Pelting the thin glass, the rain causes me to look up every few seconds. I sink into the corner of my thirty-year-old, worn-out, red tattered couch and pull the shoebox closer to me. Old photographs crinkle under my touch as I flip through the contents, and folded articles threaten to rip with each brush of my fingertip.
The box was filled years ago and buried deep within my closet. My husband, Charlie, knew I dwelled on the memories inside whenever I opened it, so putting it away seemed to be the only logical solution. I only came across it when little Gracie decided it would be fun to pull out all of mommy’s clothes, try them on, and leave them in a big heap in the middle of the hallway for Ralphie to turn into his own personal slobber-cave. The box was mixed in at the bottom amongst various other shoeboxes, but got turned upside down when Gracie found no heels inside to clonk around in.
Half of the contents of the box were stuck together from various residues and inks of the photographs over the years. Tucked away at the bottom of the box was a piece of yellowing paper folded three-fold and then folded in half again.
It’s been four years. Four years since you left me, and mom, and dad. Four years since I saw you smile with your crooked teeth that I constantly made fun of and teased you about. Four years since I yelled at you and told you that you were the worst brother a girl could have and that I wanted you out of my life forever. Four years since I sat in that hospital crying in the corner by the vending machine so that no nurses could take pity on me, put their hand on my shoulder, and say “there there, it’s going to be okay.” Because it wasn’t. It isn’t. You’re gone. You left me. You haven’t come back and I don’t know what to do anymore. You would have been 19 today, Jordan. You would have been 19. Why couldn’t you have just worn your seatbelt?
I miss you, Jordan. I’m sorry about what I said that day. I’m sorry I told you to get out of my life and to never talk to me again. I’m sorry I secretly wished you were gone and wouldn’t come back. I’m sorry I ever said it to your face. I wish you were still here, Jordan. I wish you were here to argue with and fight with and tell me how wrong I was. I wish you were here. I miss you.
And I know I never told you this… but I love you.
I let out a deep breath. I hadn’t realized I had been holding it since I had read “seatbelt.” I forgot I saved this letter. I forgot it was in this box. All of my memories. Everything that had happened. Everything I had repressed for so many years was suddenly flooding into my mind at once.
A delicate voice crackled through the intercom once again, urging certain doctors to go this way or that, to do this procedure or that, or simply to tell them their wife was on line three. Blues, yellows, reds, and greens lined the floor beneath her feet, leading the way for each stranger to find their hurt or dead loved ones as they tripped and staggered around. Cara’s feet dangled a good inch above the ground as she sat all the way back in her waiting room chair.
Her eyes watered and her nose tingled as smoke drifted past her. The pleading from nurses echoed through Cara’s ears as they begged her mom to step outside if she was going to smoke. Her mom walked away and found another wall to lean against until a different nurse was forced to approach her. Cara had grown used to it over the years, but whatever was inside that rolled paper that day made her eyes sting with desperation for clean air. It was clear that the nurses didn’t have the heart to call security on her mother. They knew her mother would put up a fight if someone came to take her away. Cara just kept imagining what would happen when their boss showed up to find someone smoking in the waiting room. Other families had already cleared out. Nurses had shown them the way to other waiting rooms where there probably weren’t stubborn, inconsiderate people smoking in their presence. Making a scrunched-up face, Cara tried to get her mom to stop. She thought maybe her mother would stop smoking if it was bothering her own daughter. She was wrong. What did her opinion matter anyway? As Cara’s brother always liked to point out, she was only eleven.
Her fingers wrapped around the two dollars that were crumpled and scrunched deep within the tiny pockets of her jean shorts. Her dad had given the bills to her before he drove off earlier that morning. He didn’t like hospitals; his own brother had died in one. Cara couldn’t really blame him, but she was pretty sure the fact that he left was part of the reason her mom couldn’t stop smoking. The bills had dried out since he gave them to her that morning; they had rested in his clammy palms the entire drive over and were fairly damp then. Unfolding them with a nice crinkling sound, she jumped down off of the seat. Her mom was too busy pulling a new cigarette out of her pack to notice her leave, so Cara didn’t bother to tell her. As her feet shuffled across the length of the floor, she saw the nurse who had just begun her shift. She glanced up with a sour face thanks to the stenchy cloud Cara’s mom was creating. Cara slid her beat-up sneakers across the multi-colored floor until she reached the vending machine.
She pressed B-112 on the machine and watched a bag of Cheetos fall to the bottom, most likely breaking a few of the crunchy morsels in the process. The scent of stale cheese-puffs filled her nose, mixing with the smell of smoke that lingered in her nostrils. Sticking her hand in the bag, she strode back to her seat filled with a calming sensation. Her mouth watered, anticipating the cheesiness that usually grabbed the attention of all of her tastebuds just from the scent.
The Cheetos would help her forget.
Forget the fight with Jordan that morning and forget the spanking from their dad that of course ensued afterwards. But she couldn’t forget the crash that happened that day as they began their summer vacation.
“Let go of me,” she said in her extended eleven-year-old squeal as she tried to shake off her brother. He was trying to keep her from running away from him. The moment that he gave up on an argument was the same moment Cara would decide to go tell whichever parent was sitting inside that he had started it. He didn’t want that. He was tired of being spanked by their dad. Fifteen is too old to be spanked and it was getting embarrassing for both of them.
“We should go inside and help mom with dinner,” he said, attempting to distract her. Cara paused for a moment to consider this. She questioned what was for dinner, since that usually played a role in whether or not she wanted to help out. Jordan told her that he wasn’t sure but that it was probably along the lines of some kind of stew since he had seen their mother unloading the groceries earlier that morning; he was still trying to prevent her from running into the house with the wrong intentions of getting them in trouble.
“No. Let go of me. I’m not going anywhere with you.” Cara managed to wiggle her way out of Jordan’s loose grasp and took a few steps back. They were face to face, but Jordan was clearly the taller one, with a good foot or more on her four-foot-five-inch stature. She tried to look intimidating, but she knew it wouldn’t work – not since his growth spurt. “You’re the worst. I wish you weren’t my brother! I wish you weren’t in my life at all. I hate you!” Cara’s voice bubbled out of her mouth as fast as it could. She didn’t like yelling at people and doing so always brought tears to her eyes, but she couldn’t let her brother see she was crying. He always made fun of her when she cried. She ran past him, brushing against the soft, red t-shirt that hung low on his arm since the width of his shoulders was nowhere near that of their dad’s. He had grown out of a lot of his clothes lately and had taken to wearing some of their dad’s old shirts. She nearly tripped up the marble steps to the front door, but kept rushing forward until she heard the screen door swing and click shut behind her.
Stuffed into the left side of the backseat, Cara was surrounded by bags of various colors and fabrics – everyone’s luggage packed tightly between her and Jordan. It was her turn to pick the music, so she started pressing buttons on her mom’s iPod Touch, which her mother got as a gift from her sister a year ago, but still didn’t know how to use properly. Music flooded into the car through the speakers. It wasn’t anything Cara recognized, but she enjoyed being in control of the music – it meant for once, Jordan wasn’t.
She glanced up to watch as her family pulled out of the driveway and then went back to pressing buttons.
“--MY GOD!!” Cara opened her eyes in the midst of her mother’s screaming and readjusted her neck, gripping it suddenly as a sharp pain spread beneath her skin. All she could see was a blur of vibrant reds and oranges in front of them as the smell of smoke wafted under her nose long enough to make her cough. Her eyes adjusted. People nearby were tapping on windows, trying to mouth to us that we needed to get out of the car. Cara looked over at her mom who was staring at her husband who was staring into the backseat, unable to take his eyes off of Jordan’s seat.
Applying pressure to her neck, Cara glanced next to her, where Jordan was no longer sitting comfortably beside her. Crushed from the accident, Jordan’s door was pushed inward, taking up half of his seat, the window was smashed, and he was only partly inside the car at this point. Her mother couldn’t move but mumbled to Cara not to look at him. “Look away, honey. Look away.”
Sirens blared as they rushed through the streets. Blues and reds spun somewhere nearby, blinding her for a few moments. Constant blinking cleared her vision as she glanced back toward Jordan. Everything was silent. Her mom’s voice couldn’t break through it and neither could the shouts from the people outside of the car that were trying to get them out. Something shiny glinted in the reflection of her tearing eyes. It was Jordan’s keychain: “243JED” engraved in titanium. It must have fallen out of his pocket at some point during the crash. If only he had been wearing his seatbelt.
Their mom and dad had spent a lot of time designing that keychain. They wanted something sentimental and meaningful for his birthday, but couldn’t afford anything overly extravagant. “243” was the number of letters in each word of “We Love You,” and “JED” were his initials: Jordan Eric Donovan. He had thought it was cheesy when they first gave it to him, and while he would have never admitted it, he loved that keychain. Cara wrapped her fingers around it and never let go.
Smoke fills my nose again as if I am back at that scene with voices once again surrounding me, making it impossible to stop the tears from running down my cheeks. It had been years since I had thought about the events of that day. Jordan’s face flashes into my mind every day, but I’ve always tried to block out the car accident. My mind had blocked out Jordan’s voice – until now, anyway. Now it was as if he was standing right in front of me, pleading me not to get us in trouble yet again.
I lean forward to pull a tissue out of the box on the coffee table and dab at the tears that are trickling down my face. I hear a yelp, readjust the frames on my face, and glance up to see Gracie dragging Ralphie through the living room like he was her own personal toy.
“Gracie, honey. You have to be careful with Ralphie. Hold him like you hold your baby dolls.” I am surprised by the composure and strength that resonates in my voice. Gracie readjusts her hold on the new puppy and turns around to face me with a big grin on her face. The smile quickly fades as she saw the box that was on the table in front of me.
She takes a step backwards with Ralphie still clutched tightly against her chest, his paws hanging limp and loose in the air. “Uh oh,” she says.
I look down at the box to match her gaze. “No, honey, it’s okay. Come here for a second. Why don’t you let Ralphie go?”
Gracie nearly lies down on the floor in order to place him gently on the carpeting – something we had been working on all week with her. Then, shuffling her feet over to the couch she sits down next to me. I pick up the box and put it on the couch between us. She looks up at me and then slides her eyes down to the dusty box. Realizing she was too afraid to look through it, I stick my hand in and pull out a drawing of Tigger from Winnie the Pooh, handing it to her. She clutches it in both of her hands, as though it was the most important thing she has ever held.
“Jordan drew that for me when I was a little older than you. I was probably about six at the time,” I say, clearing my throat. I put my hand on my daughter’s back and rub it gently.
“Yes, Uncle Jordy.”
“Why this, though, mommy?” Gracie looked up at me.
“Well, because Tigger was mommy’s favorite when she was your age.” I gave her a weak smile. “Your grandma and grandpa helped him with it. It was my birthday present that year.”
“Oh.” Gracie went back to staring at Tigger. “Can I keep it?”
My voice catches. It has been over ten years since I have seen this drawing, but at the same time, Gracie knew very little about her uncle and was probably curious. Charlie had always thought Jordan was a sore subject to bring up, so he made sure Gracie never mentioned him around me. He had good intentions, but it hurt just as much anyway. There was only so much Charlie knew about the situation. We had met nearly twenty years after the accident and by then, I had locked most of it deep inside me – far away from casual conversation.
“Sure, honey. But let’s put it up on your wall so it doesn’t get hurt, okay?”
“Okay.” Gracie smiled and jumped off of the couch, racing into the kitchen to show her dad the new picture she had acquired. I picked the box up and placed it back on my lap, flipping through it as delicately as possible. I could hear Charlie in the kitchen telling Gracie how cool the drawing was and to go in her room to decide which wall to hang it on. She probably told him what I said about keeping it safe.
Something was hidden in the corner of the box. Picking it up, I run my fingers over the engraving just as I had all those years before and wrap my fingers around it, gripping it tightly.
“You okay?” Charlie sits next to me now, placing his hand on my arm sympathetically, like those nurses tried to do all those years ago, but this time she welcomes it.
“Yeah,” I say, as Ralphie yelps and leaps into my lap, knocking the box out of my hands. Charlie catches it before it topples to the floor. “Thank you,” I say, burying my hands deep into Ralphie’s soft coat. “I just miss him.” Charlie squeezes my arm, kisses my cheek, and gets up. Picking up the letter, he goes to return the box to the closet. I curl back onto the couch, watch the rain pour down against the windows, and bury my face in Ralphie’s fur, rubbing the titanium between my fingers.