.

“At the hospice place. Been better.”

I already knew she was at the hospice center. That was one of the few things I had gotten out of Mason when he had called two days ago to tell me that I needed to come home. He didn’t want to make that call. That was obvious as soon as I had answered. But I guess mom had been asking for me. I’m not sure which surprised me more. That she had been asking for me, or that Mason had actually made that call.

“I go see her in the mornings. She’s the most lucid then. You can come tomorrow it you can find the time.”

“I’ll go get the luggage,” James said, his hand brushing my lower back as he turned to leave. I wanted him to stay, to keep his hands on my body and to let me lean into him. My body felt heavy and my thoughts a thousand miles away from my pounding heart.

“I’ve missed you,” I said, as the front door creaked shut. I knew it was a mistake to say it but it was true. Or at least it felt true as I stared at him in the waxy light.

“Save it,” he said, turning to go into the kitchen.

I followed him. Pill bottles were clustered next to the toaster and a medicine time table was stuck to the fridge with a Disneyland magnet. It was the one we had bought when we went together the summer after I had finished middle school. Mickey Mouse holding a fly fishing rod. It was made of clay and the tip of the rod had broken off sometime since I had last seen it.

“What can I do to help?” I asked.

“We’re selling the house. You can pack up the attic,” he said as he opened the fridge. White condensation billowed out into the humid air as he took a beer out of the door. I tried not to see it as an accusation as he smashed the top off against the counter.

“You’re selling it?”

“Medical bills,” he said and took a sip.

“We can help with those,” I said before I could consider how to word it. Another mistake. Maybe I should have shouldn’t have called James and me “we.” Maybe I shouldn’t have said “help.” Maybe there was no way that it was going to go over well.

“We’re fine. We’ve been fine. Box up the fucking attic if you want to feel good about yourself. That’s why you’re here, ain’t it?”

“That’s not fair.” I felt my throat tightening and pressure starting to build behind my eyes. I swallowed and blinked hard a few times. I wasn’t going to cry.

“Don’t you go talking about fair.”

The front door’s hinges announced James’ entrance. The wheels of my suitcase clicked over the tile grout as he came to stand next to me. He hitched his duffle bag higher up on his shoulder as he quietly asked, “Where should I put this?”

I looked to Mason. “My room?” I started.

“Does it look like we’ve remodeled.” He walked out the back door that was situated awkwardly between the stove and sink. This time I thought better of following him.

I thought they would have taken it over, made it into bland guest room or something, but it was all how I left it. James stayed at the doorway as I walked first to the bed—a twin draped in a purple polka dot quilt—and then to the desk. I put my hand on the back of the wooden chair, a little surprised that it was real and solid under my palm. I had a cork board stuck on the wall over my desk, covered in movie ticket stubs, sketches and photos. I ran my fingers over a strip of pictures from the photo booth at junior prom. Izzy and me laughing and sticking out our tongues and trying on prop hats. I had almost packed it when I was leaving that night but couldn’t bring myself to touch it. I had regretted not bringing it. I had pictures of us on my phone and computer but this one felt more real. I could put it somewhere I couldn’t avoid seeing it. I could let it hurt like she deserved.

James walked properly into the room and put the luggage next to the bed. We hadn’t shared a twin since college. He sat down on the bed which creaked under his weight. “How you holding up?”

“I knew he was going to be like this,” I said, forcing myself to shrug.

“That doesn’t make it easier. Or okay.”

“He deserves to be mad at me,” I said, pulling the chair out from the desk and sitting down.

“You saved your life. He shouldn’t be mad about that.”

“He doesn’t see it that way,” I stood up again, my body craving motion to combat the mess of thoughts competing to drag me under. “I’m going to go box up the attic.”

“Okay,” he said, standing up.

“Can I be alone?” I asked. “You look tired. Maybe try to take a nap.” He did look tired but then I am sure that I did too. We had been up until one in the morning packing and then had to be at the airport at six.

He searched my face for a moment before sitting back down. “Come get me if you want help.”

I closed the door behind me, keeping my hand on the doorknob for a moment before I could coordinate my body to walk. I could just barely reach the cord that hung down from the hatch in the ceiling but could manage if I lifted myself up onto my toes. I pulled it hard, using my weight as I dropped back down to flat feet. Then ducked out of the way as the hatch fell. I unfolded the splintery, dusty ladder and climbed up.

It was noticeably hotter, the air stale and dense. The roof was slanted so that I could only stand up if I was right in the middle of the space. Light filtered in through two windows, one on each of the triangular-cut walls. Boxes and broken things crowded the space. I sat cross legged near the open hatch not sure what Mason wanted from me. It looked as if everything that could fit in a box was already in one. Probably he just wanted me as far away from him as possible.

Sweat dampened the bridge of my nose and the back of my neck, soaking into the nape of my pony tail. The air seemed useless to my lungs and I felt my head begin to ache. I stood up, which made me dizzy for a moment. I stepped away from the open hatch. One of the closest boxes was labeled “X-mas” in sharpie scrawl. I flip one of the flaps cardboard up. Newspaper wrapped around and wedged between ornaments. The acidic smell of ink rose on the heat. I let the flap fall.

I walked to the window that overlooked the front yard and knelt down in front of it. Our sleek little rental car looked out of place in the patchy dead grass and dirt. I had thought of that at the dealership but getting something else—a pick-up or jeep maybe—might look like a mockery. I had hesitated at the desk until James answered instead. I twisted away from the glass, sinking down so my hip rested against the floor boards. I rested my head back against the window frame. The paint was peeling and sticky.

I saw a bottle in the corner, wedged behind a wicker rocking chair with a hole in the seat. Wine. With the label peeled off. There were about three inches of translucent yellow liquid still in it. I had forgotten I had stashed it there. I used to sneak up here to drink after my mom started to get stricter about alcohol in the house, once it had officially become a “problem”. I had even greased up the hinges with WD-40 to lessen their creak. I had taken it from the auto shop Mason had been working at back then. It was probably still up here too somewhere.

Izzy and I used to play up here sometimes, rearranging the boxes and furniture into forts. We weren’t tall enough then to reach the cord so I always had to convince Mason to help. Once, he had closed the door with us still up here. I had fallen trying to open it from the inside and broken my arm. Mom locked herself in her room and cried for an hour after we got home from the hospital. He won’t open the door again after that. He said mom and I were always locking ourselves places. He did that a lot, compare me and mom. I never really locked myself away much until after we got the news about Izzy’s accident. Then I hardly left my room for a week. I had heard my mom talking on the phone through the wall, telling some friends that she was thinking she was going to have some sort of doctor out to the house. I thought that was just about the stupidest thing I had ever heard as I laid under the sweaty sheets. It wasn’t like she didn’t know what was wrong with me. Izzy had died on the pavement after her sister’s Kia was T-boned by a truck at the intersection out front of the CVS. There wasn’t much of a mystery about it. At least, it didn’t feel like one then. She had died and I wasn’t going to ever be okay again. But I was okay. Air kept filling my lungs and slowly, I was able to make it through a day without crying. And then the mystery of it all began to set in. She shouldn’t have even been in that car. She only was because I had been too far gone to drive us home from Johnny’s. I had slept over on the sofa and Izzy’s sister came to pick her up. That was the last time I had ever gotten drunk.

After about a week and a half of not leaving the house, I had packed up and left. I had lived in a motel. I had worked there too for a while. I thought that I would come back after I had proven myself, whatever that meant. But then I got into college, and graduated and got married, and I still didn’t come back. It took all of this to get me back here. I let that sting for a moment. I let myself think about what it must have been like here after they realized I had left. Mom must have been a wreck and Mason had to deal with that day in and day out. I always made excuses. That I had to leave. That I would never have gone to college or meet James—Hell, I might be dead by now—if I had stayed. But not this time, no excuses. Just the image of Mason listening to our mother crying through her bedroom wall while he should have been at work. I didn’t think I could fix it, not after this much time had passed. But maybe, this silent penitence could count for something, even if only something internal.

About the Author:

I am a Mechanical Engineering student at the University of Pittsburgh and am pursuing a minor in Creative Writing. My work has previously appeared in Flash Fiction Magazine.