I remember the station wagon. The one with the wood paneling on the sides that you used to see a lot back then in the early seventies. It was clunky, always smelled damp, and if you sat in there with shorts on you’d regret it because having three kids (four kids, I mean) means you simply can not avoid the sharp crumbs from stale crackers that get stuck in the upholstery and ultimately return to haunt the back of your thighs. We strapped Pete Jr. into a baby seat in the back and my sisters squabbled over who would get to hold him first; this new piece of our family who would make us complete. I tried to squabble too, but they were both older than me and more crafty. So after quickly being ruled out of potential siblings who would be the first to hold our new baby brother, I resorted to examining him there in the baby seat. He looked like the baby photos we had in the big album on the living room bookshelf. Pink and soft and almost unlike a human at all. His skin was pale; almost translucent, and his hair was barely a wisp of cotton. He lay there mewling with his little fists clenched and skinny legs kicking sporadically. In fact, he looked so much like the photos of us when we were babies that I thought Julie must have been trying to trick me when she said that he did not have the same mother and father as we did.
“Why is he so skinny?” asked Julie.
My mother replied, “his mother was sick, dear.”
I could hear my oldest sister Laurie mumble under her breath, “right, just like I was ‘sick’ after Tony Reinheller’s party last weekend.”
The meaning beneath their words eluded me. To me, he was perfect. There was silence for a moment as Julie appeared to ponder something else.
“Why does he have the same name as Dad?” she asked.
“Well,” replied my mother, “it’s kind of like a prayer that when he grows up he will be like Dad and carry on his name.”
That seemed like a good prayer to me. Our father was kind and gentle, yet strong and wise. As the youngest of his three girls, I think he always had a soft spot for me. I looked down at the fragile infant beside me and knew that I would have a soft spot for him, too. I offered him my finger and he grasped it with his five miniature ones. I leaned my head against his car seat and watched the summer sun jump in and out behind the trees. As our station wagon glided down the road, I vowed in my little heart to love and protect him. I imagined a secret bond between him and I; the youngest siblings against the world. The others wouldn’t understand him like I did and that filled me with a certain sense of pride. We pulled into our driveway and stepped out together as a new family.
I remember the cop car. I remember the tires crunching up our gravel driveway, and the flashing lights our bedroom curtains couldn't keep out. Julie, Laurie, and I were all sharing a room and had been trying or pretending to sleep for an indeterminate amount of time. I rolled over to look at the little digital clock on my bedside table, which informed me it was 2:14 a.m.
“Is that him?” I heard Julie whisper.
In response, we each peeled back our covers and tiptoed over to the window, our steps muted by soft, warm carpet. Peeking through the curtains we had a clear view of the driveway and the dusty sedan that now occupied it. It was a clear night, but the air had that certain prick to it that meant autumn was coming. I wiped away the fog from my breath on the window and watched my parents approach the car. I’m sure they weren’t asleep either; they were outside before the cop could even undo his seatbelt. My mother had her robe wrapped tightly around her plump body and beside her my father’s tall frame drooped slightly. Even from here I could tell that his hair was a little whiter and his blue eyes were a little more tired, and it sent a pang through my chest. I felt angry at Pete for the toll his actions took on their bodies and souls. He was selfish; reckless. The cop approached my parents and I watched their conversation as puffs of air against the night sky. My eyes wandered over to the cop car and I could just make out the silhouette of my now teenage brother through the windows and behind the partition. He sat alone and unmoving until the cop meandered over to let him out. And then silently, I watched Pete be born from the back seat. His body language showed no remorse, no evidence of a lesson learned. I realized I was holding my breath, searching for some sign that this time was different. By the way he pushed inside in front of my parents with his head held high, I could tell that it was not. We heard the front door close and my sisters and I wordlessly returned to our beds. This was the third time he had tried to run away in the last few months and it just didn’t make any sense. My parents, my sisters; all of us, we were good to him. We loved him as our own and gave him every opportunity for success. But he seemed at every fork to choose the wrong direction. He did poorly in school, in sports, and his only friend was his annoying pet bird, Charlie.
Nothing seemed to explain it and I laid there all night feeling angry and hurt and thinking, why, why, why, can’t he just be normal?
I remember the rental. The leather seats amplified the bitter winter and made it so you somehow felt colder in the shelter of the car than you did exposed to the elements. Rentals are always dull and lifeless and depressing. It occurred to me that a rental is destined to a life of not really belonging to anyone and I wondered if that’s how he felt too. Our damp bodies and stale breath clouded the windows. Gray upholstery, gray sky, gray hearts. Wordlessly my father turned the ignition and blasted the heat. I know we were all thinking that it could never penetrate the cold, a part of us would feel cold forever. Two days ago we got the call and all congregated there as soon as we could. Julie, Laurie, and I were now grown with families of our own and each traveled from different parts of the country to get there. My body was numb as we drove through the dirty city streets that had become his home. The distant horns of other cars and drumming rain and click click click of the indicators barely registered in my brain’s periphery. When we arrived at our destination I found that I didn't mind the rental so much. I felt like a child wanting to wait in the car while my mother went to pick up groceries. Then my father was opening the door and taking my hand to help me out. The funeral home had a darkness that made my skin crawl and threatened to suffocate my lungs. We collected the last piece of our family in a form reduced to ashes and we got back in the car. From the backseat, I stared at my mother’s wrinkled hands and the ceramic pot they held so desperately. A kind of madness bubbled in my throat as I considered arguing with my sisters over who would get to hold him first. I fought the urge to snatch him away and strap him in beside me to make sure nothing could ever hurt him again. To remind him he has to stay here to carry on our father’s name.
Was this our fault?
They told us the reason for his death was undetermined but you could tell they didn’t really care about another bum on the streets, and it wasn’t that hard to read between the lines.
Could we have stopped this?
If we kept in touch, if we sent him money, if I kept my vow, if, if, if.
If he had been born thirty years later maybe we would have understood his brain and the things his mother did to it. Maybe we would have known how to help him.
We kept driving and the city grew smaller and smaller in the rearview mirror. The landscape became mountainous and a dense wood grew to our right, the ocean still on our left. He loved the woods and so that is where we went, as deep in as we could drive with daylight on our side. Finally, we arrived at an old, small pullout, and my father killed the engine. We stepped out as a family, whole and broken, and laid our missing piece to rest.
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Wow, engaging. One post, one mighty mention. Man the story is an interesting one. Welcome man.
I admire the restraint you show in the way you created this piece. It's just gorgeous. Well done.
Great story Bek. So sad.
A poignant tale of a family in grief, in angst and bewilderment. I fear there are too many stories like this. We didn't always understand the decisions my brother made either, and now he's gone so there can be no answers. A powerful piece and the use of the vehicles to denote different parts of the story was brilliant. Well done on your win!
Bek: Congratulations, well deserved. Such a sad, bittersweet story. Your use of the three vehicles to move the plot and anchor it as well was very effective. I loved the way the MC assumed his spot in the car beside the other child and then after the young man died, the cremation urn. I was moved to tears, because I knew what was coming, but I still had to read to the end because you used an almost poetical touch to the story. Thanks for a great read. Maureen
Welcome to Reedsy Bek! Congratulations on being shortlisted for this sad but beautiful story. Was it fetal alcohol spectrum disorder? Good on you for highlighting it, if it was.
Congratulations on the shortlist - very well deserved! It’s beautifully written and deeply moving. Looking forward to more of your writing.