By Jennifer Honeybourn
“Just take it,” Nina says, pressing the tube of lipstick into my hand. “Trust me, I’ve done this a hundred times. It’s no big deal.”
No big deal? What is she talking about? Stealing is a huge deal.
But my fingers close around the slim black tube, anyway. I stick it deep into my pocket, even though I know it’s wrong, even though I don’t ever wear lipstick.
Nina smiles, like I’ve just passed some kind of test. I follow her down the aisle. She grabs a small square box of condoms and stuffs them in her bag, never once looking over her shoulder to check if anyone else is watching her.
I want to ask her what she needs condoms for—my brother has only been dead for two months. She can’t have moved on that quickly. And if she has? Well, then I wish she would tell me how to do it.
She stops in front of a wall of hair dye. “What do you think?” She holds up a carton with a wind-blown redhead on the front. Nina’s own hair, at the moment, is black—the perfect color for mourning.
I shrug. The truth is she looks good in anything. She’s what my brother calls “smokin’ hot.”
Called. I have to keep reminding myself that John’s not here anymore. But every time I do, my heart gets a little bit smaller.
“Time for a change.” Nina slides the box of dye into her already bulging hobo bag. She’s pretty much the only person I talk to these days. All of my other friends have disappeared. It’s awkward for them. I get it. I mean, what do you say to the girl who discovered her brother hanging from a cedar beam in their attic?
It’s not entirely one-sided. I’ve been avoiding them, too. It’s sort of hard to care about cheerleading practice or the cute new French exchange student when your brother is dead.
It’s different with Nina. Maybe that’s because she knows, better than anyone, what I’m going through. She’d been with John since junior high. She knew him almost as well as I did. Which is to say not at all, since neither of us even knew he was depressed.
She consults the crumpled piece of paper in her hand. “Tampons…shampoo…deodorant…” She ticks off each item with her finger. “I think that’s everything.” She balls up the list and shoves it in her pocket. “Just follow my lead, okay, Abs?”
I should be nervous. I should be freaking out that we are about to leave with a bunch of stuff we haven’t paid for. But I’m not. Like I said, it’s hard to care about anything when your brother is dead.
As we head towards the front of the store, Nina stops to pluck a Martha Stewart magazine off the rack. She is strangely obsessed with Martha Stewart. “Doesn’t this look amazing?” She folds back the cover so I can admire a glistening xylophone of pork ribs.
“I thought you were a vegetarian,” I say.
She shrugs. “Benji thinks my iron is low. He says that’s why I’ve been such a bitch lately. Not enough iron.”
Benji is Nina’s roommate. They live in a run-down apartment in a neighborhood most people avoid after dark. They moved in together last summer after Nina’s parents kicked her out.
She rolls the magazine into a telescope. There’s no room for it in her bag so she just tucks it under her arm and gestures for me to follow her. We weave around the lineup at the cash register and I think, We’re going to get away with this.
Sun pours in through the plate glass window, warm and white as a cloud. Nina pushes open the door and I feel a gust of wind on my face. It smells like flowers. Like freedom.
And then I feel a hand clamp down on my shoulder.
The briefest flicker of sympathy crosses the store manager’s face when Uncle Rod bursts into the office ten minutes later. He’s still in his work clothes—jeans and a plaid shirt, silver name tag pinned neatly above his breast pocket—and his dark hair is trapped under a baseball cap.
Rod owns a hardware store. He usually works late on Fridays, but he was at my house fixing our backed-up toilet this afternoon, so he answered the phone instead of my mom. Just my luck.
The disappointment on his face makes me curl up inside. You’d think I’d be used to that look by now, but it still makes my stomach pitch. A muscle in his jaw ticks and I suddenly realize that if I were looking to get his attention, this was the perfect way to do it. The problem, however, is that I don’t want his attention. I already have too much of it. Ever since John died, Rod’s made it his personal mission to try to repair me. What he hasn’t figured out yet is that some things just can’t be fixed.
Rod doesn’t let anyone get away with stealing from his store, so I can only imagine what’s going through his head as he surveys the pile of stuff Nina grudgingly surrendered.
Without even asking me for my side of the story, he forces me to apologize to the manager. I do it just to hurry this process along, but it bugs me that he automatically assumes I’m guilty, even as I push the undiscovered lipstick deeper into my pocket. It bugs me even more when he tells the guy about my brother, using his suicide as a way to explain my behavior and get me off the hook.
The sound of John’s name burns my ears. I glance at Nina, but she’s staring at the floor. I wonder if she’s thinking about her parents, about how they hung up when the store manager called them instead of rushing down here. Now that she’s eighteen she’s no longer their problem. Nina’s even more lost than I am, which is saying something, and maybe the manager realizes this, because he lets her go with only a stern warning.
On the way out of the store, Rod grabs my upper arm. His fingers dig in to my bare skin. Nina follows behind us—I can hear the clop of her boots on the linoleum. I tell him she has no way to get home, but the truth is that I don’t want to deal with a lecture and I know he won’t start in on me while she’s around.
Rod grunts but he doesn’t object when she climbs into his truck after me. I slide to the middle of the bench seat, sandwiched between them. He turns the ignition and country music blasts from the speakers. Nina smirks and I shoot her a look. Now is definitely not the time to make fun of his love of Garth Brooks.
He snaps off the radio and we ride in pin-drop silence all the way to her apartment. When we pull up in front of her building, Nina gives my fingers a quick squeeze. I don’t want to let go of her hand.
She thanks Rod for the ride, her voice breezy and light, already shedding the heaviness of the past hour. For her, this ends here. But for me, the storm is just rolling in.
As soon as she shuts the door, Rod explodes. “Jesus, Abby, what were you thinking?” He hits his palm against the steering wheel. “How could you do something like that? You know better.”
I don’t say anything. Because what is there to say? There’s no way to explain why I did it. I can’t even explain it to myself.
Rod sighs, rubs his hand over his face. “Look, let’s just keep this between us,” he says wearily. “Your mother . . . she’s dealing with enough right now.” He flicks on his turn signal, although there’s no one else on the road. “We’ll talk punishment tomorrow.”
I want to remind him that it’s not his job to punish me. He’s not my father, no matter how much he tries to act like he is. But that would just get me into more trouble, so I keep the thought to myself.
I don’t have to wait long for Rod to hand down my sentence. The next day, he gives me a blue polo shirt with Maplewood Community Centre stitched in navy thread above the pocket. “You start tomorrow,” he says.
“Start what?” I sink further into the couch. I’ve been parked here all morning, watching daytime talk shows. It’s how I’ve spent the majority of my summer so far.
“Your new job.” He grabs the remote from the coffee table and flicks off the TV, just as Maury is about to reveal the results of the DNA test. “Mickie’s looking for a part-time receptionist.”
Mickie, Rod’s girlfriend, manages the local community centre. They’ve been together five years, but she’s always threatening to leave him because he won’t marry her. Considering he’s been divorced twice already, she really shouldn’t be surprised that he’s not interested in giving it another go.
“Forget it.” I try and give the shirt back but he won’t take it.
“This isn’t up for debate, Abby,” he says. “Mickie needs summer help and you need to stay out of trouble.”
“Why can’t I work at the hardware store?”
He grimaces. “I don’t have any openings. In fact, I had to let Travis go.”
Travis has been working for Rod forever. I knew business was down but I didn’t realize it was that bad.
“She’s expecting you at nine a.m.” He tosses me the remote and then disappears downstairs to work on the basement, which surprises me.
I wouldn’t have blamed him if he never went down there again. There are places in this house that I avoid. The attic, for example.
I keep going over what happened that afternoon. John’s car was parked outside. On the way to my room, I noticed that the trapdoor to the attic was open. Not that strange, my brother spent a lot of time up there, usually with Nina.
I banged around in my room so they would know I was home. Just in case they were up there doing it. But after a few minutes, when there was still no sign of either of them, I went back into the hall.
The ladder to the attic was missing, but that wasn’t that strange, either—my brother used to drag it inside the attic so I couldn’t get up there. Still, a bad feeling settled over me as I stood underneath the hole in the ceiling and called his name. When he didn’t answer, I tried his cell phone. And when it started to ring somewhere above me, the sound echoing off the bare plywood walls, my stomach dropped right to my knees.
I dragged the rolling chair from my room into the hall. I stood carefully on the seat, hoping the chair wouldn’t fly out from under me, and pulled myself through the hole. And that’s when I saw him.
John was hanging from an exposed beam, one of my old skipping ropes tied around his neck. His body swayed slightly, the toes of his black Adidas sneakers almost touching the floor. A tipped over milk crate lay near his feet.
I fell back through the ceiling and crashed down the stairs, thinking that if I could just get help, if someone would just help me, everything would be okay.
But, of course, it wasn’t okay.
Rod drops by the next morning to drive me to my new job, even though the community centre is less than a mile away. I guess he doesn’t trust me to actually show up.
I have to admit, I was contemplating blowing it off. But I decided I couldn’t face another day in the house, just me, my mom and my brother’s ghost.
Besides, working is not the worst idea ever. I could use the money. I certainly can’t ask my mom for anything. She hasn’t been back to work since John died and I can’t imagine she’ll be ready to return anytime soon. I never thought much about money before—never had to—but if the boxed macaroni and cheese we’ve been living on for the past couple of weeks is any indication, we’re not exactly rolling in it.
Rod drops me off out front of the squat beige building. “Tell Mickie I’ll call her later,” he says as I climb out of his truck.
“Why? So you can check up on me?”
He shakes his head. “Have a good day, Abby.”
The glass doors hiss open and I walk inside. Although I haven’t been here in years, it hasn’t changed much. It’s still old and small. It still smells like chlorine.
“Abby!” Mickie rushes out from behind the counter. Her dark red hair is caught in a bouncing ponytail way too youthful for someone her age. She’s wearing the same blue polo shirt I reluctantly put on this morning, only hers is tucked into a pair of pleated khaki pants.
She frowns slightly at my ripped jean shorts. I can tell she wants to say something, but stops herself. Instead, she wraps her arms around me and squeezes. I know the gesture is meant to be friendly, reassuring, but it leaves me feeling trapped and out of breath, like I’m being hugged by an octopus.
“I’m so glad you decided to take the job!” she says.
Like I had a choice.
She smiles. “Won’t this be fun?”
I seriously doubt it.
When I don’t say anything, her smile falters. I haven’t seen her for awhile—not since the funeral. I should probably play nice—especially since she’s now my boss—but I just don’t have the energy.
“So. Should we get started?” Mickie steers me behind the circular counter and for the next fifteen minutes, walks me through my duties. Answer the phone. Make change for the vending machines. Hand out keys to the lockers.
After she’s finished explaining how to use the ancient fax machine, she pushes a saran-wrapped plate towards me. “I made brownies,” she says.
Of course she did. Because baking is what Mickie does. After John died, we couldn’t fit all of the stuff she made into our fridge—cranberry orange scones, mint chocolate chip cookies, raspberry truffles. All of which went to waste because none of us felt like eating.
“Thanks,” I say, peeling the plastic wrap off the perfectly cut dark brown squares.
“So . . . how’re things going?”
It’s an innocent enough question, but it’s one that I hate. So I tell her what I tell anyone who asks me this: “Alright.”
She pauses. “You know, Abby . . . if you ever need to talk . . .”
I stiffen. Is this why Rod wanted me to work here? To see if his girlfriend could get me to open up?
He’s been trying to get me to see a psychiatrist, but I don’t know what good that would do. I don’t want to talk about what happened. Not with anyone. Not ever.
I set my brownie on top of a file folder. “I’m good, thanks.”
“Because it might be helpful . . . I lost my grandmother last year and—”
“Not the same thing.”
Mickie rolls her chair closer to me and rests her hand on my arm. “Well, no, you’re right. It’s not exactly the same thing, but I do have experience with the grieving process and, you know, maybe I can share some of my strategies for getting through—”
I shake her arm off. “You don’t know what you’re talking about,” I snap. I know she’s just trying to help, but this is so far from what I need. The hurt look on her face only feeds my anger because really, what right does she have to be hurt?
I’ve only been here twenty minutes but tell her I need a break and I think she knows that I mean a break from her, but I don’t care. I head down the hall and into the bathroom. Close the stall door. Breathe.
Later, I’m at the grocery store picking through a pile of apples when Rod shows up. I narrow my eyes as he drops a can of shaving cream into my grocery cart. “Are you following me?”
“Nope. Running into you is just a happy coincidence,” he says, smiling.
Right. More like Mickie tipped him off. I told her I was coming here after work.
“I’m not going to steal anything, if that’s what you’re worried about.” I gently place a couple of green apples into a plastic bag.
“Believe it or not, we’re on the same side, Abby.” Rod takes the cart from me and steers it down the aisle, randomly pulling boxes and cans off shelves and throwing them on top of my small pile of groceries.
“So how’d it go today?” he asks, chucking a jar of spaghetti sauce directly on top of my loaf of bread. I lift the jar off, but not before it dents the bread. Ugh.
“Mickie was impressed. She said you were a natural.”
A natural what?
“She said you really showed a lot of initiative,” he adds.
I roll my eyes. This conversation—pep-talk, whatever it is—is annoying.
“What are you doing here, anyway? Shouldn’t you be at the store?” I add a can of generic tomato soup to the cart. I only have twenty dollars to last me an entire week. And trust me, twenty dollars isn’t nearly enough to sustain two people for seven days. Not if you want to eat anything decent, anyway.
Rod shrugs. “I closed early.”
My heart sinks. First he fires Travis and now he’s closing early? Not good. Rod’s business is everything to him. I can’t imagine what he’d do if it went under.
I could ask him what’s going on, I guess, but that might give him the idea that he can ask me about my life, and I’m definitely not down with that. So I just follow him around the store until the cart is brimming with chips, pretzels and frozen pizzas. Everything I want, but don’t have the money for. By the time we reach the cashier I’m in a sour mood. Rod starts throwing our groceries onto the conveyer belt in one big jumble. When I try to pull my stuff out so I can pay for it, he pushes my hand away.
“I’ll get this,” he says.
My face starts to get hot. “We don’t need your charity.”
I know I sound ungrateful, but I’ve never been comfortable with accepting help. I don’t like to rely on anyone for anything.
“Stop it, Abby. We’re family.” Rod hands the cashier his credit card.
The fact that we’re family just makes it worse. I don’t want to take advantage of him. He’s done so much already.
I guess he feels responsible for us because Dad was his older brother. When he left, shortly after I turned six, Rod stepped in. Noble, definitely, but it’s had a less than positive effect on his personal life. Although he’s never said anything, I’m sure we’re the reason his last wife left him.
After Rod pays for the groceries, he helps me load the bulging plastic sacks into my brother’s old Honda Civic. I dig through the bags for the shaving cream, the only thing I know he’ll take.
“I’m coming by later to work on the basement,” he says, slamming the trunk closed. “Want to help?”
Last summer, my brother decided he wanted his own space, so he enlisted Rod to help him turn our dark, spider-infested basement into a den. Somewhere he could escape to. But now that John’s gone, the whole project seems pointless.
“Isn’t working at the community centre punishment enough?” I say. I’m half-joking but Rod doesn’t laugh. For a brief second, the mask slips and I see the sadness engraved on his face. I’ve been so consumed with my own pain that I hadn’t stopped to consider that he might be lost, too.
Before I can take it back, he turns and, shaving cream in hand, crosses the parking lot to his truck.
After I lug the groceries inside the house and put them away, I’m too tired to do more than grab a bag of chips for dinner. When I head upstairs, I notice Mom’s door is open, which is a good sign. It was closed when I left this morning, so it means that she’s been up at some point. Even if it was probably just to go to the bathroom.
I poke my head in her room. The blinds are pulled shut, blocking out all light as effectively as a solar eclipse. I can’t see her, but I can hear her breathing. Slow and steady.
“Mom? Are you hungry? Can I get you anything?”
“Okay . . . well . . . I’m just down the hall if you need me.”
When she still doesn’t say anything, I tell myself she must be sleeping. It hurts a lot less to think that she’s asleep rather than ignoring me.
I head into my room and lose myself on travel websites, dreaming about a different life in a different place, when I hear Rod moving around downstairs. I’ve been sitting for so long that darkness has fallen and my muscles feel like they’re beginning to atrophy.
I find him in the basement, crouched down, prying the lid off a can of paint. The room is empty, except for a pile of boxes stacked neatly in the corner. The last of John’s stuff. Rod cleaned out his room a few weeks ago.
“Hey,” he says. “What do you think?” He tilts the can so I can see the paint. Sunshine yellow. The same shade he painted my bedroom after my dad left.
He’s obviously chosen it for me, to make me happy, and the idea that he’s still trying so hard, even after I push him away, makes my throat close up.
“You can choose another color,” he says, misreading my reaction.
It takes me a minute to find my voice. I shake my head. “Yellow works.”
He smiles and starts to stir the paint with a long wooden stick. While he does that, I walk over to the pile of boxes and unfold back the flap on the one on top. It’s stuffed full with old magazines and binders, things we normally wouldn’t keep but that have value now.
It makes me uneasy, digging through John’s stuff. It feels like an invasion of his privacy, which is ridiculous because it’s not like he’s in a position to care. But still, I feel weird about it, so I’m about to close the box when I notice the edge of a photo sticking out of one of the binders.
My fingers pull it out before I can tell them to stop. It’s the first picture of my brother I’ve looked at since he died. I recognize it right away; I should, it’s one of mine. I took it last summer on our back porch. He’s sitting on the steps, a bottle of beer half-raised to his lips. John made it a point to never look directly into the camera, not even in his class photos. Maybe he didn’t want anyone to see what was going on inside of him.
The same way I don’t want anyone to see what’s happening inside of me.
His face blurs. I wipe the tears off my cheeks, then tuck the photo back where I found it. Maybe someday I’ll be able to look at it without feeling ripped apart.
After a minute, I feel the solid warmth of Rod’s hand on my back.
I fight my instinct to pull away. To get the hell out of that basement. Rod can’t magically pull me through my grief— I know I have to do that myself —but suddenly, choosing to be here with him feels like a step towards the light.
“Alright?” he asks.
I turn to look at him, letting him see my face. Letting him see me. Then I bend down, pluck a couple of paintbrushes out of a dented coffee can and hand one to him.