At the Edges

My uncle told me once of the angels in his bedroom. From the ceiling fixtures, they fell, and hid like moths under the rumpled red curtains of his apartment. In a lamp shade edged brown with age, atop the blue striping his duvet, scattered about the darkness that dripped to each corner of the room those same sad mornings someone else left him. He would shake them from his pillowcase and dust them from his hair, and sometimes, instead, he let the angels gather to give the room more light. It was the spring of 1983, when everyone was dying off—the desk clerk at Donaldson’s, my grandfather’s investment partner Frank, a childhood friend, that boy with the pickup truck from high school, my uncle’s college roommate, an old boyfriend, a current one, and then the next. It was like that day in the bible when God collected the good ones: up out of their clothes, they fell to heaven, and the leftovers—everyone else—wandered behind. When my uncle talks about that time, he brings up fig trees and his old piano, the one he tucked between the bookshelf and bathroom door, its wood black and faded like the scars of Leviticus. I don’t know why he thinks of fig trees except that they’re there in his memory, along with a piece of his ex-boyfriend’s sweater and a box of old gauze. What I think of most though, when I think of what he tells me, is the staircase.

He says it happened when he was sleeping. I don’t know whether it was in his sleep or whether he woke to it, or whether he thought he woke to it but never woke at all. In detail, he describes the movement of the room, the air slipping out from under him like currents from a windmill, as the thousand angels that had been hiding flew out from behind the curtains, from under the lampshade and inside the pillowcase, and coalesced in front of his bed, spiraling together towards the ceiling like the voice of a choir. When he speaks to me, I hear all the wings clicking like magnets, one by one, pulled from the pockets of the apartment. And in front of him, the angels and all their bodies formed a staircase—and here is where I lose him—a circular staircase, alight and reaching and begging to be climbed. He didn’t climb it. He stayed in bed.

That winter, he moved to the tip of Cape Cod, where they all wound up eventually, annexed to the very edges, to where the sand dunes swell and fade and swell again. He calls this the story of what dragged him there.

 

So when my sister died last summer, I thought back to the stairs and my uncle’s light, and how an emptiness grows and sits in your pocket like mold when someone dies, and how all the hollows that once drilled holes in your life seem suddenly like the most substantial thing, and it is suddenly the holes that are what you are holding onto. And the truth is, even though they’re nothing, you’re okay with it, because at least it’s something.

My mother told me that sometimes young people die, and grief halts only those who let it. But I could feel her sadness, the immensity and gravity of it, when I would sit up against our mother’s bedroom wall and listen to her talk very quietly into the phone. The quietness of her voice pounded up against the house, and I knew just how insufferably satiated she was with grief, and how she was closing every door she could to contain it.

“We’re not going to let this define our family,” my mother told me at the funeral reception after everyone left. We were sitting together in the kitchen and my mother’s friend, the last guest, had just gone to the grocery store. Her friend was staying with us that week, and her voice still echoed in the green kitchen tiles above the sink. Now, the emptiness that had been kept at rest with the coming and going of so many visitors over the last week began to settle around us, and for the first time, I felt how this was the start to our life now. I sat at the round kitchen table, dragging my thumb through the leftover croissant crumbs and sesame seeds in one of the appetizer trays.

My mother turned on the sink, ran her hands under the water, no soap, then twisted off the faucet. “This is not going to be what breaks us,” she said.

 

It was the kind of summer where the days just barely cemented together, or maybe were entirely cemented together all along: indistinguishable, a clump of hourless days full of minuteless hours. And I would spend them the way I used to spend the weeks Holly went away to camp her middle school years. I would sit on the swing-set at the playground nearby—Farland Park where she used to play t-ball and I had my first real kiss on top of the sledding hill behind the field. Some mornings, I would ride my bike to pick up muffins from the town bakery. Our town square used to be nice, but then the state added a piece of interstate underneath it, so now an overpass slices the square in half, and a bunch of graying nail salons litter the streets, some real-estate offices stuck in between, and then not much else besides the muffins. And on the days all I wanted to do was sit on the living room couch and stare at the wallpaper or watch television, my mother would rush in and pull me from the house as if it were on fire, saying get outside and do something, which made me only not want to do anything that much more. On those days, often to avoid a fight, I walked to the rock-climbing gym in Hyde Park and bouldered around in the cheaper part of the gym where you didn’t need to rent a harness, and toss myself down on the mat like we used to do together when we’d just lay there looking up, wondering how much longer we could go until our hands got so sore and chalked we could not go anymore.

But really, how I remember it all is this: The nights I was the last up, I would sit on the landing of the stairs and look out the big diamond window facing the lawn, and watch my sadness, like moonlight, slide in through the staircase railings, then drop away. I went through a period where I pretended Holly was away at camp again, on a brief hiatus to return in a few weeks, but when that became too painful, I stopped. Barely was I beginning to realize that death was something that stuck.

 

It was after this summer that my uncle came to stay.

Late fall, and I was sitting on top of the furnace by the mudroom window, looking out at the streetlight, the dull one in front of our neighbor’s driveway. It was low morning, and I was eating raspberries out of the plastic pint with a spoon. My mother was brushing leaves off the porch steps. She swept them through the white banister and they fluttered upon the sidewalk.

At the corner, where our road and the busy road touched, the headlights of my uncle’s station wagon emerged. It bumped atop the pavement, its wheels dipping into each divot. In front of our house, his car slowed at the curb, and my mother, who was now picking maple seeds from the porch swing cushions, turned to look at it. Surprises like this sat uneasily with her, in the same way an ambulance siren flinched her awake at night even when she knew both her children slept safe in bed. I put the berries on the windowsill, rested the spoon on top, and shifted a little so that the back of my knee, which had sweated to the furnace, unstuck.

“What are you doing here?” my mother asked when he opened the car door. She balanced the broom against the house and hugged him. “Have you lost weight?”

The cat purred up against my leg. I watched my uncle open the trunk of his car and take out his suitcase. My mother opened the door next to me and the screen clanked in its frame.

“Your Uncle Wyatt is here,” she said. Watching my mother’s fatigue stretch across her forehead made me lonely. The cat jumped up onto the furnace and clawed gently at my lap.

“Is everything okay?”

“He’s just stopping by,” she said and disappeared into the kitchen.

 

            But he wasn’t. He was here to stay. Later from my mother, I found out that he had lost almost all his money that summer, and by almost she meant all, and had to give away his home. Most of his friendships in Provincetown he had soiled. He even gave his dog Lyla away to a woman down the street, which would have been particularly heartbreaking to Holly. Lyla was a mutt with a freckled snout who growled when we got too close to her food bowl and peed all over the floor when we visited. Holly had loved Lyla since the day my uncle brought her home.

It wasn’t as if our uncle’s addiction wasn’t talked about. It was something I always knew about him, and never felt any shame for. It was a given, ever since I was old enough to understand why some summers we went to Cape Cod and other summers we didn’t. My mother tried to be open about it, without ever being too casual, although that was how it sometimes sounded. Mostly she danced around it. We saw him really only in the best moments. And the times he lost it, or was in rehabilitation, these were the times that my mother took us somewhere else in June, times that coincidentally coincided with our having enough money for a family vacation somewhere special. His addiction was one of those patterns we grew up with. It was either very much there or it wasn’t. Our mother told us it in no way dictated our lives as it did his, but I felt its magnetism pulling us into and away from it. For me and Holly, rarely did it approach us in any dangerous form. For my mother, the currents were always piercing.

The summers we visited, my sister and I walked among the drag queens and burger joints, the pink cupcakes from Scott’s and all the dogs that ran along the beaches. But we also came to understand the town’s dark underbelly, the place my uncle often got caught. There were drugs, and maybe too the depression of living at the very end of everything was the riptide that pulled my uncle under.

 

            That first night he stayed, I watched my mother make dinner while Uncle Wyatt showered upstairs. My mother grew up in Georgia surrounded by peach trees and gold potatoes, or at least that’s how I imagined it. Mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, potatoes and peas. Sometimes, she told us, her mother added bacon. These same potatoes, mashed with peas and meat, my mother set down on the table that night. A long time she spent mashing, her forearms muscled and sweating in the kitchen light. She made them that night for her brother.

At the table, my mother and I sat in our normal seats. While we waited for Uncle Wyatt, I reached for a green pepper slice off the top of the salad. Our mother set down the plates and then came to take her seat next to me.

“Don’t start yet,” my mother snapped. I turned red and put down my fork.

“That’s never been a thing,” I said.

“It’s rude.” She glared at me, then put her hand out on the table, spreading her fingers open like a beggar. I stared.

“Take it,” she said.

She made us say grace. We had never said grace before, but I let her lead it. My mother bent her head down at the table, eyes closed. I stared at the chair across the table. Her faith had been slipping back. It came in little ways: once at breakfast she lectured me on how the Maasai give mothers only one day to grieve, death then left unassisted. Some afternoons she came back from her run and told me about the signs she saw in license plate numbers, or the names of new neighbors; at night, these signs huddled in stars and headlights, the sweet smell of Southern sauces she boiled time and time again for dinner. The South was slipping back, too.

 She and Wyatt were raised Protestant. She raised us nothing. She said she felt closer to God when the three of us caught tadpoles together in the high pond or picked miniature blueberries from the back bushes in the woods. The stiffness of a church pew did little for her faith. When I was littler, I collected God in the way my shadow slid along the sidewalk, and in the light that lingered from the nightstand after my mother tucked me into bed. It was a gathering of particles in hidden places that then compiled into some larger thing, often dismissed by others as nothing. And soon, I began to wonder whether it was all made up to make me feel better. Soon after that, I stopped looking.

            My mother called up for Uncle Wyatt but to no response.

            “Is he still in the shower?” I asked. I was getting hungry.

            “He’s not feeling well,” my mother said. She took a bite of chicken, so I took another piece of bread.

He never came. We sat at the table until my mother and I cleared our plates, and put them in the sink. I ate chocolate ice cream from the box and watched my mother close up the house. She locked the back door, then pulled out the curtain ties in the living room and let them fall in front of the windows. It reminded me of the way my mother used to take barrettes out from my hair. She told me to turn off the kitchen lights when I left.

“Don’t stay up too late,” she said.

 

When I went upstairs, Uncle Wyatt’s door was closed. In my room, I straightened the hairbrush on my dresser and looked at Holly’s magazines. I took my towel off the door.

Uncle Wyatt was in the bathroom brushing his teeth. He had a towel around his waist, and his hair was spiked wet. As I walked in, he spat in the sink.

            “It’s rude coming in without knocking.” He twisted the cap back on the toothpaste.

            “It’s rude not coming to dinner,” I said. “Mom made mashed potatoes.” He grimaced.

Then I added, “I thought you showered earlier.”

“No.” He extracted a razor from the Ziploc bag he was storing his toothbrush and took a bar of soap off the shelf. He rubbed it into his palm and patted it on his cheek. I never realized how many face muscles I had until I saw him with none. My uncle’s cheeks drooped inward, his pores hollowed as honeycomb.

I asked, “How long are you staying?”

He shook his head, and smiled. “This was a bad one.” He shook his head again. The razor ran down his cheek and the soap slid off into the sink. “I might be here awhile.”

“What happened?”

“Giving Lyla away was the kicker.” Patiently, he shaved above his lip, then under his jaw. The razor kept catching on his skin. He splashed water on his face, patted his cheeks, and looked in the mirror. We made eye contact in the reflection.

“I don’t think you ever really realize just how far down the shithole your life is until you’re handing over the leash to the crazy woman down the block.”

He plucked floss quickly through his top teeth and sucked his lips together. “I mean she has two poodles.”

“Those black ones?”

My uncle nodded. He threw the floss string into the toilet and flushed.

“We see them on the beach sometimes,” I said. I thought of Lyla waiting at the door for my uncle to come back, the poodles yapping at her tail.

            “All yours,” he said, dropping the razor into the plastic bag. He leaned forward to take one last look in the mirror. I wondered what he thought of himself. At the door, he turned back to me. “No where to go now but up,” he said and smiled. I smiled back and said goodnight.  

 

One afternoon, I was playing piano when my uncle came in. He stood right behind me. Penny Lane, the one song I knew, I played when it felt in season. I liked the way it moved my forefinger over my thumb. My uncle watched over my shoulder. I hated the feeling of people behind me. Late at night, when I walked in the dark up the stairs from the kitchen, I would feel the heat of someone watching me. I felt the stare of this watcher strengthening, chasing me up the stairs, and my pace would quicken and my heart trip, and then at the point it would be about to grab me, I’d run into the light of my room, my sister’s company, and escape.

            “Did your mom ever tell you that story about the ghost in our piano?” he asked me. I shook my head, but kept playing. Those same chords, over and over.

            “One night at dinner we were all sitting at the table,” he began, “and the piano started playing. Actually, I think only me and your mom were home.” He paused. His jaw stayed slightly open. “That’s right. We were eating waffles. And the piano starts playing, so we get scared.” Again, he paused, his eyes starting to drift in that way eyes do when trying to remember something distant. “And, I think maybe your mom decided to go check it out or something. It ended up not being a ghost at all, just a mouse running up and down the keys.” He finished. His voice wandered off into the room.

            I wasn’t sure what reaction he wanted if any, but I stopped playing and looked at him. I wondered which part of his head was here with me, off lost with my mother, and which part was always craving something else.

            He was still staring off when he asked, “where’s your mom?”

            “Grocery store.”

            “Ah.” He nodded. “I hope she picks up those cheese sticks I like.”

            “Yeah. Those are good,” I said. He bit his lip in agreement, his mind fading again. His wrist looped over the piano, and his hand dangled above the highest key, the nail of his middle finger skating over D sharp. Something about seeing him at the piano brought his story back.

I asked, “Do you remember the time you told me about the staircase?”

He said nothing. I don’t even think he was hearing me. He listened too much to himself. My mother said this was his problem.

“The angels in your apartment that time?” I tried again. “You told me about them when I was seven.”

I wanted to tell him how much I had been thinking about them. I wanted to ask if he made them up, or if maybe I had dreamed up the story entirely. Did he even tell me all that? Then, he snapped back.

            “I am so tired of people arguing over whether you are legitimate or not. Have you turned on the TV lately? It’s just these stupid fucks who know nothing about you, or anything you are, arguing over whether or not you should exist. And this has gone on. You know how long? Forever.”

            I looked down at the keys. I didn’t know what to say. On my wrist, I noticed a small scab in between two indents in my skin. It was like the bruises I found above my knees in the shower. I picked at it. Scabs appeared, scars did, out of nowhere.

“Look.” The tone of my uncle’s voice was different this time. I was getting tired of it and wanted him to leave. The scab fell from my wrist. I started to bleed.

“Look.” Still, I didn’t. When he said it a third time, I turned. My uncle was pointing to a photograph of Holly. It was one from years ago. She was sitting on a wicker chair out by the porch when she was six, a red headband pushing back her hair and a floral cardigan tied around her waist. “Did you see that?” The photograph was on the living room bookshelf.

            For a moment, a strange itch scrambled up my back, hitting the octave just below my lower neck—and I felt the same way I felt when that something chases me up the back stairs. My shoulders tensed.

            “What are you talking about?”

            “Your sister. She blinked.”

            “What?”

            “Look.” My uncle pointed again. “Didn’t you see that?”

            I wouldn’t look. He was walking towards the photograph now. He picked it up. I prayed to God he would not bring it towards me, but he was bringing it near. Inside, a sudden, deep, deeply rooted aversion kept me from the photograph; every bone in me nullified.

            “See how she blinks?”

            “Stop it.”

            “What?”

            “Stop it.” I wanted to hit him.

            “Watch, Anna. Look!” He was looking intently at the photograph. His eyes widened. “There. Did you not see her?” He thrust the photograph at me. “Take it, Anna. Look!”

            I stood and left.

 

That night, I fell asleep thinking about the beach where my uncle, knee-deep in the sea, used to lift me and Holly by the elbows, up out of the water to hop each wave that came. Right over its crest, we would fly, our toes barely touching the spray of it. He was getting better. Better and better, I thought, better and better. My Uncle Wyatt was getting better. And I slept. And I wondered when it would happen to the rest of us—us good ones—if ever or if really—yes—it all just stayed the same forever. If nothing ever was fun anymore, just tinted in this hazy haziness that settled, gathered, a meadow, dispersed, settled, and no biking nor hiking nor anywhere my mother found God helped settle it. No. I wondered. And then, again, the waves. Did I hop them, up by the elbows? He asked me this. I fell asleep. Not really. God was in them. I knew. That year, 1989, that last year that last friend died off, he went to Provincetown, that last place, and death destined all the world and not much else, and the ocean fell in to save him, and the stairs he climbed them. He was drawn to it: the shores, Herring Cove, extended far beyond where he thought ocean could ever go, and the jetty, rocks and rocks, sanded to a smooth skull of rock, netted with wasps, salted, smoothed, rocks and rocks, reaching and curving as a shoulder into the bay, and he walked across, smelling seaweed on one side, tossing his sandals to the wind, stepping off the rocks into shells that cut across the soft part of his foot, the sand, the water, the seals, and he wondered, then, if anyone was watching. No. There was no one.

I have dreams of my sister dying. Sometimes it’s the car door that slices her in half because I close it too fast when we leave for school, her body falling in ribbons to the ground. Sometimes it’s the snow that buries her when we go skiing alone down that skinny trail out back. But mostly it’s a slow dying, like gas, that takes her into the night, and I’m sitting unaware in bed, turning the pages of my book, a single bedroom wall separating us as she slips silently into the dark.

 

Christmas came slow.

The season smelled to me like wisteria and chamomile. The cigar man two houses down was late in stringing lights around his windows. When we drove home from school, I watched him drag plastic reindeer by the antlers across the lawn. Most figurines didn’t light up anymore, the bulbs dead, their plastic casings stained with dirt, faded with snow. Still, the old man arranged them delicately about the grass. At night, his house pulsed with a dull, graying glow.

We put a wreath on the door with the purple spotted bow Holly liked, and my mother replaced the pumpkins in our garden with red potted plants. The night before Christmas Eve, Uncle Wyatt came with us to pick out our tree. We took the tall, skinny one, and tied a red ribbon around its trunk. Our tradition each year was that Holly and I could buy one new ornament, any one we liked, from the shop to put on the tree. I picked mine and gave it to my mother. She started to cry. We all got into the car after that. A freckle-faced boy tied our tree to the top, and my mother slipped the Christmas CD into the player. I told her to turn it off. We drove home in silence. At the stoplight, I looked for all the tiny red dots that melded together to make the large red dot that braked us.

And then it was Christmas morning. Every year, it became a little sadder, just naturally, as every year I noticed myself becoming a little less excited than I was the year before. It was deep and painful that morning, but I got up anyway. The window misted at the bottom with cold. I touched one finger to the glass, and felt winter press against it. I sat like that for a while. I’m not sure how many minutes. The morning turned yellow in the window, and I watched a cardinal land on a branch of our crabapple tree. No snow was yet on the ground, but still there was something poetic in the bird, and so, for a little bit, I pretended we both were watching it peck at the dirt. The oatmeal I tossed on the grass last night for the reindeer was still there. I could see little specks of it on our walkway. A car drove down our street. The bird flew away.

“Okay,” I said to myself quietly. “Let’s go wake Mom.”

 

It was after my mother and I stood at the top of the stairs waiting for Uncle Wyatt to wake up, after we walked downstairs together, my mother still playing the game of hoping Santa came—what if he didn’t?—and after I smiled at the tree and read the note Santa left me. This time, he wrote how much he missed my sister and admired my courage, and I couldn’t read much more after that, so Uncle Wyatt took it quietly from my hands and finished it.

“I have faith this won’t break you. I send you strength, steadiness and spirit in a time of such loss. Love and prayers, Santa.”

 That last part, the prayer part, pulled me back. It sounded untrue and I realized how much my mother’s faith bothered me. I stood from where I sat on the bench by the fireplace, and my mother took her arm from around my shoulders, and asked if I wanted to unwrap my stocking first. It was after I had emptied my socks onto the couch and smiled appreciatively at each chocolate bar and knick-knack when it happened. Those tectonic plates under the family shifting.

           “No.”

            I paused. I had just popped a chocolate into my mouth and was chewing it. My mother was pointing at the stocking. “There should be something else for you.” Silence landed in the living room. The cat jumped down from the couch and purred against my leg, her hair stuck to my sock.

            “There should be something else in there,” she said again. “Did you look?”

            Confused, I reached my hand deep into the stocking.

            “No, Mom.” I said, trying to laugh. “There’s nothing.” More silence. Uncle Wyatt stared at my mother and my mother stared at me and I looked out the window. The cat knocked into the andiron and it clattered against the logs. With the sound, she darted from the room. Abruptly, my mother turned.

            “Wyatt,” she said. “Where is it?”

            My uncle looked taken aback. His face flushed. She stared at him. My mother made her way to where my stocking lay on the couch and picked it up, sticking her hand inside.

            I took a step away from the wall. “Mom, stop. What are you doing?”

She started picking up each one of the little gifts individually—the chocolate Santa, colored pens, candy cane, a container of magnets, neon flashlight—that I had laid out on the coffee table.

“It’s fine, Mom.”

“No, honey.”

“Please, Mom. It’s fine.” She was back at Wyatt now.

“Why would you do this?”

I looked down at the ground. Not at the fallen andiron. Not at my mom. Just at my socked feet and the place where the rug ran into the floor. There was a stain in the corner of the threads, brown and fringed. 

“Calm down, Meredith.”

“Don’t you dare.” My mother spoke more harshly than I had ever heard and it sent a chill up my arm. I wanted to leave the room. I felt so stuck at the window that escaping to the bathroom was hopeless now. I thought about the morning bird and the crabapple tree. Then, I thought of the fig tree, too. And in the living room curtains behind my Uncle Wyatt’s back, I thought I saw an angel flutter.

The nauseous and circular kind of quiet filled me. I let it wash through and around and gurgle up inside, and I watched my uncle stand in front of my mother, the rubble of a man, my uncle. I wondered how he stood there, what strength he was drawing upon.

Calmly, he said, “I don’t know what you think I took.”

“A gift for my daughter, Wyatt.”

“Honestly, Meredith, nothing a ten-year old gets is going to be much use to me.”

“She’s twelve.”

For a moment, I wondered if he stood there so still because there was nothing left inside him to risk. He wasn’t getting any better at all, just more and more vapid. His insides shelled and bare, he stood with no feeling at all. All of it went with Lyla and the poodles.

“You’re never here. You’re never around. You never help. You selfish bastard.”

He didn’t say anything. My mother started to cry. Her voice did not crack, her stature did not struggle. But her face wetted, and I prayed that my uncle would not speak. I prayed, too, that my mother would do something to fill the silence stretching itself into the room, even though when she did speak, I cracked inside. The gifts under the tree lost their magic. The tree itself wilted. I could not look in the window for fear that my reflection would make me cry too.

“My daughter dies and you do nothing. Then you come to me five months later, no house, no money, and I do everything.”

A floorboard creaked. A rustling.

“No more.”

At first, I thought this was one of those moments where nobody breathed, but I could hear my mother breathing, and my uncle, and it tired me. I let my uncle’s breath turn to static, and listened to my mother. I kept listening, worried it all might stop. Each breath she took, I held mine for her next. And each second that passed, my breaths shallowed out.

Was this what happened every time my uncle burned through a friend, those ones that abandoned him in his town? This scene of leaving. This settling of residue after loss. Maybe family was not so durable; it burned too. If this was so, I lost faith, then, in my mother. There in the living room, in front of the fireplace, the way she looked at her brother somehow strung me and Holly closer together and distanced her, in a tragic way, from us. How Holly would feel was lost on me; she would probably never let herself feel any of this. But I was not a fool. What seemed foolish was how my mother could send her brother out the door and still feed me faith on how it all comes back together eventually. The next time, if ever, she said anything like this to me, I knew something even more would be lost between us. Until then, I would wait.

My uncle dropped his eyes, not in defeat, but carelessly, little energy left to keep them up. My mother bit her lip. Her cheekbones sharpened in the light. His eyes drifted to the piano, to the bookshelf, then to me, then he left.

 

My mother threw the Christmas tree out the day after.

This, she always does. The ornament boxes are taken from the closet, set on the coffee table, and she picks them all off the tree and puts them away in their separate spaces, vacuums the living room floor, and tells my sister and me to take the tree out with the trash, roll it onto the street where the cars come lightless and quick around the corner. This year, I brought the tree to where dew pools in plastic trash tops, then rolled the bins back up, my laces dirty with snow, the plastic hitting the pavement in steady thumps. She says it is depressing, the needles falling on the living room floor like hair.

But the lights stay up.

February, and the lights are still strung around the climbing tree. The red plants remain potted in the garden. The cigar man drags his reindeer back, but our house stays lit, the brightest on the block. Three days we have the tree, barely three, and it lies on the street like a corpse, body down, someone hide it, the snow doesn’t even stick to it. The smell of pine evaporates from the living room: our mother sprays, cleans. This year, the whole thing goes faster.

My uncle doesn’t come back. He will, my mother says, he always does. And again, we feel the heat of some things never changing, and worry some things never will. Too deep, too permanent—they break us. I keep biking and walking to the park, even in the snow. I sit on the mudroom furnace and pick at my nails, and go outside when my mother gets tense. It’s these months that are the hardest. By New Years, my mother found the gift in the back corner of her closet, the one that was supposed to be in my stocking—it was a thin silver bracelet, nice but reasonably inexpensive, and although I would never admit it to her, the smallness of it was sad. I don’t think she ever really thought she lost it.

 

Sometime later, I sit in my bed with a mug of tea and hear the nighttime birds coo so deep the sound sits in their throats. Like little crystals, the headlights of cars reflect off the snow edging the road, and fall into my window. Light gathers in a sheet, and I think of my sister. That dull streetlight, I see it from my room. It glows orange through the pines lining the patio. The house lights flick off downstairs, my hair falls to my shoulders, and I listen to my sister breathe next door; my radiator rattles with the radio. I keep it low at night to keep off the loneliness.

In my mug, the tea bag bleeds.

Through the window, I watch a light dot the top of a hill somewhere South. I used to think it a rocket, then a cell phone tower, but now I think maybe it’s her blinking back.