Zech’s got his shoulders turned away from me when we pull up to a four-way stop in the middle of Utah. There are no other cars around, but I pause for a full minute to be sure one isn’t going to blast through the intersection and into us. The rain’s so loud I can’t hear the blinker.
“Quite a storm,” I say loudly.
He nods. The reddish hair at the nape of his neck is matted and I’m certain he’s wearing the same red and blue plaid shirt he wore when I picked him up at the bus station late last night. There’s a strong smell of Old Spice and a fainter smell of chewing tobacco and I wonder if he lied to me about quitting. It’s none of my business.
Wishing I could find a way to break the tension, I glance over and find he’s twisting his hands in his lap. It’s exactly like grandma used to do, the way she’d squeeze the fingers of one hand and then the next while whispering the Lord’s prayer over and over under her breath. He’s making me uneasy. Five hours left to go.
“See any cars coming?” I say.
He shakes his head no but doesn’t look at me. He’s opening and closing his knees rapidly making our economy rental car rock back and forth. His nervous energy makes me feel like I’m five years old again and he’s yelling at me for riding my bike in the street.
“You could have been killed,” he’d scream. “Don’t you know anything?”
I never knew anything. He’d tell me the statistics of kids being killed on bikes, paralyzed on roller skates, or how likely I’d be to die in a plane crash. When I moved away to college he gave me enough pepper spray to douse the entire male population three times over.
My roommates both told me driving with my brother to our grandmother’s funeral was a terrible idea. He’d never gotten his license and we’ve not seen each other since I left for college three years ago. He calls me on Sundays to argue and tell me what’s wrong with the world. Politics and religion are his favorite topics. I still know nothing, according to him.
“Mina, you don’t have to be a hero. Your brother has been nothing but an asshole to you your entire life. You don’t owe him shit,” Megan said.
“Seriously! I know he’s all the family you have, but he makes you crazy. You always are in tears after talking to him and a nervous wreck. You don’t have to do this,” Paula said.
They offered to pool their money together to buy me a plane ticket but I couldn’t do it. He needs me and I still hold out the childish hope of having the kind of TV sibling relationship I used to dream about in our shared bed at night. We’d magically become Mable and Dipper from “Gravity Falls,” solving the world’s mysteries while looking out for each other.
The truth is, I’m not sure where my brother lives right now or if he has people in his life. He asks about my classes and my friends, but it’s mostly to assess my level of danger. We are practically strangers.
“Is it okay if I put on some music?” I say.
“No,” he says. “My head still hurts.”
Grandma used to tell us she’d be gone one day and all we would have is each other. At church on Sundays, she’d make us hold hands when we walked through the tall wooden doors so God could see we loved each other. It never made sense to me how this all-seeing and all-knowing God cared so much about how we acted and looked on Sundays. Shouldn’t we love each other every day?
“God’s watching you extra close today,” she’d say. “No wildness or wickedness on Sundays.”
We’d have to stay in our fancy clothes until bedtime. There was no outdoor playing or television. It was dominoes, reading the Bible, eating fried chicken, and having ice cream sundaes for dessert with one single cherry on top. The picture of domestic bliss on the outside, but inside it was flat and empty. I wanted more. I still want more.
“Did you hear old auntie Char will be at the funeral?” I say. “I haven’t seen her in years.”
His voice is flat and he doesn’t turn toward me. The sunrise has begun through the haze of the misty rain and I realize today is the day we will bury our grandmother. It doesn’t feel real. I guess I figured she’d made a deal with God and would live forever. She was 92.
“Do you remember when auntie Char climbed the ladder at our Eastwood home to put up the Christmas lights and fell backward into the hydrangeas? Grandma was so concerned about her beautiful flowers, fussing and pulling the blossoms out from under her butt. Oh, Char was so mad…”
He doesn’t move or smile. He and grandma always seemed to have a secret language of misery I wasn’t a part of. I’d try to be still like them and crack the code, but I’ve remained on the outside. Tapping the steering wheel with my thumbs, I try again.
“Do you remember the name of that stupid dog she had? The little white one who humped everything? It would not leave my shins alone. I swear, to this day, I can’t stand little dogs because of that stinky thing. What was it…Jasper? Juniper? Jackson?”
“That’s right! She’d dress the smelly thing in dirty, ugly sweaters and it would shake and shake like some kind of drug addict going through withdrawals. I’m sure it’s dead now right? She wouldn’t bring it with her to a funeral?”
It’s quiet for a few minutes and then Zech chuckles. It’s the first time since we got into the car his posture has changed. He pulls a plastic bottle of water out of the faded denim backpack at his feet and takes a big swig.
“It’s been 10 years, Min,” he says. “ I’m sure it’s dead now.”
“If you say unless it’s a zombie dog I’m going to punch you in the arm.”
I smile at his remembrance of my favorite childhood movie, “Frankenweenie.” I made him watch it with me at least 50 times. I’d pretend to be terrified, pulling the blankets tight around my shoulders and scooting close to him on our well-worn grey couch. He’d make fun of me, but keep his arm around me. He liked it too.
“Big baby,” he says under his breath.
He pulls out a bag of Hershey’s kisses, rips open the top, and sets it on the center console between us. I watch from the corner of my eye as he unwraps the silver wrapping, pops the chocolate into his mouth, and then folds the paper over and over in his lap.
“Want one?” he asks.
He unwraps it and I open my mouth. He tosses it, but it misses, hitting the side of my nose and falling down at my feet. It’s probably going to melt there or be squished by my boots. I don’t care, but he’s back to rubbing his hands together in his lap and shaking his knees.
“I’m going to pull over and get it,” I say.
He nods. I take the next exit and follow a twisting road lined with old Birch trees until we reach an abandoned and boarded-up rest stop. It’s overgrown with tall thorny weeds and there’s graffiti on the small half-burned building which used to house the bathrooms and probably a few vending machines. The rain has finally stopped.
“I’m going to stretch my legs,” I say.
He doesn’t look at me, but I examine him for a minute before closing the door. He’s stopped moving and he’s got his arms crossed across his chest. He’s holding his neck at a weird angle. I wonder if he needs a smoke, a chew, or a drink. It’s probably hard for him to be sober around me. I consider giving him permission to do what he needs to cope, but I think it would either embarrass or anger him.
Retrieving the stray chocolate from its spot near the brake pedal, I toss it toward an overflowing garbage can and watch it bounce off the side and land on the ground. There’s a fair amount of steam coming from the engine and it occurs to me that I need a break too. Following a cracked cement path, I arrive at a small patch of dirt filled with cigarette butts, discarded soda and beer cans, and several thin pine cones.
I check my cell phone for messages, but I don’t have a signal out here. In the last few days, I’ve received a flurry of texts and IG messages from friends I haven’t seen in a long time letting me know they are here for me if I need anything. It’s hard to tell them I feel very little at my grandmother’s death. I can’t imagine what I might need.
The sound of a low meow draws my attention to a cluster of bushes off to the left I didn’t notice before. I take a few tentative steps onto the wet ground, making sure my soft brown boots aren’t going to get stuck and find the ground solid. A thin and dirty tabby cat pokes out its head and meows again—a sad pathetic sound.
“It’s okay, kitty,” I say. “Are you hungry?”
We don’t have anything in the car we can feed to a stray cat, but it seems the right thing to say. The hair on the back of its neck raises and it limps through the bushes, disappearing from sight. How did it get out here? I can’t leave it behind to starve or run onto the freeway and be crushed. It needs me.
“Come back, kitty!”
Following it through the thick ugly brown bushes I find an area of short dying trees and piles of garbage. Judging by the amount of dog poop on the ground, this was probably once a grassy area for pets. There’s a tangle of black and orange extension cords, an old metal lawn chair twisted and broken, pieces of splintered wood, and several large shiny black bags spilling their contents onto the ground. I step around all of it.
“Here, kitty, kitty! Here, kitty, kitty!”
There’s no sign of the cat, but I hear rushing water and follow it until I reach a cement runoff ditch swollen with rainwater. A styrofoam cup floats by followed by a bright yellow kids’ bucket, the kind you take to the beach. There’s a part of me yearning to fish it out, but Zech’s voice from a long time ago booms inside me.
“Don’t get any closer,” he says. “The tide can rip you out of my arms and into the ocean in an instant. I’d never see you again.”
We are standing on the beach while grandma watches us from her old white Cadillac. She’d parked it on the edge of a cliff looking down at the long line of white foamy waves, while Zech and I scrambled over the sandy dunes to the water’s edge. I’m mesmerized by the force of the waves, terrified really, at how powerful it seems. He grabs my hand and holds it tight.
“Don’t go,” he says.
His big blue eyes are filled with tears. They fall down his freckled cheeks in lines, almost as if they are drawing me a picture. My 5-year-old self promises I’ll never leave him and I mean it. I really do.
Guilt wriggles through me, squirming and singing the song of my selfishness. I wish our parents hadn’t died in that car crash leaving my brother to have a giant scar on his cheek and the burden of worrying about me. I should have picked a college close to home. He needs me.
Stepping onto the rough cement ledge surrounding the runoff ditch, I balance so my toes hang over the two-inch space and I can watch the water rush beneath me. Grandma always wore pale pastel suits with bright colorful silk scarves around her neck. I wonder if the ladies of her church chose the mint green one. It’s my favorite.
“What in the hell are you doing?” Zech calls.
Within an instant, he’s grabbing my shirt and pulling me off the ledge. I tumble forward, lose my balance, and fall to the ground. My knee hits something sharp and I scream out in pain. A jagged piece of glass pierces my jeans and sticks out of my knee. Blood begins to pool around it. Zech stares at it with wide eyes and then begins to scream. His face has turned bright red.
“I swear to God, Min, you do these things to make me crazy. Why would you wander so far from the car? Are you trying to get yourself killed? Don’t you care at all what it does to me? You don’t give a shit about anyone but yourself, always have. Must be so nice to walk through the world with people who care about you while you spit in their faces like it doesn’t matter at all. You don’t have any idea about anything. You are a stupid little child.”
He tries to scoop me up from the ground to carry me back to the car, but I push him away and stand on my own. It hurts really bad, but I’m not about to let him be the hero again. I was perfectly fine before he showed up.
“Stop it,” I say. “Just leave me alone.”
“Leave you alone! Seriously, Min. You’re telling me to leave you alone?”
“I was fine and now I’m not. This is your fault.”
Gesturing to my knee, I begin limping toward the direction of the car. He grabs my arm and spins me back toward him. The red of his face has become splotchy and his lips are pressed tight together. He punches me on the arm, hard, and then takes a step back.
“You are such a brat. Seriously. Grandma and I protected you all this time, but you don’t give a shit. You conveniently don’t remember anything. This place…this place…this is where you pull over and pull this shit. I really don’t believe you don’t remember. It’s not like you were a baby, Min. You have to remember. It happened at a rest stop just like this. Fucking, hell. You have to remember.”
I don’t have a clue what he’s talking about. Searching my memories I find only one at a rest stop. Grandma pulling up in her white Cadillac, a bag of Hershey kisses on the seat between us, Elvis Presley singing “my hands are shaky and my knees are weak…”
Zech says in a quiet voice, “I can’t seem to stand on my own two feet. Who do you think of when you have such luck?”
“I’m in love. I’m all shook up,” I finish.
“What happened before the car?” he says. “Why did grandma pick us up? You can remember the car so clearly, but nothing else. For God’s sake, you were 5. I promised grandma I’d never tell you, but you were there, Min. You were fucking there. Why do I have to be the one to hold it and you get to be the carefree one, off at college? Why do I have to shoulder it alone? It’s fucking unfair. It’s so fucking unfair.”
He’s crying now. Sobbing. He falls to the ground beside me and covers his face with his hands. I watch him and try to recall the moments before grandma came to get us. Was I in the car during the crash too? Did I see our parents die? I don’t remember anything.
Then I do. It’s like blowing out birthday candles, it comes in a whiff of smoke. My parents weren’t in a car accident. They had a fight. Another one. A big one. Zech got cut when our dad took a knife toward our mother. They left us here. They didn’t want us.
Staring at my knee I remember there was a lot of blood when they fought. Raised voices. Raised fists. I don’t want to think about it, but the tourniquet has been pulled off and the blood gushes everywhere. Our parents didn’t die. They left us. Falling to the ground beside Zech I sit as close as I dare. I’m scared and shaking. I don’t want to remember.
“Are they still alive?” I say.
Zech stops crying and looks at me. His face softens and he wipes his nose on the sleeve of his shirt. He opens and closes his mouth, but nothing comes out. He scoots closer to me and I lay my head on his lap. He’s so warm.
“I’m sorry,” Zech says. “I’m so so sorry. I don’t know what came over me.”
He’s stroking my hair and his voice is soft and comforting.
“Are they alive?”
“I don’t know. I tried to find them a few times, but other than a few stints in jail over the years, there are no other records of either of them.”
“They really just left us?”
He doesn’t respond for a long time. I move up and down with his breathing and feel like a small child. How many times has my brother protected me and held me like this? How could I not see it for what it was? Reaching up, I trace the jagged scar on his left cheek.
I want to say so much to him; to apologize, to beg his forgiveness, but also to tell him I see it now. All of it. He felt responsible for me. I was his everything. He was only 10, a child like me. It wasn’t fair. None of it was fair. It begins to rain lightly, but the darkness of the sky hints it might begin to pour again any minute.
“We need to get you out of the rain and bandage up that knee,” he says.
I let him help me back to the rental car and we sit across from each other in the backseat. He pulls a small red first-aid kit from his backpack and I smile. Of course, he brought one along. He probably predicted I’d get hurt and he’d have to save me. I’m grateful.
He gently pulls off my boot, cuts off my jeans at the knee, pulls out the small piece of glass, cleans the wound with alcohol, and uses a butterfly bandage to pull the wound closed. He covers the area with a clear antibacterial ointment and wraps first a soft white bandage and then a blue sticky one around and around my leg.
We climb back into the front seats and fasten our seatbelts. As I start the car he unwraps a Hershey kiss and I open my mouth. It goes in this time. The sweet chocolate melts on my tongue.
“You okay?” he says.
“Right as rain,” I say.
“Right as rain,” he repeats.
Author’s note: My brother and I have had many conversations about events in our childhood that we both remember very differently. This was the starting idea of my story this week, but I allowed it to develop into this tale of siblings connected through family trauma and the roles it cast them both in. I hope you’ve enjoyed meeting Zech and Mina. We are halfway through this 52-week journey of short stories and I’m so grateful to everyone who has read, commented, or liked my posts so far. You keep me going and growing each week. Thank you for your support!
Short Story Challenge | Week 25
Each week the short stories are based on a prompt from the book “Write the Story” by Piccadilly, Inc. This week’s prompt was to write a story about memory editing wreaking havoc. We had to include Jupiter, chocolate, domestic, blossom, ladder, steam, extension, pine cone, sunrise, and tide.
Write With Us
Prompt: A dystopian glimpse of the future
Include: wheelchair, Labrador, throne, jungle, prescription, railroad, trunk, gulley, wasp, photosynthesize
My 52-Week Challenge Journey
- What is the 52-week challenge?
- Week 1: The Heart and the Stone
- Week 2: The Biggest Little Gift
- Week 3: It Bearly Fits
- Week 4: The Claire in Clarity
- Week 5: The Family Tree
- Week 6: Through the Glass Windshield
- Week 7: The Final Goodbye
- Week 8: Sunset, Sunrise
- Week 9: Returning Home
- Week 10: The Water
- Week 11: Aw, Phooey!
- Week 12: Meeting Time
- Week 13: The Old Man
- Week 14: Dani and the Queen
- Week 15: The Golden Muse
- Week 16: Honeymoon Treasure Hunt
- Week 17: The Red-Haired Beauty
- Week 18: Playing Games
- Week 19: One Thing
- Week 20: The Child
- Week 21: The Carrot
- Week 22: Apple Stars
- Week 23: Something in the Water
- Week 24: Midnight Wedding Vows