Hermit Crabs and Goldfish

Submitted into Contest #164 in response to: Write a story in which someone returns to their hometown.... view prompt

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Fiction

When Auntie Sheila died, we all gathered together again. Most of us didn't have far to travel. I was the closest: I only had to walk down the sidewalk to her two-story brick house. My steps, enlivened by the crunching leaves underfoot, did not seem as sorrowful as they felt inside me. I felt a little like I was walking toward a catastrophe, and my heart grew heavier with each step. The squirrels didn't mind me, and continued their chittering and scurrying. They weren't fit company for my mournful heart, but I assumed my cousins and my uncle would be.


Every week I had visited my ailing aunt. Her house still smelled the same as it had when I was a child. Auntie Sheila couldn't cook if her life depended on it, but she knew herself and, instead of trying to be someone else, she had bought candles that scented the air with “Fresh-baked Cookies” and “Pumpkin Spice” to make up for it. Her themed candles made her home seem, well, homey. But more than the candles, her plump figure, always reaching out for a hug, made her home even more welcoming than my own. At Auntie Sheila's house, any child was welcomed with opened arms and a warm heart. There were also abundant snacks, which also helped.


Entering her house the day she'd died, I could feel something off. It still smelled like her newest scented candle, “Maple Doughnuts,” but the house felt hollow. My uncle and his three kids were all sitting in the living room, drinking and snacking. There were bowls of chips on the coffee table and a pitcher of lemonade, definitely mixed from a powder. Buzzing conversation stopped me before I entered the room. The mental snapshot I made of them shows a happy family, calmly absorbed in each other, pleasantly sharing themselves and their sorrow in gentle conversation. It stabbed my heart with a longing I hadn't felt for a decade. These people were so secure in their love for each other and in knowing they were themselves so loved. Auntie Sheila had done this.


“Thank you for coming, hon.” So absorbed in my self-pity, I had failed to notice my eldest cousin rise to meet me. She hugged me, a sweet herbal smell and a soft woolen sweater, and asked me if I wanted a drink. I shook my head as she drew me toward where she had been seated. She led me to her own spot on the couch, then gave me a paper plate of snacks and poured me a glass of lemonade anyway. The plastic cup almost immediately began to sweat and I felt my hand chill as I held it. I had always envied the happiness of my cousin's home. Allie was only two years my senior, but she had always seemed so much older. She'd taken me under her wing and had given me some of the love that filled both her home and her own gentle nature. I'd never felt more peaceful than when Allie invited me in and Auntie Sheila supplied me with heat-and-serve mac'n'cheese.


“We were just wondering if Buzz might come back for the funeral. What do you think?” Auntie Sheila's youngest, Ted, had been married for four years, but still had the look of a recent high-school grad, which was appropriate since that’s when he'd married his high school sweetheart.


“I have no clue.” I shrugged and shook my head. “I haven't heard from him since you got married.” Ted nodded and smiled wistfully, his undercut, shaggy hair flopping in his eyes.


“I hope he comes. I texted him to let him know Mom died, but he hasn't messaged me back.” The other cousins looked at him sympathetically. Ted and Buzz had always been close, but time and change had worked their evil magic on their friendship. Ted pulled his phone from the pocket of his gym shorts and looked at it briefly before setting it on the coffee table amid the plastic cups, each profusely dripping with condensation. The awkward silence stretched out among us. I felt like I should defend Buzz or make excuses for him, but I had nothing to offer. His absence and absolute silence had been as hard for me to accept as it had been for them.


“How are your kids doing with this?” Uncle Guy asked, shifting on his chair slightly to face me, his frail body seeming to creak right along with the chair.


“Oh, they're doing ok,” I responded. “They're too little to really understand. And Cal's been fantastic.” Everyone nodded sympathetically and murmured approval of my husband.


“A good spouse is such a blessing,” Uncle Guy said. His voice was thick and he quickly got up and walked out. Allie jumped up and followed him. Ted and Bob sat silently, staring at nothing. After a few minutes, Bob got up and slipped on his jacket. He walked toward Ted, who stood up and gave him a bear hug. After murmuring their goodbyes to each other, they both turned toward me and I stood and hugged them. They each squeezed me for just a second, like Auntie Sheila used to, as though to say with their bodies, “I see you and I love you.” They walked out and I heard each of their cars start in turn and drive away.


Not knowing what else to do, I began to clean up. How many times I'd shadowed Auntie Sheila as she cleaned up after us all. She would always turn to me, smile broadly, and say, “Look how much fun we had!” I poured the cups into each other and wiped the crumbs into them. Look how much fun we had, I thought, feeling gentle tears on my cheeks before I realized they had even started.


I was putting the juice away when I heard the front door shut. I quickly shut the fridge and rushed out of the kitchen, afraid Allie had left before I could tell her goodbye. And there was Buzz, looking into the living room from the foyer. I stopped, shocked at the sight of him. He looked far older, his sandy hair unkempt and sticking up in all directions, his clothes rumpled and dirty. I didn't know if I should leave or alert him to my presence. Give him a big hug and welcome him home, a voice whispered in my head. He pulled his phone out of his jacket and looked at it. His spidey-sense must have tingled, for he raised his head and turned directly toward me.


“Hey, sis,” he said. His eyes were sad and tired, but as smart and sharp as ever. I ran toward him and flung my arms around him before he could move away. He pulled his arms out from under mine and rested them on my back. He'd never been a hugger.


“I'm glad you came,” I said. “Bob and Ted left already, but Allie and Uncle Guy are here somewhere. I can call for them.”


“No,” Buzz said quickly. “No, that's ok. I just wanted to see you anyway.” My confusion must have shown on my face. He turned around and walked out, holding the door so I could follow. He shut it softly behind me, then walked past me and down the front steps toward the sidewalk, pausing there and turning around to make sure I'd follow. The air had gotten colder as the sun began to set and I shivered in the chill breeze. We walked slowly down the crunchy walkway. I can't remember ever just walking down the street beside my brother, and I simply waited for him to talk, enjoying his company. A few cars slowly driving by and our footsteps were the only sounds as the town wound down and prepared for sleep.


“I'm sorry,” he finally said. We were approaching the corner of Orchard and Timothy, where I used to turn to go to school before they built the new school building outside town. He stopped and looked at me and I walked two more steps before I realized what he'd said.


“What?” I asked, turning around. He was looking intently at me and I looked away. I'd never seen him just look at me before. We were always looking somewhere else when we talked to each other, trying to figure out where to find safety, never sure even of each other.


“I just left you here. I'm sorry,” he said again. “I didn't even think about what that would do to you. I was selfish and I'm sorry for that.” My first reaction was to smooth over what he'd said, to say it was ok and not to worry about it, but a little flame of anger came out of nowhere and lit me up a little.


“You should be,” I said. I was surprised by how angry I sounded, but I was also enlivened by it. “You were all that was left of the shit we'd gone through. You were the only one who knew what it was like and you just left me to deal with it all alone.” Buzz was still looking at the ground. “I'm glad you left.” I said it spitefully, but I also regretted it immediately and tears sprung into my eyes.


Buzz looked up at me, searching my face. He nodded and turned around, waiting until he heard my feet crunching the leaves before he began walking back the way we'd come. The streetlights all blinked on, one-by-one, down the street. My anger passed, leaving me even colder than before, and I hugged myself trying to stay warm. How many times had I walked home like this, dragging my feet, feeling dread about what was to come when I got home. I felt Buzz's warm arm on my shoulder, and I stopped and leaned against him, beginning to cry. He pulled me around and against him, holding me close as I sobbed into his shoulder.


“I know now that what I did wasn't right,” he said as my sobs subsided, my face still buried in jacket, an odd mix of metal, mildew, and stale alcohol. “I didn't know it then. All I knew was that I had to escape, I had to find something else, or I was going to do something stupid. I was going to destroy everyone and everything if I stayed. I knew that much, even if I didn't know exactly what I would've done.” I pulled away from his shoulder and wiped my face and nose on my sleeve. “I never thought leaving would hurt anyone. I never even thought of you,” he said strangely, and when I looked up, I saw his eyes were wet and he was holding back tears. He cleared his throat and they were gone. “I was a shitty brother to you.”


“It's ok,” I began, giving in to my instincts and trying to smooth it all over. Buzz raised his hand to stop me.


“No, it was ok. Before. Then I realized how shitty I was, but didn’t change. I ignored the guilt and just kept going.” He had been shitty. The memory of his place card at my wedding table flashed in my mind, his empty seat behind it. We began to walk again. Smoke wafted from the Parkers' backyard, and the sound of murmuring voices around a fire floated out to us. Auntie Sheila had always made sure there were plenty of s'mores at her fall fires. I paused briefly as we passed her house. The light in the living room was on, and I saw Uncle Guy pass in front of it as he settled back into his chair. Allie stood up and went into the kitchen. She must be staying for a while since he was now alone.


“I'm not going to the funeral,” Buzz said, standing beside me. I wasn't surprised, but felt a little stab of anger. Hadn't he just said he was sorry for being shitty? Now he was going to be shitty again. “I love Auntie like no one else, but--” He stopped. “But this isn't for me anymore. I don't belong here.” I started walking again, thinking about what he'd said and Buzz came along. How could he not belong with his family? Of course, Auntie Sheila was the only one still connecting us to any family we had. As our mother's sister, she was the only one left that had had any hold on us. We stopped in front of our childhood home, where I live now with Cal and our daughters.


“Would you like to come in?” I asked. I was half-turned toward the house, ready to go in. The curtains were askew, and a stuffed zebra had been stuck on the couch so it could look outside. The warm glow of the lamps inside shone out to me, calling me back. Buzz looked thoughtfully at the house for a while. Was he thinking about growing up here? How much misery we'd endured within? Was he wondering, like I often did, how I could bear to stay here with all the evil we had experienced inside?


“No,” he said firmly. “I can't.” He looked at me sadly. “I just can't.” Little Chloe's cry broke through the walls of the house, and my urge to go in heightened.


“You've never even met them,” I whispered, tears beginning in my eyes again.


“I know,” he said. “I can't. It's just me. I don't know how.” He spread his arms slightly away from himself. “I'd break or I'd break you and everyone else. I just...don't fit here.” He kept his arms held out, looking at me, seemingly asking me to understand. I walked toward him and gave him a big hug, making sure I squeezed him to let him know I saw him and I loved him. His arms closed around me, and he set his chin on the top of my head. Then we both pulled away. I smiled at his sad face and turned and walking up the steps to the porch.


“Hey, sis!” Buzz called. I turned and looked back at him. “I'm going to do better this time.”


“Me, too,” I said. I waved at him and he smiled at me and raised his hand back in a half-hearted wave. Then I opened the door and warmth rushed out at me, the smell of Spiced Apple Cider candles and leftover dinner engulfing me.


“Mommy's home!” I heard a chorus exclaim as I shut and locked the door behind me.


“Did you eat there?” Cal asked, kissing me. The girls rushed to hug my legs. I shook my head and he scooped up Chloe and headed to the kitchen. "Somebody stopped by earlier looking for you,” he called back to me. “Seemed to know you. Did he find you?" I picked up Marie and hugged her.


“Yes, he did,” I said. “He knew where I'd be.”

September 23, 2022 16:09

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