“Its own lanai? That sounds divine. I'm sorry, you're going to have to forgive me, but can you describe it? I don't think I've ever seen a lanai before . . . oh, like a patio, then? No, it sounds amazing. A private fireplace? Now, I am in heaven.”
Marcy held out her free hand and gently wiggled her fingers.
“Well, it all sounds delightful, especially the lanai. But I will have to double check with my husband before I can commit. He's very busy with work right now and I'd hate to put a deposit down before clearing the dates with him. You know how it is, something is always coming up. Yes . . . ok, I'll be sure to let him know, 10% off if we book before the fifteenth. Thanks again, Tiffany, bye bye. Oh, aloha? Aloha, it’s like I’m already there.”
“Well,” I asked, “where did you go tonight? Hawaii?”
“Kona,” she said with a nod. “They have this massage that they do with hot lava rocks, Tiffany said it’s transformative.”
“That sounds amazing.”
“Doesn't it?” she said, the pitch of her voice returning to its normal melancholic tone. When she traveled, it would climb as she'd oooh and aaahh over the various amenities and landscapes that she'd never see. If something were particularly good, she'd make the poor hotel clerk or travel agent describe it over and over again, just to make sure she could get a clear picture.
She sank into her chair, pulling her throw about herself.
“Would you like your tea now? It's almost nine?”
“Is it really,” she asked. “No wonder Tiffany was so eager to get off the phone, it must be after midnight there.”
“I hope you didn't keep her long.”
“Long enough to get a tan,” she joked.
She'd picked up a trick some years back. She'd begin every call by stating her name and then asking for the agent's first and last name. She found they'd stay on the line longer if they suspected they were being mystery shopped. What she was doing may not have been much better than prank calling, but it brought her such joy that I never felt right about calling her out on it.
I fixed her tea, adding an extra dollop of honey to mask the sedatives. She'd been waking at odd hours of the night again. It was common, the doctors said, to get day and night mixed up, especially when she didn't go outside during the day. Something about the sun, they said, helped regulate our sleeping patterns, even if she couldn't see it.
“Are you trying to put me in a coma?” she asked with a wince after tasting her tea, “or something more sinister?”
“I just want you to get some rest, that's all.” I answered. The truth was that I was the one in desperate need of a good eight hours, she’d been sleepwalking again, but her therapist had advised me to keep things upbeat.
“What color were mom's eyes?” she asked.
“Dark brown,” I answered.
“That's what I thought, but I had this dream last night and her eyes were green, like emeralds. But I'm not even sure it was mom, you know? It's all slipping.”
“She had brown eyes, dark brown.”
She waved her fingers and frowned.
“No, it's all jumbled,” she said. “I can only see green eyes now. They've been replaced.”
‘Replaced’ was the term she used when her pictures no longer aligned with what she knew to be fact. Mom had brown eyes, now they were green. Dad was clean shaven, but she could only picture him with a beard. Otis, our late golden retriever, was now a black lab. One by one, her memories slowly changed over time and she had no way, outside of asking me, of verifying what was true.
Sometimes, her questions would be so obscure that I'd have to dig through old photos to find an answer. After a particularly lucid dream, she made me drive by our childhood home to count how many rosebushes were planted along the front walk. I told her there were seven even though the new owners had dug them all up and replaced them with boxwoods. I did that more often than not now, allowing her version of events to become canon, both because I was often too tired to check for real and because she had been growing more and more upset when her pictures were contradicted by reality.
“Do you see them now? Mom's eyes?” I asked. Her head listed in response. I'd overdone it with her medication again. She'd suffer for it in the morning, but I was relieved to have some time to myself. I wrapped her blanket around her and reclined her chair, making a mental note to check on her in a few hours.
“I need to ask you something,” Marcy said, greeting me as I came home from work. “It's about the accident.”
“It's been a long day, Marcy,” I said, “you've got to give me a minute to decompress first.”
“I'll be here,” she answered, drumming her fingers across her knee to let me know she wasn't going to forget about it.
I briefly considered sneaking out the back, but that only ever succeeded in infuriating her. Instead, I took a moment to change my clothes and rejoined her in the living room for what was certain to be a long night.
“We were driving,” she began her recital. “I was sitting behind Dad and you were next to me behind Mom. We were singing Jingle Bells and Dad kept making farting noises during the heys. That was cracking us up, but Mom kept hushing him. Then she started screaming, she was frantic and I couldn’t understand what she was saying.”
“That's right,” I said. I hated this ritual, but her therapists had all agreed it was important. They said it would help alleviate her PTSD, but recounting the events of that night always made my stomach drop.
“Then the firefighters came,” I said, trying to rush her to the conclusion.
“Before that,” she interrupted. “Before that, there was a boy.”
“No, I think you're replacing something. The firefighters came and took us to in the hospital. Grandma was waiting for us there.”
“You're rushing me,” she said. “There was a boy. He was sitting between us, he was pointing at something.”
I sighed, “Why don't we have some tea?”
“You're not going to drug me again,” she protested, “you treat me worse than a child.”
She fanned the air with her fingers as if wiping an invisible slate. “We were singing Jingle Bells. We were laughing, then Mom started to scream, and then you. I turned to you and there was a boy sitting between us. He looked me in the eyes but it was like he was looking right through me, then he looked straight ahead and held out his arms to Mom and Dad.”
“No, it was just the four of us. You, me, Mom, and Dad.”
Marcy grew agitated, “No, there was a boy there. Younger than we were.”
“Marcy, I’ve heard you tell this story a hundred times and, believe me, it has never included a boy. Why would someone else be in the car with us that night?”
“He was pointing at the oncoming car,” she said, “I can’t explain it, something’s missing.”
She removed her glasses, which instinctively made me turn away. Even after all these years, I had never grown accustomed to the sight of her without them. She'd had eleven surgeries following the accident, most of which were cosmetic, but after the eleventh, our grandma finally intervened and told the surgeon that enough was enough. I guess that she figured Marcy's suffering wasn't worth it, especially given the fact that she'd never see the results for herself.
“I think I'm getting a migraine,” she whimpered before leaning forward and vomiting down her shirt. The room filled with the acrid scent of bile.
“It's ok, sweetie, I'll get you cleaned up,” I said, retrieving a towel from the bathroom.
“I don't know what I'd do without you.”
Of course, she knew exactly what she would do. She would live in an assisted living facility. A nice one with a good staff that encouraged independence; her share of the life insurance left plenty of money for that eventuality. But what about of me? I wondered as I fished regurgitated bits of mac n cheese from her bra. I made it a point not to dwell on those thoughts for too long, but I wanted a life of my own. I wanted to travel. I wanted a relationship. It’s only natural. I’d offered to take Marcy with me- anywhere she wanted to go. But she refused. She wouldn’t get into a car unless it was absolutely necessary, and even then she required a double helping of her anti-anxiety meds. Flying was strictly out of the question. And dating was complicated. The last person I was seeing was nice enough, but ultimately couldn’t handle the dynamic with Marcy around. They said it wasn’t fair. I couldn’t argue with that.
“Can you do something for me?” She asked as I handed her a new top.
“Will you get the pictures out tomorrow? The ones with Mom and Dad in them?”
“If I get home in time, but they’re way up in the attic.”
“I know you don’t like going up there.”
“I’ve told you there are spiders up there.”
“But I don’t think that’s why you don’t like going up there,” she said flatly.
“You know I don’t like spiders.”
I knocked off work a few minutes early the next day. I made up a million reasons not to drive straight home. Maybe we were low on coffee. Maybe I should stop and get some cash, just to have some on-hand. Maybe I should sign up for piano lessons, then I could finally realize my teenage dream of opening a dueling piano bar. Dad would have approved. I Should probably find a vocal coach while I’m at it. In the end, I wound up driving straight home. There was no point in stalling. Once Marcy got her mind fixed on something she wasn’t likely to forget about it.
I walked in the front door to find her sitting in her chair, her fingers drumming slowly across her knee.
“I had a dream last night,” she said before I could hang up my coat.
“I think that’s a good sign, you haven’t been dreaming lately. I hope it was a good one,” I said, unsure of where this was headed.
“I need to go up to the attic with you.”
“You don’t want to go up there,” I said, regretting my words instantly.
“How many times do we have to have this conversation? How could you know possibly know what I want when I flat out tell you and you refuse to listen? You can’t just dismiss me because I can’t see anymore, or because I’m your younger sister. I’m 28 now. I want you to take me to the attic.”
“I was just thinking of the stairs,” I said, trying to assuage the situation. “They’re old and rickety. If something were to happen up there, I’m not sure I could get you out.”
“Then call the fire department. They’ve gotten us out of tougher situations.”
“Fine, let’s go,” I said. I retrieved the pole-and-hook from the upper cabinet. I’d stowed away in a place that I knew she couldn’t get to just in case she ever got curious while I was away. It fit easily enough into the clasp and I brought down the trap door, revealing the ladder.
“You better go first,” I said. “Just in case you slip.”
Marcy heeded my advice and grabbed the rungs.
“It doesn’t seem so rickety,” she said.
“Just watch your step.”
I helped push her onto the landing and soon followed. The attic was crowded with odd boxes and bric-a-brac. It was dim, lit only by a small picture window at the opposing end.
“It’s strange, but it’s just as I’d pictured it,” Marcy said, running her hands along the walls and occasional file box. “It even smells the same.”
“The same as what?” I asked.
“As in my dream,” she answered.
She paused, holding her hand up to the air.
“How many boxes are up here?” She asked.
“I don’t know, more than I have ever cared to count.” I said. “The movers sure made a fuss about lugging them all up here.”
She lowered her hand and slumped, shaking her head.
“You know,” I said, “I used to come up here sometimes, after Grandma passed. I don’t really know why, but I think I might have been looking for something, an answer or closure or something. The photos are here, but mostly it’s just Dad’s old business records. I don’t think there’s much else to it. It made me realize that they were just people. Normal.”
“You think Dad was normal? Or Mom?” Marcy asked, exasperated.
“Dad had a sense of humor, sure, and I loved them both. But I don’t think they were unusual. We grew up in suburbia and we all fit right in.”
Marcy took a breath. “But before the accident.”
“Our Christmas recital? There’s nothing unusual about that.”
“But don’t you see it?” She asked, twiddling her fingers in the air. “I remember singing with my class. The Twelve Days of Christmas. I was trying to remember the words, then I looked down from the stage and I spotted Mom and Dad in the audience. They were both singing along. Dad had his camcorder and was recording the whole thing and Mom was smiling ear-to-ear. They both sang along with huge smiles.”
“Yeah, they loved those things,” but that doesn’t mean anything. Every parent feels obligated to come and cheer along.
“But they weren’t just there out of obligation, they really enjoyed it. I know because I remember looking a the other parents and they were just checking their watches or staring off into the distance. One lady was doing a crossword puzzle. But Mom and Dad were loving every minute of it.”
“Maybe they snuck some amaretto into the recital? I don’t know,” I said.
“There’s something else.”
“When we were driving home that night.”
“Marcy, I can’t keep doing this,” I said, exhausted.
“But there was a boy there, sitting between us.”
“Mom and Dad loved us, I’ll give you that, but I don’t think they were exactly the type to go snatching up extra kids.”
“No,” she said, “there was a boy there between us. He had his hand on your shoulder, then he turned to me for a quick second before looking straight ahead and reaching out his arms to Mom and Dad. And that’s when the screaming stopped.”
“There wasn’t anyone else with us that night. A strange boy with us? We would have known about that. There would have been records from the police report.”
“But I keep seeing him, don’t you remember? He had his hand on your shoulder.”
Something about Marcy’s conviction made me stop and try to replay the events from that night. But I kept coming up blank. “I remember the recital, and Dad singing Jingle Bells, but it just goes blank. Seeing Grandma’s face in the hospital is the first thing that comes to my mind.”
“He didn’t touch me. He touched everyone else but me,” she said meekly. I was talking with someone and they said that was meaningful.
“Well, it’s good to talk about these things,” I said. “You need to get this out there and then maybe you’ll stop replaying it in your head all the time.”
“She says she’s a medium.”
“God, Marcy, you’re not calling her on the phone are you?”
“Yeah, but it’s not like that. It doesn’t cost anything. Her name’s Samantha, she works the switchboard at the Grand Central.”
“Yeah, I was traveling one day and we just started to talk. I felt guilty about lying to her about wanting to book a suite, so I just came clean and told her everything, the accident, Grandma, living with you.”
“And?” I asked, wondering what she was telling this stranger about living with me.
“She said that they don’t get many calls to the switchboard anymore because of the computers, so she had a lot of free time. She said I could call her anytime I was feeling lonely. So I did and we got to talking. I got the sense that she also got lonely sometimes.”
“Okay, but what does this have to do with us being up here?”
“She said the boy was trying to show me something. In my dreams, or when I wake up. Sometimes I can’t tell the difference, but he’s there taking my hand and leading me to the attic. She said that if I wanted to see what he was trying to show me, I’d have to get your help.”
“You know, you could have just told me all of this up front.” I said, suddenly annoyed at being manipulated.
“If I did, do you really think you would have followed through with it all?”
“I don’t know,” I said, knowing full well I wouldn’t have. “But can we hurry up, there really are spiders up here.”
“Can you just look through the boxes?” She asked.
“Fine,” I said, making my way to the beggining of the stack. “These look like Dad’s business records,” I said, combing the first box. Then the second and so on; pages upon pages of green and white striped paper with numbers and odd abbreviations.
“They moved most of these from his office for legal reasons, other than the photo albums, I don’t think there’s much else here.”
“We have time,” Marcy said.
I combed through more boxes while Marcy sat quietly. There really wasn’t anything of interest, just accounting records and miscellaneous notes. They all smelled of grease and stale cigarette smoke. I was growing irritated, thinking that Marcy’s new friend would tell her that she’d be able to find what she was looking for if she’s send some money her way- god knows any good con artist would jump at her- but then I saw her holding out her hand.
“I see it,” she said after waving her fingers for a bit. “He’s here.”
I don’t know if it was the sun beginning to set, or the onset of an early autumn, but a chill ran down my spine.
“What?” I asked. “What do you see?”
“Those boxes over there.” She said, waving her hand.
“Those are just business files, Dad had a lot of records, you know.”
“Behind those,” She said.
I got up from my knees to a low crouch, standing as tall as the low ceilings would allow me.
“That’s Grandma’s chest. I don’t think there’s anything in there.”
I clumsily made my way over to the chest. It was an old french-styled chest with narrow drawers. I started with the top, making sure to accentuate the opening and closing of the drawers so Marcy would know that I was being thorough. They were all empty, as I had suspected, but when I closed the last one, Marcy perked up.
“Did you hear that? Try pulling it all the way out,” she said.
“There’s not room with all the boxes,” I answered.
“Then move the boxes,” She said resolutely.
I had no choice but to oblige. I managed to pull the drawer completely away from the dresser, but still nothing.
“Turn it over,” she said, as though she could already see there was something underneath.
I clumsily turned the drawer over and immediately saw what she was talking about. On the bottom were taped three envelopes, all worn and yellowed with age. I opened the first. It was the police report. We were in an accident, no surprises there. But the second revealed a birth certificate. Theodore Selmer. Born March 4, 1984. The last name was a match, but it didn’t ring any bells.
“Did you know a Theodore?” I asked.
“I don’t think so,” Marcy answered. “Wait, Grandpa Teddy?” But he died before we were born. Grandma talked about him sometimes.
An uneasy feeling came over me, but I couldn’t help myself. I opened the third envelope to find a death certificate. Theodore Selmer, April 5, 1988. A month after I was born. I couldn’t make sense of it until I looked back to the birth certificate. Mother: Janet Selmer – Father: Thomas Selmer. Then the tears came.
“What is it,” Marcy asked, waving her hands to find me.
“You were right, we had a brother,” I choked out.
“I knew it,” she said with tears flowing beneath her glasses.
We held each other and cried for what seemed like forever. It made me realize that I had never cried before; not for Mom and Dad, or Grandma, or Marcy. I’d been angry, sad, depressed, but I had never let it show, or tried not to at any rate.
“Samantha said we’d find him here, that’s why I made you bring me,” Marcy said, holding me close. “She said that he recognized you, that he was watching out for you. that’s why he touched you.”
Despite what had just happened, I was still fiercely protective of Marcy and couldn’t shake the feeling that she was being manipulated somehow. I began to cry again, babbling something about missing Mom and Dad, and not remembering my brother, even though I was barely a month old when he passed.
“It’s alright, it’s nothing to get upset about. He was the reason they doted on us so much, they were still mourning him. And besides, you’re here with me. We have each other.”
“No, you’re right,” I said. “It’s okay.”
“But I’m not sure it is okay,” she said after some thought.
“What? Why?” I asked.
“Because Samantha said he came back that night to show Mom and Dad the way to the other side.”
“But isn’t that comforting?” I asked. “He came back to guide them.”
“You don’t understand,” She said, “Samantha said he’s come back for you.”