The bones of a short story in progress.
Nostalgia bubbled up from her stomach strongly resembling the sensation of reflux after a bad meal, a feeling she felt every day she was on the road. The towns had all begun to blur and shove into one another in her memory, colliding with memorized business names and pneumonic devices for all the blue-collar Jim, Bob, and Joe’s of the auto parts industry. This job was supposed to make her feel more free, no anchor and not enough time in one place to form attachments. Constantly on the highway, from roadside diners to rent-by-the-hour motels with questionable sheets, never daring to think of where she came from. Today was different though. January hadn’t been home in over three years now, the last occurrence being the day that she put her father in the ground, solidifying those final venomous words that she had spat at him: All of this was your fault. I hate you for doing this. I just hate you. Her regret laid on top of his coffin in the form of a single white rose. She hadn’t been there when he passed, she hadn’t wanted to be. The secrets she had kept for him were still alive and well, despite her watching as his mortal husk was lowered six feet below her feet.
Her father had been the kind of man that no one could really get close to. He wasn’t quite cold or fully distant, but he wasn’t the warm and fuzzy type either. He had this kind of stubborn love that would suffocate his children like a wool blanket on an already stifling summer night, yet he never really knew any of them, not really. Their mother had been a natural beauty with a manufactured public persona. A wisp of a woman, always quietly smiling but never with actual joy. She was a doting mother in the daylight and a loveless wife once the sun kissed the hilltops and sank below the horizon. She never gave any indication that she was unhappy until she was alone with Elias. He was the only one who knew that she was discontent in ways that he would never be able to understand, let alone repair. So to him, it was no real shock when she vanished in the night, leaving Elias to rear four children alone and with no real subtext for how to do that.
Now, January’s siblings who she hadn’t spoken to in almost as long had called and written, pleading with her in every form of communication to come home. Her youngest sister had cried on the phone, real tears this time. Usually Kimber was an unprovoked drama queen, just waiting for the moment she could force herself into the throes of some fantastical melancholia of her own creation. There were no alligator tears this time though. That was January’s indication that it might actually be something that she should be concerned about. The middle two, although practical and mostly detached from real human connection (traits they had adopted directly from Elias) had even seemed to reach never before known levels of emotionality in their attempts to contact January. Rhiannon and Catcher were twins, birthed only moments apart, however Catcher always seemed to be significantly younger than his partner in utero, wide-eyed and naïve, but still reserved in his own right. Collectively, they were known around their hometown simply as the Foster children. Merely their last name, but an unfortunate adjective all the same; a societal tag for ragamuffin orphans that no one really wanted. They were teased mercilessly for their mother not wanting them and their father not knowing what to do with them. Yet another reason to leave Sanford in the rearview mirror and in the furthest recesses of her mind. Yet here she was once again, on the last mile to the family home.
She pushed her way through the rotting sunflower stalks, determined to breech her father’s workshop for the first time in years, since his passing really. None of her siblings were going to clean out the old shanty and she wanted rid of the whole property, therefore it fell on her to get the structures in some kind of order for the realtor to appraise. It took a few solid slams with her shoulder to force open the door, a joint that would ache from its success in the morning. Rhiannon took most after her mother of all the children, small-framed and a fragile physique to harbor an unshakable soul and an impenetrable heart. She was formidable around her office, making deals even senior partners couldn’t close. But here, back in this one-traffic-light town, she was once again the epitome of defenseless and she had felt it full force the moment she stepped onto the dilapidated porch to cross the threshold into her childhood home.
Once into the shed, the work bench that had been her father’s favorite place to rest his laurels was covered in a thick layer of three-year dust and cobwebs clung to every corner of the one room shack. Dull light cascaded onto the crude desk that housed all of Elias’s most prized possessions: a rusted “World’s Greatest Dad” pin that Kimber had given him as a small girl, a handmade card signed by all four children circa 1987, and a faded picture of what would come to be his one and only wife. It still felt strange to be in this space, three years dead and gone hadn’t killed off the emotions that her father’s presence had tainted her life with. Pushing her hair back and releasing a long sigh, Rhiannon shoved the mementos in her pockets and moved on to the opposite side of the room and a small broom closet. Nothing scandalous to speak of, just a few old work shirts and a pair of field boots cluttered the small space. She stepped back a bit and something caught her eye towards the back of the closet on the very top shelf. It looked to be a black metal box, boasting a rather large gold lock securing its inner contents as if they were priceless treasures coveted by every thief in the world.
Fetching a stepladder from the corner of the room, she unfolded it with the cry of metal on metal being forced into place and climbed its half of a half dozen rungs to peer further into the closet. Clasping the cold metal in her hands, she pulled the box from its dusty resting place and descended the ladder to place the box on the desk. She pursed her lips and tried to imagine her father being interesting enough to have a secret key hidden amongst his rather banal belongings. Glancing around the tiny room, she found no obvious place that a key might rest, so she began to look further than surface deep to locate the only item that could force the box from its obscurity. Running her hand along the underside of the desk, she incurred a splinter and the wrath of a dust storm that had been lying in wait. Allowing a singular obscenity to cross her lips, she began feverishly searching through every drawer like a drug addict looking for a fix.
Success! In the very bottom of the very last drawer was a gold key whose teeth would prove to fit the lock’s grooves perfectly. She lifted it from its resting place, blew the dust from the exposed side, and shoved it into the bottom of the lock. With a quick twist, the lock gave way and the box lifted open with little disagreement from its aged joints. Rhiannon sat staring at the contents until her eyes glossed over and she couldn’t resist blinking any longer. There, inside the smallish metal prison of secrecy, were what appeared to be dozens of letters scrawled in her mother’s distinctive handwriting. A single tear slid down her cheek and she slammed the box shut, clutched it to her chest, and ran for the house, her confusion multiplying with every step. Her father had told them over and over again that she hadn’t tried to contact any of them, not once. The day that they had risen from their beds to a newly single-parent home was the day that Elias had begun to lie, shamelessly, fervently. She left the lid of the box shut and began to dial every number she knew by heart. First Catcher, then Kimber, and lastly January.
His apartment door was plastered with requests from his neighbors, clients, and friends. His tiny tech “business” had gotten out of control lately and he was beginning to feel like he had an actual job. The quiet, introverted space that he had carved out for himself in the midst of the sleepless masses of New York City was a small miracle in and of itself, but lately it was beginning to look a lot more like its surroundings which made his eyebrow twitch. Catcher had been a very quiet boy from childhood and that wasn’t a characteristic that he was seeking to change any time soon. He preferred the hum of the machines he worked on over the incessant noise that tended to reverberate from the mouths of the human race. Mostly pointless words embellished with the kind of invented dramatics that he had no taste for. He had gotten enough of that having Kimber as a sibling. He locked the door behind him and propped himself up with his Chinese take-out and the latest in a sci-fi collection that he followed religiously.
Halfway through his kung-pow chicken, he heard his phone ringing from beneath a cushion somewhere in the living/bedroom combo. He groaned and laid his book down on its open pages and began digging through the randomly placed floor and couch cushions that he kept wherever they tended to fall. Under the last cushion, he located the noisemaker and lifted it to his ear, pressing the TALK button. His twin sister’s voice came screeching across the line in an out-of-character tone that both annoyed and alarmed him immediately.
“Would you calm down, Rhi. I can’t understand a damn word you’re saying.” He lowered the volume on the receiver and waited for her to repeat herself.
“Catcher, Dad was a dirty liar! January was right to hate him this whole time. This whole time!” She spoke like she was a paranoid insomniac that had been up for a week straight. “I can’t believe it. You have to come home, to Sanford, like now.”
“I can’t just drop everything and…” he started but was cut off abruptly.
“Get on a damn plane, or a bus, or rent a car and get here. Now!”
The slam of the phone on the other end was enough to temporarily impair his hearing. He sat, blinking at his half-eaten dinner, half-wishing he hadn’t answered the phone. A fine time to feign being an extrovert, which he could only convincingly do via the phone or internet from inside his safe space. In the following moments, it was as if another person stepped into Catcher’s body because he began moving around the small apartment in an organized, militant fashion placing belongings he would need for travel into a duffel and shutting down all the necessary electronics so as not to use up costly energy while he was away. He rattled off a sequence of letters, tapping away on the keys of his laptop to secure a plane ticket to the closest hangar nearing Sanford and arranged for a rental car to be waiting for him when he arrived. In a matter of moments, he was on his way to JFK with all of the confidence he would need to board the plane and place his headphones securely over his ears, avoiding as much interaction as possible. Within the hour, he was coasting high above twinkling cities and on his way to heed his sister’s demands, still clueless as to what had shoved her into such a violent burst of emotion.
Alone and crying in front of her floor-to-ceiling mirrors, she rearranged her face into various looks of longing, distress, sadness, and agony, admiring the way the candlelight casted shadows on her in all the right places. Yeah so she hadn’t paid the electric in two months and now had to live in perpetual waxy lowlights…at least the mood was right for her to go over her lines and cues. She had always preferred the beautiful curve of her face in softer lighting anyhow. Devastating and demure, she was the epitome of a Hollywood starlet without the ability. Kimber had always been the perfectionist, especially when it came to her porcelain exterior. A halfpenny fashionista with a dream of perpetual fame and millions of adoring fans, she was always dramatic and never unmade. In her teenage years, she got caught lifting make-up from Sanford Drug at least four times. Good thing they didn’t catch her the other dozen or so times.
Now residing a stone’s throw from the tiresome glamour that was Los Angeles, Kimber scraped by working the graveyard shift at an old timey diner where she dressed as all the great heroines of the big screen while serving 24-hour breakfast and coffee. Auditioning was her hobby, fruitless and typically served with rejection in the form of backhanded compliments and no useful advice. She had a pretty face but no real feeling when it came to the parts she dreamt of. Crying on cue was a breeze for her, yet it was never believable or what the casting directors were looking for. It had been almost five years now and she wasn’t getting any younger. Her nightmares were of turning twenty-five and still not being in the biz.
Though never really bothering with the necessary utilities that her landlord begged her to keep up with, Kimber most definitely always had her phone paid up and at her manicured fingertips. So, it was no surprise to hear the electronic ringing echo through the mostly empty and electricity deficient apartment. She moved from the floor and wiped the cosmetic tears from her eyes in time to see Rhiannon’s name flashing on the illuminated screen. Sliding the answer key across the touchscreen, she lifted the phone to her ear and greeted her sister with her typical silky hello.
“Kimber, you need to come home. I found something in Dad’s workshop…and I just, I need you to be here.” Rhiannon’s voice quaked in all the natural places of someone who was actually distraught and Kimber felt a twinge of jealously that she still couldn’t mimic that genuine emotion.
“What are you talking about, Rhiannon? You sound hysterical.” Her voice was cold and glossy, as always.
“Would you listen to me, please? I found a box in the old workshop behind the house and I need you to come home. We all need to be here for this. It’s serious, Kimber.” Her breathing sounded labored and the mood was beginning to feel ominous.
“Okay Rhi, but I don’t have any money to get there…” she sighed and waited for her sister to offer to pay her way back to the east coast.
“Whatever, I’ll book you a flight. Just get your things together and get to LAX, okay?” Another slam of the receiver on the opposite end.
The phone went dead and then black and Kimber placed it back on the one table that existed in the living room. She moved to throw a few things into an overnight bag, as she did not intend on staying past the amount of clothes she could fit in the small carry-on. Careful to extinguish all of the candles, she slung her bag over her shoulder and secured the door behind her, snatching down the eviction notice like it was a natural habit.
Once on the plane, Kimber breathed an obvious sigh and wondered if Rhiannon had called January or not. If so and if she actually showed up, this would be the first time all of the siblings had been together since they had buried Elias, each with their own regrets and their own flowers. She had always loved January the best, even after she made Dad cry and left town for good. Why had she been so angry at him? Was Rhiannon’s untold discovery going to make things better or worse between the four of them? Only time would tell.
All But One
The three of them sat, staring at their respective devices and mentally willing January to respond to at least one of their outcries. It was almost a full twenty-four hours after Catcher and Kimber had arrived at the family home before a reluctant ringing was heard. It was Kimber’s phone and she squealed with misplaced joy as January’s name flashed across the screen.
“Hello? January, is that really you?” She tried not to sound overly hopeful but it didn’t work.
“Hey Kim. What’s going on?” January sounded just as she always had, somewhat distracted and always hurried.
“Oh January,” she burst into genuine tears at the sound of her sister’s voice. “You need to come home, to Sanford. It’s important. I need you.”
The brief interaction ended with their collective relief that their oldest and most estranged sibling was on her way home for the first time in years, even if only for Kimber. There was a blanketing feeling of overwhelming nervousness radiating from each of the three already gathered in the dated living room as they awaited the arrival of the once prodigal daughter.
A wave of nausea overtook her as she pushed the gearshift into park. Just looking at her childhood home had flooded her body with fight or flight chemicals and she couldn’t move in those first moments. And then, she saw Kimber burst onto the porch, just as beautiful, just as vulnerable. Her youngest sibling rushed down the stairs to the driveway and pulled open her car door to embrace her neck like she was never going to let go.
“Kim, you’re choking me,” she said, a bit muffled. “It’s okay, I’m here now. Tell me what the hell is going on.”
“You just have to see, January. Rhiannon wouldn’t let us see until you got here. She said we all had to be here.” Kimber was dragging her by the arm up the steps and into the musty house that had been the cause of every nightmare she had ever experienced as an adult.
“Okay, okay,” she said, shrugging Kim’s hand from her arm. “I’m coming.”
Walking into the den for the first time in so many years was both nostalgic and terrifying. Catcher and Rhiannon sat on opposite ends of the sofa, always the only set of twins she had ever known who didn’t resemble siblings at all much less identical genetic make-up. Rhiannon looked up at her as she stood, taking it all in.
“I’m glad you came, January. This is important.” Rhiannon talked as though the end of the world was upon them.
“Alright Rhi, no need for dramatics. Just tell me what’s going on so I can get out of here. I have work to do and it’s miles from this hell hole.”
Rhiannon nodded solemnly and moved to the writing desk at the window to retrieve the metal box whose contents would change all of their lives forever. She lifted the lid and carefully began lifting out the contents one by one. Faded envelopes that contained letters from years and years of attempted contact, some addressed to all of them and some addressed to the individual children, all in their mother’s careful cursive lettering. Slowly, and in equal amounts of disbelief, the four began to read through their mother’s letters one by one, trading them between one another’s hands carefully, meaningfully. Most of the handwritten memories were expressing how much she loved them all and longed for them to join her in her new home if they wanted to, or even just to visit. Getting down to the last of the letters, the mood began to change. The handwriting seemed more scrawled, hurriedly imprinted on the pages and almost begging them to come to her any way that they could get there. It was all becoming very muddled and confusing. January looked up at her siblings from the last letter in her hands and let out an exasperated sigh. The truth was finally going to come to light and she was going to have to admit that she had known for years what had really happened.
“January, did you know about these letters? Did you know that she wrote to us all like this?” Rhiannon narrowed her eyes as she spoke and began to shake. “Well, did you?!”
“I didn’t know about the letters but I knew that our mother didn’t just leave…” Her voice trailed off and she sat, looking tired and not prepared for the confrontation demanded by her younger sister.
“What do you mean you knew she didn’t just leave? What are you talking about?” Catcher’s voice was the one demanding answers this time. A rarity.
January pointed to the box, insinuating that there was something else to find inside. “I’m just guessing there’s a leather bound journal in the bottom of that box, yeah?”
She watched as Rhiannon pulled the book from the depths of the metal container and looked up at her, bewildered. She began to flip through the pages, her eyes running over paragraphs of their father’s handwriting, not their mother’s. A fury came to life in her face with each page turned.
“Keep reading,” January prompted. “I’m tired of being the only one who knows.”
Rhiannon began to read aloud the last few entries, Elias’s penmanship causing her to stutter occasionally. The pages morphed into angry proclamations that he was not going to stand for his estranged wife trying to steal away his children, steal them away in the night just as she had taken herself from him. Tears began to fall from her eyes, and January took the journal from her defeated hands. She glanced around at her baby sister and her only brother, both of whom were sitting, shocked and perfectly still. The last entry, more of a confession really, was reverberating around what was once their family gathering place.
Once they had managed to collect themselves a bit, January led her siblings back to their father’s old workshop, around the back this time. There was a small gathering of smooth stones piled meaningfully around a homemade cross just beyond the shack. January began to spill over with emotion, telling them everything that she had known to be true for years, explaining that she left because she feared their father which in time became a firm hatred for him that she had nursed until the very day of his death. She told them about how she had wanted to confess their father’s sins to them but that Elias had threatened her many times over if she were to speak a word of the truth to any of the other children. They all embraced one another and sobbed until their eyes could cry no more. And then, they walked back to the house that had bred all of the lies they had fostered for so much of their young lives. They gathered their belongings and placed them into their respective vehicles without bothering to look back once. Beginning the drive away from the only home she had ever known, the mile that had been the last just a few hours ago was now the first of a new life for January and for her siblings. A life that wouldn’t be built on lies any longer.