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When I was in first grade, my dad died.
He was a general, the very highest position you can reach in the military. He’d worked very hard for that job, as he’d been in the military since he was twenty-one years old, fresh out of college, feeling that his country needed him more than he needed money. He could have made a lot if he’d gone to graduate school. He wouldn’t be dead if he’d gone to grad school. Or if he’d quit when he married my mother, at 23, or maybe retired when my brother was born two years later. But he didn’t, and he’s dead and there really isn’t anything we can do about it. He loved his job though. He loved us too, but he loved being in command, and the high you got from being out there, saving the world. Is that a high, or is that just insanity? How do you love the thing that kills you? But he did love it, and he really and truly did work very hard for it. An army general is a job that needs to be worked for- basically they’re the people in charge. So there’s no slacking off or any of that shit. You have to give you’re a-game and my dad did. How he died actually proves that more than anything.
My dad died trying to save one of his officers. Saying it like that sounds all noble, and I guess it was. He got a bunch of medals for it, which I think is stupid. He wasn’t there to accept them. We still have them today. They sit in our living room and look pretty, but I would honestly prefer if we had my dad here instead. However, that’s not possible because of that fateful day. On that day, he and all the soldiers under him were at a lodge in the mountains of Afghanistan. They were trying there hardest to pretend that there wasn’t a war going on and trying to keep their heads up. At the time, they were on a mission, trying to find a group of Taliban officials who had taken refuge in the Khyber Pass, a valley like place in the Hindu Kush. They’d been there a while, with no sign of life, but that was about to change. It all started when one of his men went out to use the bathroom. He didn’t come back. Everyone was busy so they didn’t even notice until it was far too late for the poor soldier. It wasn’t until about half an hour later when one of the men finally did realize he was gone that they immediately alerted my father. I don’t know why they didn’t sooner. Maybe they thought he was sick, a frequent occurrence with the high altitude and poor food that they had to deal with during the mission. Whatever reason, as soon as my dad heard that the soldier had not returned, he was all action. He jumped to his feet, bolted to the door of the rec room and swung open the door to look outside. According to the other soldiers in the room, he got this awful I’ve-just-seen-hell look on his face, then cussed under his breath, dropped the book he was reading on the floor and sprinted outside.
You see, after the officer went outside to the bath house he was spotted by a Taliban scout. When the scout saw him he hurled a knife at him. It hit him in the chest, almost directly above his heart. The officer didn’t even have time to scream. Most likely, he heard the whiz of the knife, turned around and died, without ever knowing what happened. My dad couldn’t tell that his poor officer was dead though, as the officer had landed face down. Maybe he thought the officer was sick, or had just passed out from the heat. I don’t know and I doubt I ever will, I just know that my dad was trying to help. But when he ran out, to try to save his man, the enemy scout heard him coming, and did to my dad what he did to the officer.
The only good thing about the whole terrible, messed up situation was that the scout died too. As soon as my dad hit the ground, all the other soldiers in the rec room were out there. They found the scout in seconds, and in another few seconds he was dead with eleven bullets in his head. This is actually comforting to me. I don’t know if that makes me sound terrible, or heartless, maybe inhumane, because it was still a human life being taken. But too me it’s reassuring knowing that someone who lived to kill, and who killed my dad, got what he had coming to him.
Even though I consider that to be a good thing, it really didn’t make anything better. My dad was still dead, the officer was still dead, and my family was still ruined. My life was completely torn apart by my dad’s death and some scout dying might give me reassurance at this point, that there’s at least a little justice in the world, but at the time my life was too much of a mess to understand much of anything.
The whole situation now seems like one of those terrible stories that you see on the news. Everyone knows the kind that I’m talking about. They’re frequent nowadays, the ones where the anchor puts on a rehearsed sad face and talks in his or her custom news anchor sad voice telling an awful story. Sometimes it’s about the little boy who disappeared and was found dead, kidnapped and killed by his own father. Other times it’s about the girl who got hit by a car that was driven by her own boyfriend- then they find out it was on purpose. It was the type of story you see and think-“Awww, that’s so sad! - Then you forget about it in a matter of seconds. I don’t forget those stories anymore.
Now, thirteen years after it happened, I still clearly remember everything about that cool October day, down to how I wore my hair (a French braid with a pink ribbon) and what I ate at lunch (leftover spaghetti, Cheetos, peaches, and gummy bears). When something like that happens in life, it’s like your brain stores it all for you to keep forever, and that’s how it worked that day. And while it started out a fairly normal day in a fairly normal life, nothing for me would be the so-called normal ever again. There was nothing out of the ordinary at the beginning- a typical first grader’s Friday. But, come afternoon that would all change for me.
Morning came and passed in a blur of getting ready, riding the bus and practicing my subtraction. It’s strange to think now, that at this point, which was, as I said, still normal, that my dad was already gone. Important people were already en route to my school, my sibling’s respective schools, my home, and other family’s homes to deliver the news, the medals, and of course, the body. But at the time, we knew none of that.
Around noon I had just gotten back from recess. I was arguing with my little first grade best friend about which teacher at our school was the prettiest. This was a little girl hot-topic, along with different jump-rope rhymes, our favorite TV shows and the ever coming and going fads of the time. When we walked into the classroom though, the principal was in there.
This wasn’t exactly out of the ordinary. The principal and assistant principal walked around the school all the time, coming in to survey classes, watch the teachers lead discussion and sometimes the assistant, who was really young and fun, would play freeze tag with us at recess. So, when I went into our classroom, I didn’t think much of it, I just walked to my seat, got out my markers, and started drawing a cupcake on my hand.
I felt eyes on me when I was drawing icing. I looked up and my seat partner, a quiet little Asian girl, whose name I never even knew was staring at me.
I remember returning her stare for a second, probably suspiciously, and then saying “What?”
“Mrs. Wilder is talking about you with principal”, said the girl, in her always quiet voice.
“How do you know?” I said, annunciating the ‘you’ to make it sound like I didn’t believe her. I said this in my always snotty voice, because I was actually a very mean little kid.
“Because she keeps looking over here, and I heard principal say your name” she replied, whispering even more, because I had intimidated her with my accusing ‘you’.
I just shrugged and went back to my sprinkles. A few minutes later I looked back up at the girl, and went “Why do you call her principal?”
However, I never found out why that little girl called Mrs. Long ‘principal’ because all of a sudden she was behind me with my teacher.
“Rebecca, sweetheart, I need you to come with me”, said Mrs. Long
“May I please finish my sprinkles first?” I said, using my manners like my parents taught me.
“Beca”, said Mrs. Wilder, “don’t be rude!”
“I need you to come with me now Rebecca” said Mrs. Long
“Ok”, I said, deciding to be agreeable. I put my markers back in my pouch, and as I stood up I looked at Mrs. Long and said “My name is Beca.”
“Yes, yes, of course” Mrs. Long replied in that distracted way that adults say things when they’re really not paying attention to you. I had always hated that. As the youngest of three, I got those kind of responses often, and I’d learned to put up with it, but I decided at that point I did not like my principal. I guess it was a good thing she wouldn’t be my principal for much longer.
Mrs. Long and I walked down the long hallway, me half running to keep up with her quick paced walk. I always had to do that at that point in my life. I was short- shorter than everyone my age. We got to the office and in there was a tall man with a moustache. I remember that I really liked his moustache. He was in a uniform that I recognized because it looked like the one that my dad always wore.
‘He’s a general’ I thought to myself. I looked the general in the eye and gave him a salute, which is what I had always done with my dad, and that was when I realized how sad this general looked.
He was standing in the corner of the office, slouched over, which I knew from my father that generals were not supposed to do. They were supposed to stand straight up, like they had rulers down their backs, like my mom tried to no avail to get her children to do. His head was bowed, his eyes were mourning and his mouth was turned down in one of the saddest frowns I’d ever seen- although I’d be seeing similar and worse one’s for a while after that.
I was about to ask him what was wrong, but before I could open my mouth he crouched down so that he looked somewhat like a frog to me, and asked in a deep voice- “Are you Rebecca Kirsten McCormick?”
His voice which was much deeper than I’d expected it to be scared me and so I said my yes quietly, and didn’t tell him that I liked to be called Beca.
The general sighed softly and put his hands on my shoulders very gently, (but I still flinched) looked me straight in the eye and said just as gently- “Rebecca, honey, your dad’s not going to be coming home from Afghanistan.”
I heard Mrs. Long gasp and she sank down onto her knees. I turned around to make sure she was OK, because I didn’t understand what was happening. She pulled me into a rather squishy hug and rubbed my back while I wondered what the heck was going on. I squirmed away from her and turned back to the general and asked him-
He winced “Your daddy went to Heaven.”
Heaven. I knew what Heaven was… that was where God lived, right? Why would dad be there? That would mean that he’d died….
I remember feeling my knees go stiff and my head get fuzzy and then I was falling, but after that there was nothing but blackness. I woke up several days later, screaming for my daddy.
Now I’m nineteen years old and in college. It still hurts like crazy to think of that day and the days that came after it. Honestly after that horrible, horrible day it just went downhill as my whole family struggled with our mixed up emotions, and, of course, in the awful world we live in, messed up reporters. I know now, that my dad was a much bigger deal than I thought, famous in the world of generals, so his death was mourned by many Americans, triumphed by the Taliban’s they were after, and broadcasted by all the big news channels. I think it was probably forgotten by many people who saw it though. Not us. Never again would that be us.
I don’t know if my mom actually even saw these broadcasts. She was there, but she wasn’t really there. When my dad died my mother sank into a dark depression. She skipped the first three standard stages of grieving- denial, anger, and bargaining- and moved directly to a depression that shook our family up almost as much as my dad’s death. She basically was in bed 24/7. She barely ate too, and I later found out that she lost 65 pounds in those 4 months that she was bed-ridden. Her isolation kept the rest of our family from healing too. Life without a father is extremely hard, and anyone who has gone through this type of loss knows it. But when you lose your father and your mother life is almost impossible.
I had an older brother named Andy, who, at the time, was almost 17 and a junior in high school and an older sister named Charlotte who was 14 and in middle school. Although they tried to step up and play mom and dad to me in the later months, at first even the smallest thing was impossible. Because for all of us, my dad’s death ruined everything about what had been a pretty perfect life.
My brother had been the ultimate prepster. He played football and golf, got straight A’s, and always wore a nice, pressed polo. He was an Ivy League shoo-in, and one of those guys who would marry the perfect girl straight out of college. When my dad was killed though, Andy quit everything- the sports, the good grades, and the nice clothes. He basically pressed the pause button on his life. Life didn’t really wait for him. The colleges who had offered him football scholarships turned their heads; the teachers who adored him forgot him; and the cute girl who worked at Abercrombie, who was crushing on him, stopped sending him coupons. He didn’t really care though- he was too crushed. He would still do stuff- go to school, to work, allow his friends to drag him to parties and football games, but he was a shadow of the old Andy, one who mumbled and gave one word answers and stood stiff and cold.
Andy had been incredibly close with my father. My father had coached him in all his sports, tutored him in all his classes, and was his style muse too. And when my dad was sent to Afghanistan for the first time, when my brother was 6, he emailed my brother every day. When he got older he told my mom he wanted to change his name to Jeffery after my dad. When Andy was in middle school he decided he wanted to be in the military too. When my dad died though all talk of someday being “just like dad” immediately stopped, and my brother basically stopped too.
Charlotte, my sister changed also. Before my dad’s death she’d been my favorite person in the world. She could make me laugh no matter what situation, but after everything no one could make her laugh and people tried too. Charlotte responded in a response typical with hormonal teenage girls, but one that was put up with in this situation. She was basically just non-stop crying. Whenever I saw her there were tears streaming down her face. Life kept up with her though. Just as there were tears constantly streaming down her face, her friends were constantly streaming through our door. In and out, in and out. Comforting her and trying to make it better.
Charlotte had been a true daddy’s girl. She and Mom got along enough, but they fought too about many things, dumb things- curfew, friends, clothes, grades, the works. When Charlotte got upset because of one of these fights she would go to my father. If he was home he would hold her close, and hear her out and listen to what she said and then they would have ice cream, Charlotte’s guilty pleasure. If he was gone, they would Skype for hours, him comforting her as best as he could through a computer monitor. When my father died, and my mom sank into the hole that was her depression Charlotte ignored her, too caught up in her own misery to pay attention. But when my mother came back to us, so did those fights but worse than ever before, because something had changed in Charlotte. She was never the same after that with my mother, never even the smallest bit like a daughter. It stayed like that until Charlotte escaped away to college, never to return.
Everyone forgot about me throughout the turmoil. I was the little first grader, never really in the loop and knowing what everybody else knew. That didn’t change with my father’s death, especially with everyone dealing with themselves and their emotions in the way they did. So I found myself being ignored most of the time. Overlooked. Unloved.
I remember, my favorite place to go when times were bad, was under the piano bench. Scared? Wanted a hug? Feeling lonely? I’d go to the piano, and crawl under, usually with a favorite blanket. Then I would fall asleep. Or I would cry. Or just sit there, and try to work my brain around what was going on around me. The piano bench was my best comrade during that time. I truly believed it understood me, and maybe, just maybe it did.
Before my father’s death, I had loved the piano anyway. We have home movies of me, even as a toddler, banging away on the piano keys and making what I called music – and what the rest of my family called earaches. It’s cute now, seeing them on tape, but apparently it was a pain at the time. As I got older the piano was a friend to me and my friends. Many songs were written and performed accompanied by that piano. We have videos of that too, me and my little friends performing concerts. In these videos, we are decked out in Charlotte’s makeup- piled on glittery eye shadow, overly thick mascara, hot pink lipstick, and WAY too much blush. Charlotte loved being our stylist, though I overheard her tell her friends it helped her in a “what not to do” sort of way. She also did our hair in ways involving lots of hairspray and gel and bobby pins. And then there were our clothes. I’m not even going to bother describing the gory details involved with those, as it would take far too long- although we weren’t exactly wearing that much. We probably had more beauty products on our bodies than fabric. We were also pathetic singers, so bad that even auto tune wouldn’t be able to help. We squeaked and moaned and crooned into our microphones, which, often times did the same thing back- microphones make awful, dying-cat type noises when held too close to the mouth, which was exactly what we did.
However bad I was at piano playing and singing, I loved that piano. And during the time of the death of my father and family, it loved me back. It was a beautiful piano. It wasn’t a typical piano either. It was smooth dark wood, and tall rather than long, probably five feet high. The top of it was flat, and we had trinkets such as photo frames and statuettes decorating that area. Beneath that was the sloping front part, engraved with various calligraphy-type decorations, swirling curling leaves and symbols, and towards the top the words ‘ceux qui aiment écouter de la musique’ in a fancy and raised script that I loved to trace my fingers over. There was a small shelf at the base of this front, on which we balanced music and song books, and below that was the keyboard with its lovely white and black polished keys. The keyboard was supported by twisted Roman Cathedral style columns, which connected to the base it sat on. The bench had the same style of wood, and its legs matched the columns supporting the actual piano. Basically it was beautiful, and during the time of depression it was my safe haven. I no longer played music though.
No one really played music. No one sang or laughed or danced or did any of the things they used to do- the good things- that I remember from my early childhood. Maybe for a little while it was good for me. I wasn’t exactly a nice little girl. I was rude to those who crossed me, or who I thought had crossed me. I was mean and sassy to those who annoyed me, like that little Asian girl. In a way I was a bit of a bully. So at first, all of this isolation and neglect might have been good medicine for me, the stuck-up girl I was. A kick in the ass from everyone’s good friend karma. But no one deserves that much of a bad thing, whether they’re bad or good, especially at seven years old. Like all medicines, even the seemingly harmless ones, when taken as an overdose this was very dangerous. Maybe not deadly dangerous, or in a way that drugs would, but in a way that would still transform me. I used to be the in-your-face, queen bee of the first grade, and then… I wasn’t. At all. I became the opposite. The little girl who avoided eye contact, chewed on her braid when people talked to her, and sat by herself on a lonely bench during recess. I was like a blind person- I saw no one. Or maybe I was mute- I definitely didn’t talk to anyone. It could have even been that I was deaf- though it wasn’t like I needed to hear anyone anymore. No one talked to me. In fact no one even saw me. I needed someone to see me though. I needed to be saved.
Because, you see, if a little girl doesn’t talk, see, hear, or do what little girls do, she may forget how to be a little girl. She may transform into something different. You see, when someone realizes, even for a second, even if they’re someone as young as I, that no one cares about them, scary things happen. Things that can make this realization permanent even if it’s not. That’s why, from that point forward, I truly believed no one cared about me. Eventually they did! It took a while, but over the course of a year, my mom went to therapy and climbed out of her hole, my brother learned to be the man of the house, my sister smiled again. Then we moved. We left my birthplace and moved across the country, to start over and leave the bad memories behind. However, I left something else behind. Something very important. Something that shouldn’t be left behind, that should instead be carefully guarded… but it wasn’t. It stayed behind, under my piano in the living room of the house in California right where I left it, instead of coming with us when we left California behind. You know what it was? What I left behind?
I’m walking up the stone walkway looking around, kind of confused. This can’t be the right place, can it? The grass brushes my ankles, letting them know in some sort of desperate plea that it needs to be mown. There are weeds too. Lots of them. Not only are they mixed in with the grass, sticking up at random places, but they’re also on the trees, the bushes, in the small garden, crawling up the house. The house itself doesn’t look very kempt either. The windows are dusty and cracked, the door needs to be painted- its current grey coating is chipping off-, the roof has shingles falling off, and I’m scared to step onto the porch because it looks like it could cave in any second.
The house is basically in shambles- it needs some TLC bad. I’m in shock, honestly, that is isn’t in perfect shape. The person who lives here is a neat freak, or at least, they used to be. She kept her side of the room neat and clean, she always got OCD walking past our cupboard, and would end up organizing everything, she had to be a ten before she left the house- she craved for perfection, strived for it, would go out of her way to achieve it. Or, she was before everything happened. Before our dad died. Charlotte was not the kind of person to let something get to looking like this.
I guess I didn’t really know her anymore. Before everything happened, she’d been a dream big sister. She was pretty and popular, smart and sweet, with tons of friends, a revolving door of boyfriends, and many more guys swooning over her. The only person she didn’t get along with was my mother. When my mom got back on her feet, it was like Charlotte didn’t really think she was there to stay. She never trusted her, never even talked to her, and basically avoided her at all costs.
She kind of avoided the rest of us too. We were no longer family; we were just acquaintances, making awkward small talk. When I was in third grade I heard Andy comment to her about the weather, just because he was so desperate to make some sort of conversation but couldn’t think of anything else to say. She distanced herself from us; shut us out with her silence and often with her locked door.
So I guess I didn’t really know my sister anymore- just who she used to be. She used to be a neat freak, she used to be pretty, she used to be popular, and she used to be perfect. Now she was a stranger who didn’t mow her lawn.
Was I scared to see who she was now? Yeah, I definitely was. But there was more to her than I knew at that point. Charlotte had dark secrets, dangerous ones, which explained everything about the person she was now. I had no idea what she had gone through and dealt with, worse even that dealing with the death of our father. She was a prisoner.
But now, she was going to be my home. I had transferred to University of South Carolina for my sophomore year of college, wanting to try something bigger and better. But USC was a big expensive school and I couldn’t afford the tuition if I had to pay for everything else too. College costs a lot no matter what- you need money for going there, living there and the books necessary to learn there. So something had to go, and the obvious thing was living on campus. So I was a lucky girl to have my sister living in Columbia along with my new college.
I hadn’t exactly been sure about this. It sounded weird to put it like this, but I was estranged from my sister. Even though I definitely was, it felt bad putting it so bluntly, because that made it more real. I would have to adjust to her quickly though, and now was the time. I checked the address I had typed into my iPhone’s notepad one last time to make sure it matched the one on the door, and once it was confirmed I took a deep breath and closed my eyes. Then I pinched my cheeks, ran my fingers through my hair and rang the doorbell. I heard the echo throughout the house of a single chime. It sounded sad, lonely. And when my sister, who I hadn’t even seen in over a year, answered the door, I got the same first impression of her.
Her long white-blonde hair was in a loose braid down her back, and it looked like it needed to be washed. She wore no makeup and had on just a faded grey tee shirt and baggy jeans. She wasn’t wearing a bra or shoes and she had this sorry look in her eyes. She leaned against the door frame and stared at me, looking me over, almost like the way guys check you out randomly in the mall. Normally I gave these kinds of guys the finger, because it’s irritating when people look at your body like it’s a display. But I couldn’t do that with Charlotte. She looked so depressed that all of a sudden, I just wanted to hug her.
“Hey” she said softly, maybe even nervously.
“Hey” I murmured back, smiling a little too show I meant no harm.
“You look so different. You’ve grown up Bex” she blurts, using my old nickname and then looking embarrassed, like she’d said too much.
She hadn’t though. She didn’t know it, but that was exactly what I needed to hear. Those words were, in a way my own personal catalyst. I hadn’t known what to make of this stranger who was my sister. I was scared of her, confused about her, wondering about her and what had happened. But when she said that it brought me back to the early years when she was the old Charlotte, the one who baked Cupcakes with me, and taught me how to cartwheel and told me funny jokes when I cried. Just those words made me see her in a new light, as someone capable of being that Charlotte even when my surroundings seemed to argue.
But when I leaned in to hug her, she flinched, like she wanted me off her, away from her, nowhere near her. So I pulled away and looked her in the eyes, trying to look concerned. She took a step back, then sighed, and pushed her hair behind her years, taking at least five years off of her stressed face.
“I’m sorry” she said
“It’s okay” I said, and all of a sudden I felt awkward, like I needed to ask a dumb question, maybe pull an Andy and ask what the weather was in Columbia, but she interrupted my thoughts with a question for me, maybe not so dumb but relevant, and maybe just the question I should have asked her.
“How are you holding up?”
“I’ve been better. Mom’s in a funk right now with her new job and stuff. Did you know about that? She got hired as a manager or something at the Applebee’s near our house. She hates it of course. You know how she doesn’t like getting jobs. Oh my God and I think Whitney’s expecting. Like, she and Andy haven’t said anything but I’ve kind of gotten the vibe from them, you know?”
I guess I’d been rambling a little, trying to keep up the conversation, and maybe that’s why I hadn’t been watching her face, hadn’t seen her face harden. But when I did look at her, ready for her response about how badly she wanted to be an Aunt and on how much she loved Applebee’s, she looked stiff and angry. And her eyes… they were in a faraway place, somewhere I’d never been before….
“Charlotte? Are you okay??”
And I watched helplessly as my sister turned on her heel and marched away.
Three hours later I was freshly showered and in my favorite sweats, busy making dinner, but Charlotte still hadn't emerged from her room. I was thinking the smell of my macaroni would lure her out of her bedroom. That had always been one of her favorites when she was younger- even if it was just Kraft from a box, like I was using now. But I hadn’t seen her since she’d abandoned me at the doorstep.
After she’d walked away, it took me a few minutes before I came inside. At first I was so shocked by her sudden departure I’d just stood there, paralyzed. Then I’d moved numbly through the house, unsure of what I was doing or where I was going. I’d found a hallway towards the back of the house and at the end was a tiny room, that I assumed was mine. It looked like a guest room, but that of a poor, just-graduated-from-college type of person, but I guess that summed up Charlotte. All the room contained was a queen-sized air mattress in the corner, that filled up a quarter of the room, an empty closet at the other side, some cardboard boxes against the wall opposite the bed, and a small mirror above those. There was a single window by the closet, and I went over there to open it, feeling claustrophobic in my tiny new home, and then began unpacking.
It didn’t take me long to accomplish this. I didn’t have very many clothes that I’d brought with me- just the necessary bras and underwear, 3 pairs of jeans, several tee shirts and shorts, a couple of blouses and nicer shirts I’d splurged on and a pretty sundress. I also had some sweats and lounge clothes, plus my sandals, my sneakers, and my winter boots. Peering into my pathetically empty closet, I felt the urge for a shopping spree, but I was on a college budget and I was chipping in to Charlotte’s house bills at the time so I wouldn’t be able to afford anything extra at the moment.
When I did finish I grabbed my bathroom things and began to search for a bathroom. I crept down the hallway quietly, trying not to disturb the silent house, because that would just feel wrong or something. I honestly felt like I was in a library and that if I walked to loudly a middle-aged lady with glasses and dyed hair would pop out and shush me then glare until I moved on. So I found myself tip-toeing across the ugly mustard colored carpet, until I finally did find the miniscule bathroom at the other end.
When I get in, I don’t see it at first. I probably wouldn’t have seen it at all if I hadn’t stepped backward- planting my foot right into what turned out to be a litter box. Cringing I pulled my foot out, and shook it off over the toilet, then jumped back, muffling a scream, when I laid my eyes on the fattest cat I’d ever seen, perched precariously on the shelf directly above me. Keeping my eyes on it, I backed away, putting my hands out to show I meant no harm. The cat wasn’t getting my vibe though, it was hissing, and glaring at me, it’s tail straight up in the air. Then it slowly stood up, stretched, and with me staring in shock, hopped down to the bathroom counter, its large stomach jiggling as it flew through the air. If I hadn’t been so astounded I probably would have laughed out loud, but instead I was backing up, pressing myself against the wall and trying to camouflage.
The cat though, seemed to think of my fear as affection- maybe it was more used to people approaching and grabbing, which I knew to be something despised by cats. So when it made its way down to the ground it approached then coiled itself around my legs, purring as it let me know how much it loved me. I tried to scoop it up so I could move it out of the room so I could shower but it was too heavy for me to lift. And when I tried to nudge it out with me foot it pounced up to the counter, and stared at me, almost smugly, if cats could be smug.
Slightly freaked out, and not wanting to strip down in front of a staring cat, I undressed behind the towel I’d brought in, then hopped in the shower, where I was hidden again, and was about to peek out and shoot the cat my own smug look, when my foot nudged something furry. I looked down and screamed to see him in the shower with me, a sexual first for the girl who’d barely been to second base. I tried to lift him out one more time, then gave up, grabbed the shower head and turned it on him full blast, then watched as he sprung out of the shower as fast as he could, and left me to shower in peace.
When I was out, I changed and went to the kitchen, started dinner and waited. And waited. Finally, I went to go find Charlotte, thinking it wouldn’t be hard in a house that small. Sure enough, when I opened the door across from the bathroom, my sister wheeled around to face me, looking scared at first then remembering she had a guest and staring at me questioningly.
“You didn’t tell me you had a cat” I said to break the silence.
“Yeah” she replied. “I figured you’d find him eventually. He’s kind of hard to miss”
“How’d he get so fat?” I laughed, then shut up, widening my eyes in horror at what I’d just said. I’d always been the kind of person, when I was younger, who’d said what I wanted to say, and I guess seeing Charlotte was bringing this trait back out again.
To my surprise though, Charlotte laughed.
“He was my landlord’s cat before mine. When I told him I wanted to buy the house though he got mad, because he liked this place so much. But I made a good offer and he had to agree. I guess he thought dumping his obese cat on me would work for revenge, but the joke was on him because me and Fat-Ass get along pretty well… yeah….”
“His name’s Fat-Ass?” I said, shocked for a second at my sister’s twisted humor.
“The landlords idea, not mine” she replied. “The name was part of the package, and I wanted to change it but Fat-Ass was the only thing he’d respond too. I guess my ideas for a good cat name weren’t really fitting for such a fat cat anyway- you know, cheesy crap like Mittens and stuff.”
“I gotchu” I said grinning, nudging her with my elbow, trying to be a little sister. She was opening up to me I could tell, and looking around at her undecorated house, I wondered how long it had been since she had opened up to anyone.
“Hey, we should probably start dinner” Charlotte said, interrupting my thoughts. “Do you want to go out or do you want to make something?”
“I already made macaroni for you” I said, smiling at her.
And she smiled back, and we went on to the kitchen to eat my Kraft Macaroni.
Later though, I would learn that her smiles had been fake. She’d been trying her hardest to be the big sister to me she hadn’t been in a long time. And though I’d begun to trust her again, she wasn’t at that point yet. She was putting on a good act, pretending to laugh, forcing out stories, and I’d believed that she was healed.
After dinner though, I went to say good night but when I got to her bedroom she wasn’t there. On the bed instead of her was a laptop, open to a page on notepad, which I saw was a journal entry. I was about to leave it alone, but my eyes happened to catch where it said my name, and all of a sudden I had to see what it said. I knew it was the cliché little sister thing, to snoop and read your sisters diary, but the second I told myself this, and that I shouldn’t read her stuff, I wanted to even more. So I sat down on her bed, pulled the laptop up beside me, and scrolled to the top of the page, date for today. The first sentence was “I can’t do this”…
August 23rd, 2016: I can’t do this. I thought I would be able to deal with once again facing such a huge piece of my past again- Rebeca- but I can’t. I just can’t. As soon as I opened up the door, and saw her standing there, all I could think was: “She looks just like I did”. And then I thought about everything that happened to me when I was her age. I put on my game face though. She hadn’t done anything. Yet. But only a few minutes later she brought up our mother. How could she do that to me? She knows what mom did to me, how she hurt me, what went down. Yeah, she doesn’t know what happened after that, but still. Bringing up our mother was bitchy. Rebeca was just another bitch. I knew it right then. I could see it in her face that she knew what she was doing to me. So I left. And I came to the safe haven in my bedroom, locked the door and set up camp. I didn’t feel like coming out. I couldn’t. I couldn’t face her. When she came in later though, I had to. I’m a pretty good actress. I acted like it was all okay with us, put in some crap about my stupid cat, which made her laugh. I’m pretty sure she fell for it. I’m not sure if I kept it up okay during dinner, but I don’t think I really give a shit. She can’t just march into my life like this and expect me to be all gung ho about it right? No one could do that. Especially with a situation like this. We have a bad past together- no matter what, even if I did like her, or even love her, I probably wouldn’t be able to face her. She looks so much like dad. I see him when I see her. I hear him when I hear her. And then she has to go and say such awful things and it puts his memory to shame. I hate her. I want her gone….
It took me a second to process this. Then I closed the laptop as a tear went down my face. I left the room, putting the door back in position and then I just stood there. And thought. I was wondering the most about my mother- her mother too, and what happened between them. She seemed to think I did, but I didn’t. I had no idea whatsoever, and it hurt me that she really thought I would purposely bring up something to hurt her. I was just trying to make conversation, make everything okay. I guess I had said the wrong thing though and now I realized I was shut out, the way she’d shut my mother out after she did whatever she did though. As I walked past the bathroom, where I thought Charlotte was probably hiding out, I slowed down so she wouldn’t hear me. And that’s when I heard her crying. Sobbing actually.
Whatever my mom did to her must have been pretty damn bad.
The next day when I woke up, I didn’t know where I was. I was disorientated, and for a moment, even scared. I’m one of those really paranoid people, partly because of what happened to my father, and partly because of my crime-show addiction. Whatever the reason, I’m the girl who sees a white van out on the road and wonder if some kidnapped child is in the back. So my immediate reaction was to freak out, obviously thinking I’d been the victim of a kidnapper this time. But it came back to me as I looked around. Not all of though. You know how when you wake up in the mornings you don’t always remember last night, what happened, what I found out. Then, almost like some sort of slideshow in my head, I remembered. First coming here, then the cat, then dinner, then fast-forward some- finding the laptop. And finding out what my sister really thought of me. Not knowing what was going on, what happened to Charlotte, wondering what was going to happen now.
And all of a sudden I found myself wondering even more.
I have a wild imagination. When I was younger, before everything happened, I was all over the place, telling my stories and dreams to anyone who would listen. Sometimes, I would annoy people, normally my brother and sister, with my insane ideas, but other times my listeners would be drawn in, enthralled even, at this small child who could create such vivid pictures in their heads. I was told I would be an artist, a poet, a play write, a singer, a dancer, a comedian, a writer, many things, over the year. And though I stopped sharing my thoughts, I still had them. I just kept them to myself. And believe me, there were quite a few of them. Even now, so many years later, when I’m practically an adult, I still have this craziness, these fireworks and explosions in my brain where I come up with all sorts of explanations for goings-on around me.
And that’s exactly what I was doing now.
What had happened to Charlotte? That was the question. My answer? She’d killed someone, she’d witnessed a death, she’d fallen in love with a killer, she’d killed my mother… replaced her with a fake? She’d robbed a bank, she’d suffered some sort of PTSD, she’d had a baby, she’d almost died, or maybe she was going to? I didn’t know. Maybe I didn’t need to know, because it was that bad. But in a way, I wanted to know. Then I would know where we stood. I would know how to act around her. I wouldn’t have to come up with my own explanations, and I wouldn’t worry quite as much as I was right then.
But now it was time to stop worrying. I realized then that I had to pretend like nothing was wrong. I’d never seen the laptop, I hadn’t heard her crying, I was completely unaware that my sister completely loathed me, hell, I thought we were rekindling our relationship here. I had to go out there and act completely normal, like everything was okay.
So I did. I put on a bra and pulled my hair back, then made myself go out to the kitchen, where Charlotte was waiting, cup of coffee in one hand, electricity bills in the other. She was glaring at the bills in her hand, like they’d wronged her in a way like no other, like she hated them more than me. I sat down across from her and waited. When she the paper down, she sighed, brought her mug to her mouth. It was one of those cups with handles on either side, and it read in bold print: The Hangover Mug. Swallowing a smile I tried to look serious, knowing I’d succeeded. Charlotte wasn’t the only good actress around here. It ran in the family, was part of our genes, but Char didn’t need to know that.
“Hey.” I said.
No response. Okay, maybe she wasn’t going to do the niceties anymore.
“Did you sleep okay?” I asked, maybe slightly pleadingly, a last attempt.
She took another sip of her coffee, and then nodded slowly, not meeting my gaze. I wanted her to meet my gaze so bad, so I could smile, a nice smile, a sister smile, one that would show her that I wasn’t the bitch she so obviously thought I was, that I was here for her. She didn’t though, so I couldn’t, but I held my stare.
“Do you have any more coffee?” I queried this time, pleased with my question, thinking she’d have to verbally answer this one.
Wrong. Instead of just letting me know with a simple yes, she set down The Hangover Mug and pointed over her shoulder to the still-half-full coffee machine on the kitchen counter. She was really going out of her way with this cold shoulder, but then, she always had. Her hibernation from family during those horrible depression years hadn’t just been a game. It hadn’t just been the Silent Treatment turned up a few notches either. It had been Charlotte’s way of saying she was done, she wasn’t doing this, and no one would get through to her.
Too bad for her, I was determined to do just that.
“So, I think today, I’m going to bike up to the University and just sort of walk around, okay?”
“You know, just sort of get a feel for the place. It’s huge you know? Ralston last year was an elementary school compared to this place. And I don’t to be late for all my classes the first few days because I don’t know where they are. I’ll be kind of pushed anyway. I decided I’m going to walk to all my classes, and some of them are really far apart. Last year, I biked everywhere, but I left my bike with Andy and Whitney so I wouldn’t have to cart it all the way back here. And yeah, I mean, it’s not like I’ve got just five minutes between classes like high school, some of them I’ve got a whole hour and all, but still. It’s all about first impressions you know?”
Still nothing. And yeah, I was rambling, not really giving her a chance to cut in and talk about her personal experiences with this, but I couldn’t help her. Her silence, and bored, placid expression were making me nervous. It was almost like she couldn’t hear me, was oblivious to my babble, had no idea I was even there anymore.
“Char, please respond. Are you mad at me?”
Slowly, she turned her head my direction, until she was looking right at me.
“Why aren’t you talking to me?”
“Oh. I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay. Have fun”
Her voice completely contradicted these words. They were dripping with sarcasm, full of contradiction, and her eyes looked dull and angry. She didn’t want me to have fun; she wanted me to get hit by a car.
But I ignored this. And I smiled and thanked her, told her I hoped she had a good day too, asked her what she was doing, and considered even inviting her along, but decided against it.
“I don’t know” she told me.
Yeah, Charlotte, I thought. I don’t know either. I really, really, don’t.
I slowly eased my big, white Jeep, into what was actually a really crowded parking lot. I hadn’t expected there to be so many people here, but apparently, a lot of people had had the same idea as I had. I considered just screwing this idea- I had pictured peaceful walks down the campus pathways as I moved from building to building, maybe going in and exploring these buildings too, but there were students everywhere, all around the building where I was coming to a lecture first thing tomorrow. Groups were gathered across the front lawn, listening to music and talking. Some guys were throwing a football in one area, and another group had started a Frisbee game. And just like at almost every big college event there was the so predictable group of guys who just lazed around and heckled the girls. This particular group was lounging behind the stairs that led to the front doors, smoking and ignoring all the fingers being thrown at them. So this definitely wasn’t the peaceful environment I’d been picturing.
It was obvious to me that this place was nothing like tiny Ralston Community College, but in a way, I kind of thought I liked it better. More students meant I would blend in more. I could go through this without meeting people, making friends, getting tied down. When that happened, it was harder to go with your life. If I was to make a best friend here or something, I couldn’t keep going with my life, couldn’t leave, because then I’d be leaving people behind. I’d lost enough people in my life already.
Here I could be exactly what I wanted- invisible.
I decided I would stick around for the day, go ahead and explore the area. So I climbed out of the car, shut the door and locked it, tucked my keys into my purse, and started towards the entrance. As I got closer though, I remembered the guys. I had completely forgotten about them, but at this point I couldn’t just turn around, my only option was to go right past them. So I kept going. I smoothed back my hair, straightened my back, and looked straight ahead, as I got closer, and as I passed by I heard them murmuring. Then:
“Oomph! Dat assssss!!!”
I whirled around to face them, then immediately regretted it. Because I’d done this, there would be a confrontation. I should have just done what they were expecting- flipped them off, shouted out a curse in their name, but now, I had to say something specific. But nothing was coming too me.
“I don’t even have a butt!”
They all bust out laughing, and I whirl back around and get out of there as fast as I can. When I get to the stairs, they’ve gotten over it though, but I still hear laughing. And then I see this guy, at the landing on the stairs, doubled over laughing, and obviously trying to stop. I glare, and think about saying something, something meaner, to redeem myself, but I don’t get to open my mouth, because he beats me to it.
“I’m sorry, I am seriously so sorry! I just, I’d been watching them for a while, and you were great! I was getting bored with all the middle fingers at them, that was the freakin’ funniest response I’ve ever seen!”
I realize pretty quickly that he’s sincere, mostly because he’s looking at me so intently, and it’s then that I realize how attractive he is. He’s tall, probably over six feet, and it’s obvious that he plays some sort of sport because I can very much see his abs through his tight grey shirt. And they’re really nice…. His hair is just as perfect. It’s really, really dark, and long too, about halfway down his neck and falling into his big blue eyes, framed by the longest lashes I’ve ever seen on a guy, but it works for him. His only flaw is his nose, which looks like it might have been broken once or twice, but I realize that it does actually work on him.
“You okay?” he says, his head cocked, like maybe he’s thinking twice about talking to me.
“Yeah, I’m good. Kind of dazed, that’s it. That doesn’t exactly happen to me every day…”
He laughs too then goes- “I’m Gavin”
“I’m Beca” I say, wondering why he’s still talking to me. “What year are you?”
“I’m a sophomore. What about you?”
“Freshman, but I’m living off campus. My sister has a house near here.”
“That’s cool” He smiled, and I could tell he was really one of those sincere people, someone trustworthy and nice. I’d gotten used to people not being cruel in my lifetime, backstabbing and such. I didn’t really know this guy but I wasn’t getting that kind of vibe from him. I wondered briefly, why someone like him would talk to someone like me, as if he was interested in me or something. I pushed that away. I wasn’t really worthy of dating, and I knew that.
“Yeah it is, but it’s kind of awkward. We hadn’t seen each other in forever, which is kind of rough, you know?”
“You seem like a pretty open person.”
“That’s because you’re easy to talk to. My sister’s not.”
“That sucks. You sound like you need to get away from it all.”
“Yeah, I really do.”
“There’s this party I’m going to tonight. Kind of a last-chance thing before we have all the studying and shit like that right? I was gonna go with some friends, but it would be cool if we could meet up. Do you have any plans?”
I just tell him that I do now, that I’ll be at the address he writes down for me at nine. And I’m so out of it that I turn around and walk away, and I’m halfway to my car when I remember that I still have to go inside. This time I go the long way round, so that this guy, who seems to think I’m cool right now, won’t change his mind and think I’m retarded, and so that I don’t have to get more comments on my ass, and this whole time I’m wondering what the heck is going on.