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Forgotten a novel, p.13
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       Forgotten: A Novel, p.13

           Catherine McKenzie
 
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  “Someone had to fill the gap while you were away.”

  I grab my pillow and whack her with it.

  “That’s the way it’s going to be, huh?” She positions herself on the bed and takes a mighty swing at me with her own pillow.

  A moment later we’re involved in a full-fledged pillow fight. Several rounds in, Stephanie lands a particularly good shot that catches me off balance and I tumble to the floor. The thud sounds bad, but I’m unhurt. I roll onto my side, laughing and clutching my pillow to my stomach. Dominic’s bare feet are in the doorway. I look up into his amused face.

  “A girl-on-girl pillow fight. It really is Christmas.”

  “Get him, Steph.”

  Chapter 12: Let the Sunshine In

  Two weeks to the day after my first trip to the village-that-might-have-a-working-satellite-phone, I slung my pack over my back and mounted the old red Schwinn. Everything about the day seemed the same—a dry blue sky, a breeze that twined through the faded grasses, the nervous anticipation in the pit of my stomach—only this time Karen was coming with me. We started out with plenty of time to avoid the hottest part of the day, falling into an easy rhythm of squeaking wheels and weaving to avoid the pits in the road.

  “Do you think they’ll have fixed the phone by now?” I asked Karen.

  “We’ll see,” she answered in a practical tone.

  “They should’ve had enough time. I mean, if they know how to fix it, two weeks seems like enough time.”

  She glanced at me as I swerved to avoid a hole that could’ve had my bike for breakfast. “I don’t think you should get your hopes up.”

  “Don’t you want it to be fixed? You must have people you want to call.”

  “Of course I do. I just . . . I’ve learned not to put a time frame on things that I can’t control. Who are you so eager to call, anyway?” she teased. “The boy?”

  “I should call him. And my best friend. And the office, of course.”

  “Of course.”

  “What? It’s important. People are relying on me.”

  “I’m sure the legal world will spin on without you.”

  “I know, but . . . I miss it.”

  “You miss it? Or them?”

  I bent a little lower over the handlebars. “I meant them, of course. Plus, it’s what I do for a living, right, so . . .”

  Karen nodded, and we pedaled in silence until we turned the bend that brought us to the village. The same group of boys sat on the same collection of rocks, like they hadn’t moved. Karen and I slowed to a stop at a safe distance, dismounting from our bikes, unsure of our welcome. But Tabansi stood up and shaded his eyes. Then his face broke into a grin and he flicked his wrist—come, come.

  We wheeled our bikes up to him, and he bounded down from the rocks.

  “You have come back,” he stated in a way that should’ve been a question but wasn’t. His jeans were held tight against his stomach with a piece of rope, and there were sweat stains around the neck of his T-shirt.

  “Yes.”

  “You still want to use the satellite telephone.”

  “Yes,” I said enthusiastically.

  “It is still broken.”

  My heart fell. “Oh.”

  “You are disappointed.”

  “Yes.”

  “We are fixing it. You come back in—”

  “Two weeks?” I said.

  He grinned. “Yes,” he said. “Yes.”

  Stephanie comes by her love of Christmas honestly, a gene she must’ve inherited from her mother. When people say “That family went all out at Christmas,” I know they haven’t met the Grangers, or seen the sight that is their house at Christmas.

  The outside is restrained—in context, of course, with what’s inside. The eaves and edges of the house are rimmed with white blinking lights. Next comes the enormous crystal wreath on the front door, and more lights wound around the wrought-iron baluster. Mechanical animals form a menagerie on the front lawn.

  But Lucy Granger saves her real enthusiasm for inside. Each room on the ground floor gets its own tree, one white, one red, one green, and all strewn with reflective tinsel. The mantelpiece above the fireplace in the living room is crowded with a gingerbread village, lit with real lights and inhabited by dollhouse furniture. Below hang the stockings, all matching, and each embroidered with a family member’s name. The air smells of cinnamon and chestnuts, with an undercurrent of rum.

  The source of the rum smell is Brian’s large glass of eggnog, sitting on a small table by his favorite armchair. From experience, I know this glass always looks full—barely touched—but can’t be, because Brian becomes jollier by the hour and is usually nodding off by dinner.

  We arrive in the early afternoon. Brian rises unsteadily to greet us. He’s wearing a bright-red velour vest, in contrast with his conservative pants and shirt. His tie sports a Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer motif. He envelops Stephanie and me in a joint hug, calling us his “girls,” telling us not to give him a scare like that again.

  When he releases us, Lucy swoops in. Her velour tracksuit matches Brian’s vest, only it has a pair of reindeer antlers sprouting off the back. Her silvery hair is cut like Stephanie’s; Stephanie inherited her hair-tucking motion from her mom too.

  She kisses and hugs us both, smelling of turkey and cranberry sauce, and we’re ushered to the comfy couch that sits under the bay window because it’s present-opening time and we’re behind schedule. We’re just waiting on Kevin, perpetually late, at least when his parents want him to be somewhere at a particular hour.

  “I didn’t bring any presents,” I murmur to Stephanie through the side of my mouth.

  “Don’t worry about it. You know Mom likes giving the most.”

  I nod at the truth of that, but I feel bad anyway. And then I notice something that makes my heart skip a beat: the row of bulging stockings contains one with my name on it, and also one with my mother’s. If I weren’t already sitting, I’d need to sit down.

  These stockings are not new. They date from my childhood, when Stephanie and I treated each other’s houses as extensions of our own. Somewhere along the line, we started getting invited to Christmas, and for Lucy that meant including us completely, right down to having our own stockings and innumerable presents under the tree. We didn’t have the money to reciprocate fully, and I know my mother sometimes felt awkward and embarrassed, but Lucy and Brian never mentioned it. Maybe it was because of this, or maybe that’s just the way of things established in childhood, but the tradition waned as we grew older, my mother and I (and sometimes Sunshine) forming our own, quieter unit.

  But we were here last year, something I’ve been blocking out since Stephanie insisted I join her. Lucy knew my mother was sick and wanted to spare her the effort of cooking a Christmas meal. I wasn’t sure whether she really wanted to come because she greeted the invitation with less than her usual enthusiasm, but when I asked her, she brushed the idea of not going aside. It would be fun, she said, to get the old gang back together. Neither of us said that it might be the last time.

  My mother was frail and thin, and her hair was starting to become wispy, like a baby’s, but we were still hopeful then that the chemo would work. At least I was. Maybe she’d already accepted that it wasn’t going to, but she kept that to herself. Everyone at the Grangers’ acted normally, like it was just another Christmas, just another gift exchange. I gave my mother an African tribal mask to add to her collection. She was delighted and I shared in her enthusiasm. And maybe this planted the seed that led to my trip. Or maybe she’d been planning it for a while; she left it so I couldn’t ask.

  Lucy catches me staring at the stocking. “I hope you don’t mind, dear, but I thought it would be nice to put Elizabeth’s stocking out too. So she’s here with us, in a way.”

  I feel like I might burst into tea
rs, but I force myself to say, “Of course. Thank you.”

  Stephanie squeezes my arm and hands me a Kleenex. I blow my nose, muttering something about allergies, but nobody’s fooled. Sadness seems to radiate from me, dampening the Perry Como Christmas tracks, forcing down the level in Brian’s eggnog glass. I feel like the antithesis of Christmas and am about to suggest leaving when Stephanie’s brother, Kevin, shows up.

  Two years older than me, Kevin was my first hopeless crush. Quietly gay—he came out the summer after graduation, to the surprise of many—he always seemed to me to be the perfect older brother. Tolerant when Stephanie and I hung around him, dryly funny and helpful in obtaining party supplies if we asked him nicely and promised to call him if the party got too wild.

  No one in the Granger family is tall, and Kevin’s no exception. About my height, with dark blond hair, his best feature is his dark blue eyes.

  He kisses his mother perfunctorily on the cheek, shakes hands with his father, and ruffles the top of Stephanie’s head, chiding her for not calling him the minute she got back. And then he lifts me up from the couch into a tight hug and says, loud enough for everyone to hear, “Well, this must fucking suck.”

  “You have no idea,” I murmur into his chest.

  “We all wish Elizabeth was here, you know. It’s not the same without her.”

  “No.” It isn’t. It isn’t the same without her at all.

  “At least there’s plenty of alcohol,” he says.

  I smile through my tears as Kevin releases me and heads to the bar stand in the corner of the room. He mixes three strong vodka tonics and hands them to Stephanie and me like he’s a doctor dispensing medicine.

  “Drink up, girls. It’s Christmas, after all.”

  I wake up early the next morning in Stephanie’s room nursing a turkey hangover. Steph is wheezing gently across the room in her childhood bed, the twin of mine. The beds are still covered in the matching pink flowered covers she chose when she was twelve. I hear her early-rising parents shuffling around downstairs, shushing each other and talking about letting “the kids” sleep in. I’d like that, but all I can think about is my own childhood house, a block away, sitting cold and abandoned, the furniture covered in dust sheets.

  I rise as quietly as I can and take my clothes to the bathroom to dress. Then I creep down the stairs, bypassing the kitchen for the front entrance. I suit up and slip out into a gentle snow. The streets are muffled quiet, the light gray and still.

  In a few minutes I’m standing at the edge of my old front porch. It looks the same as ever, maybe a little neglected. A simple white clapboard house, much smaller than the Grangers’. Black shutters. A bay window. The curtains shut against the world. A sagging porch holding a swing, dead leaves scattered between the railings. The swing has a dusting of snow on it, and the metal chain holding it up is starting to rust.

  I wipe the snow away with my mitten and lift the seat’s lid, and there it is: the heavy wool Hudson’s Bay blanket we always kept there so we could swing in all but the coldest of weather.

  I sit on the seat, tucking the blanket around my legs. I push at the floor absentmindedly while I gaze across the street. The swing rocks and creaks.

  My mother grew up in this house. We moved here after my father left us, mostly for financial reasons. I don’t think my mother had a very happy childhood, being the only child of an insular couple who’d found themselves expecting in their late thirties, but “they did their best,” as my mother was fond of saying. They certainly took us in willingly, but it was a hushed-down childhood, noise and toys kept to a minimum. I knew they loved me more than I felt it.

  They passed away ten years ago, within weeks of each other, leaving the house to my mother and, now, to me. Deciding what to do with it is one of the many things I tried not to think about while I was away. And the memories inside have kept me from coming here since I’ve been back.

  Directly across the street is Sunshine’s house. Or where she grew up, anyway.

  Sunshine’s parents still live there, as far as I know. It’s how she and my mother met, growing up together like Stephanie and me. I know her number is inside, on the wall, next to the phone I spent too many hours on as a teenager.

  And any minute now, any second now, I’ll find the strength to go inside and make the call I should have made a week ago.

  In the end, I don’t need to. I don’t know how many minutes go by, but I hear a scraping noise on the stairs, and when I look up, there’s Sunshine.

  “Emmaline?” she says tentatively, like she might be speaking to an apparition.

  I stand up quickly, tripping over the blanket as it falls to my feet. She opens her arms and I collapse onto her broad chest. As she wraps her arms around me, holding me close, I smell her familiar smell—a mix of patchouli and earth—and for the first time in a long time, I feel safe. I feel home.

  Inside the cold house, Sunshine holds me away from her and studies me from the top of my messy ponytail to my booted feet. Her grizzled gray hair is cut boy short, and there’s a single red streak that flops across her forehead. Her face is round and lined, and her brown eyes are watery and kind.

  “What are you doing here?” I ask her when speech returns.

  “I was packing up to leave when I saw you out the window, sitting on the porch swing just like you always used to do.”

  “You came home for Christmas,” I say, as much to myself as to her. Sunshine lives in Costa Rica, running an ecotourist supply shop on the edge of a jungle. She makes the trek home to visit her still-hale but disapproving parents infrequently. My mother’s funeral was the first time she’d been home in years.

  “I did. When did you get here?”

  “You mean you don’t know?”

  “Don’t know what, dear?”

  I guess I’ve gotten so used to the idea of everyone thinking I was dead, it never occurred to me that Sunshine might not have even known I was missing. She left town a few days after I did, and she’s never kept track of world events at the best of times. She shuts out the worst of times completely, refusing to read anything that involves destruction or human suffering.

  We sit on the couch and I tell her my story, from Africa to finding Dominic moving into my apartment. I save Craig for last, and when I get to him, I’m emotionally spent enough that I only feel like crying but don’t actually do so.

  Progress, progress.

  “I’m sorry, Emma. You didn’t deserve that.”

  “No, but he thought I was dead. I should’ve known he’d move on.”

  “If he really loved you, he would’ve known you were still alive.”

  “I don’t know. Maybe.”

  “No, you have a strong presence. I would’ve felt it if it had gone away. That’s why it never occurred to me . . . I heard about the earthquake, of course, but I knew you were fine.”

  “How?”

  “Oh, honey, you know I can’t explain my gifts. They just are.”

  I hide my smile. I remember Sunshine telling me when I was seven that a fairy died every time someone said, “I don’t believe in fairies.” When I told her I knew that came from Peter Pan (I was that kind of seven-year-old), she just smiled and said, “Of course it does. Mr. Barrie’s an expert on fairies.”

  “Lots of people thought I was dead,” I say.

  She appraises me again. “Yes, I can see that. There’s death hanging around you.”

  “Do you mean my mother?”

  “No, she’s not a bad presence. She’s the good you’re feeling.”

  “Then who is it?”

  “Who thought you were dead?”

  “I don’t know. Everyone.”

  She shakes her head. “Not Stephanie. She never gave up.”

  My heart constricts. “No, that’s true.”

  I stand up and take a slow lap around the livi
ng room. The dark bookshelves on either side of the fireplace are filled not with books but with African artifacts, filmy now with dust. My mother’s lifelong obsession, one I fed on countless birthdays and Christmases, saving up my allowance just to see the joy on her face when she’d unwrap the latest mask, or spear point, or beaded necklace. It didn’t matter that what I bought her—particularly when I was younger—was mostly fake. It was the thought that counted, and what she thought and dreamt about was Africa. The place she most wanted to go and never made it to. In my book of regrets, number one is never asking her why she was so intrigued by the place. Perhaps because it was just one of those immutable things, like cotton candy at a fair.

  But on the mantel, above the fireplace we never used because we couldn’t afford to have it fixed, is the reason I should’ve come here much sooner: pictures, pictures, pictures. Of my mother, of us together, of all the important moments.

  I pick up the shot taken on the day I graduated from law school and hold it close to my chest. Sunshine puts her hands on my shoulders. “If you’re going to move on, we have to clear the death away.”

  “What do you mean?”

  “Here, come with me.”

  She leads me back to the faded chintz couch. When my grandparents were alive, the furniture was covered in plastic, making it slippery, the perfect place for me and Stephanie to play our favorite game—living room slip and slide—until discovered and punished by my frightened-looking mother. She peeled off those covers the day after her mother’s funeral with a determined look on her face. When I asked what she was doing, she only said, “Did you want another sliding session?” and then started laughing semihysterically. I hugged her, and we laughed and cried, missing Grandma even if we didn’t want to live by her rules anymore.

  Sunshine closes her eyes and places her hands on my shoulders. As she concentrates, the smell of patchouli seems to grow stronger. My mind starts to wander, flitting from my mom to work to Craig. God, Craig. He’s the one I should be throwing glasses at. Only next time, I won’t miss.

  Sunshine’s eyes open. “Stop thinking about him.”

 
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