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The ground is soft, thick, and clumpy, and it sticks to the inside of my raggedy nails as I tear out fistfuls of mud and throw them over my shoulder. Ripped grass, wet and slimy, covers the ruined black dress which had carried me through the morning’s funeral service, and a pile of unearthed soil gradually grows all around me.
“Agh!” I wince as my knuckles scrape against the roots of the coarse peach tree which provides me a scanty shelter from the rain, and a little trickle of my blood blends in with the brown mud that cakes my fingers. I’ve been burrowing for three hours now—crouched on my bent knees in the infinite, torrential, bone-drenching rain. My back aches—I won’t be able to move my neck tomorrow—and I’ve lost sensation in my legs, but I continue digging. Plunging my hand six inches deep into the hole I’ve created, I clench my fist over what I expect to be dirt—but instead, my nails slide over a smooth metal surface. My hand relaxes and lays flat over the cool metal, and I allow myself a deep breath of relief. At long last, I’ve found it.
“I’ve got to hide these!” Jake says, sporting a conniving smirk as he holds the tin lunch box to my face so closely that I can see Scooby Doo’s brown eyeball staring deeply into my own. With a soft giggle, I push it down.
“Why you gotta hide em, Jake?” I ask. The wind tickles our bare legs where we stand behind the small farmhouse, and I offer Jake a curious smile, inviting him to explain.
“I’ve got to put them somewhere safe,” He continues, taking my fingers and wrapping them around a little garden shovel he had produced from the toolshed a few minutes beforehand, “somewhere that they won’t find them and try to take ‘em from me!” Without further explanation, he takes my small, dimpled hand into his own and drags me down the grassy hills and through the fields of sun-ripened wheat. Stumbling barefoot, we race past the pasture where our twin mares graze indolently.
“They came into my room last night,” he explains further between sharp inhales, “They came into my room and went through my drawers and my closet—they almost found my collection! Which is why we’ve got to hide them, you see?”
I nod vaguely, furrowing my eyebrows, and follow him into the valley where the grass comes up to our thighs and rabbits with quivering noses dart between our legs and make narrow paths for us to follow. Abruptly, he stops, wrenching me backward so that I stop too.
“Here. Here’s a good spot,” he says. We stand in front of a tall, flowering peach tree. Its speckled pink blossoms emit a tangy-sweet aroma which tickles our nostrils. With a clamorous, jangling thud, Jake lets the box slip out of his fingers and onto the peach tree’s bulging roots. Pulling me down to the ground beside him, he begins to rip out the long strands of grass. He smiles with an air of youthful confidence. “They’ll never find my little collection all the way out here.”
I roll my shoulders and my neck, wincing as my tired muscles begin to loosen. And then, with a deep breath, I try to heave the metal box out of its sodden grave. It takes some strenuous wrenching before I can finally wriggle it out from underneath the pebbles and mounds of soil, but finally I manage to haul it onto my lap. My stomach almost overturns as I pick the moist earthworms off of the cover, and with the help of the rain I wipe the top of the box until I can faintly make out the goofy face of Scooby Doo, his tongue lolling haphazardly out of his mouth and a hint of insanity in his cartoon eyes. Most of the paint has been scratched off, but the indents are still as clear as they were four years ago. Closing my eyes, I feel for the metal clasps which seal the box shut, and flip them open.
“I know what I see, I’m not sick!”
Jake sits on the hard blue clinic bed, clutching his arms as he argued with the doctor. His eyes shift from the physician, to the nurse, to my parents, who stare stony eyed into my brother’s misunderstood façade. “They come into my room almost every night—they try to take my things—” He grows silent for a few moments. The room is quiet except for the rapid scribbling of the nurse, who jots memorandums on a small pad of yellow paper.
“Go on,” the doctor insists monotonously.
“They—they even tried to hurt me.” With shifty eyes and tremulous hands, he pulls out his arm from a striped sleeve—revealing a score of long pink scratches that clash horribly with his pale, greenish skin. “Try and explain that.”
A few questions and tests later, the doctor scribbles his terse explanation on a prescription slip and hands it to my father, who inadvertently crumples it within his wrinkled fist.
With an almost inaudible click, the lid of the lunchbox flips open. I gasp and then bite my lip at the pristine beauty of its contents—untouched, unchanged, unaffected by the weathering of four years underground. Even with the overcast sky and through the blinding sheets of rain, the contents seem to cast an iridescent glow, and with shaky fingers I allow myself to pick them up and examine them. Small, circular, colorful and clean, mottled, dappled, shiny and smooth—they offer their cool touch to my wet, clammy skin. I let them fill my palms just as the memories flood my mind. Suddenly, the water which trickles down to the corners of my mouth tastes salty.
“Get away from me!”
I jolt awake—the neon digits of the clock on my bed-stand indicate that it is three hours past midnight. Breathing deeply, I lift myself up and listen for the yells that had awoken me.
“Don’t come near me—DON’T TOUCH ME!”
I hop out of bed, feeling my way around the dark room until I find the door. Swiftly, I crank it open and rush to Jake’s room, where I hear his muffled protests and heavy panting.
“Jakey?” I call to him, swinging open the door and flipping on the light switch. Jake sits huddled on the edge of his bed, his knees pressed against his chest, his checkered blue blanket coiled around him and clenched into his tight fists. His sapphire eyes are as wide and shiny as gemstones, and he rocks back and forth in a maniacal fervor, muttering under his breath as he stares into space.
“J-jakey?” I offer tentatively. My heart quavers—I’ve never seen him like this before.
At the sound of my voice his movement stops. Slowly, he turns his head towards me, his huge eyes fixed on my face.
“Jakey what’s wrong?” Gently, I move towards him. As I near him, however, he backs further away, pressing his back against the wall. His piercing gaze follows me as I approach—he holds the comforter to cover his quavering, gaping mouth. I stretch my arm out to pat his shoulder.
All at once, his trance snaps—he jumps at my touch, lifting his hand to slap away mine. I yelp, clasping my throbbing fingers.
“Get away from me!” my brother yells, scrambling out of his blanket, “Don’t touch me—don’t touch me!” He kneels on his bed so that we are eye to eye. Then he throws out his arms to push me to the ground.
All at once, the rain stops. As the clouds begin to thin out, shafts of golden-red sunlight fall down and reflect upon the silver background of the lunchbox. It’s almost sunset, and in the black hills that make up the horizon, I can make out the beginnings of a widely arching rainbow. Clearing a little section of untouched land beside me, I pour out the contents of the lunch box. They jingle and clink as they fall out and onto the grass. Opal, garnet, topaz, aquamarine—Jake collected one of each kind; he’d pick them off the ground, in the crevices of gift stores—he’d spend hours polishing them meticulously. I pick them up and let them slip through the cracks in my fingers. I press them to my face and roll them on my cheeks. It seems like a lifetime has passed since I have last held them.
“I don’t wanna go!” Jake’s screams ricochet off the wooden walls and fill our small house with sound, “You can’t make me go!” He flails his bony, translucent arms and glares with shiny blue eyes too large for his gaunt countenance. Our mother shakes her head and holds him to her bosom, her face hollow and pulled down. Our father loads the car with shabby suitcases, his stature hunched.
Finally, they manage to drag him into the backseat of the battered sedan. I hold his hand through the window, tears flowing down my face and neck as I say my farewells.
“Don’t lettem send me away, Alice,” he whispers as my father starts the engine, “Don’t lettem send me away to that—that jail forever.”
My heart throbbing, my throat closed, all I can offer him is a shake of my bowed head and the silent pressure of my hand in his. And all at once, he is gone.
And now as the sky changes in color from red-violet to deep purple, and a gentle spring breeze wafts the grass so that it tickles my neck, I hold the little treasures close and try to feel Jake through them—his laugh, his touch, his sneaky artifice. But all I can feel is the cold lifelessness of gemstones.