Death creeps through like a glowworm. It steadies itself and readies itself on a campsite of your memory. “When we used to.” “The last thing she told me.”
Eventually it’s late summer and she’s been gone four months and the house is cleaned out and the only finality is the truth that time is abandonment in motion, and the only life that death spins is the one that catches all your wispy, sticky, ghostlike forgetfulness.
Jamie keeps bringing glowworm larvae into the house. I’ll wake up to a matchbox of glowworms he’s made beds for with beef jerky shreds. He’s been doing it for weeks and I don’t mention it.
Out here in Sardis the blue-green dusk stretches itself long. It’s the constant faintness of almost-evening. I’m outside picking at this scab left by some bug, some bloodsucking little thing. I’m eating Double Stufs on a pair of pillowcases because Gobi peed on all the blankets.
Jamie walks up with Gobi at his side. “I lost his collar.” He sits down and gives Gobi half a cookie.
“That’s chocolate, he can’t have that.” I fish it out of the dog’s mouth. “Where’s his leash?”
“I lost it.”
He looks like his mom, but only in the way that my eyes can deceive me, in the way that they can remember the eight-year-old sister I once knew with my four-year-old eyes. All blonde, all curls, all grown out to his shoulders, just like Brandy. He whips his head every five seconds to get it out of his face and every few weekends I’ll ask if he wants me to cut it. He’s tiny. Were kids always this tiny? In the past ten years, how many children have I seen?
“That cloud looks like a Transformer.” He points.
“Oh, yeah.” I don’t see it.
“Are we going to the mailbox today?” Jamie asks.
“Do you have something to mail?”
“Can you take the dog inside?”
“His name is Gobi. Not the dog.”
Gobi is eleven years old, has a limp, and is covered in fatty cysts.
We’re staying at Dad’s house, the house that for a few years was ours as a family though I can barely find even faint memories of how two adults and two daughters lived here together.
It’s white, symmetrical, compact, bears a porch with a porch swing and a roof with a chimney and a rolling Southern yard with a willow tree in the front and pecan tree in the back.
I started the cleanout last fall, a full year after Dad’s funeral when I could finally make it down. The bare cabinets and half-filled moving boxes sit in silence to remind me as they were being packed, my sister Brandy was only blocks away, living and breathing. I was here and she was breathing. Her father was here, his twelve-gauge was here. We were all here and the could haves start to drown my stomach in acid. Each box reminds me of the biggest failure, my biggest shame, that the only person I could save was myself.
“We need more juice and pickles,” Jamie tells me, standing on a chair.
“Can you get off the chair?” I ask.
At first Jamie didn’t want to stay. Not in this house, not with me. His home was taped off so we couldn’t go back in for his things. Most of Jamie’s clothes, mostly underwear and pants, were taken as evidence.
It doesn’t seem fair. Your mom is dead and now you have to live with someone you’ve never met, doesn’t look like you, calls herself an adult. Keeps trying to cut your hair and throw away your worms.
When Jamie and I moved into Dad’s house, we opened every window and door and let the mosquitos fly in and bite us as we lay on the linoleum kitchen floor, hating it together. Jamie hated the permanent mildew smell that is in every memory I have of being young. He hated that he had to wear a Dollar Store swimsuit as pants for a full week, hated that he had to wear some of my shirts.
After a few days he started breathing again. I think he saw how I knew the space, how he could hide in the weird cupboard in the living room that only fits an eight-year-old, how the place started molding around him and he around it. One night I saw him turn off a light switch from behind his back without looking, the house and its corners creeping into the memory of his muscles.
I’ve been on the pullout couch that’s been pulled out for four months and now is just “TV Bed,” Jamie calls it. He has the bedroom but most nights he ends up on TV Bed with me.
“Can we get Muddy Buddies?” he asks.
“We need a vegetable. What do you want for dinner?”
Jamie and I both do a thing where we just stop talking if the answer is no. I don’t remember if he did that before or after we moved in together.
We head to the store in Brandy’s ‘96 Accord. Stuck in the tape player is Side One of the Jericho cassette by The Band. I can’t pull it out and now Jamie and I have memorized “Atlantic City”. People have started waving to me out of their cars or on the street when we pass. I’m not sure if I’m the girl with the kid whose family died or the girl who bagged our groceries ten years ago. Or, for the new-in-towns, Is that an Asian?
We pass the small brick bungalow that used to be Dad’s place, the only Chinese restaurant in a fifty-mile radius. People came to it like church in droves and flocks on Christmas and Easter to worship at the altar of the immigrant with the six table scoop ’n’ serve dishing four dollar portions of chow mein with his two employees “Kevin” and “Marie”—who were given nametags that the locals could pronounce. Tuesday through Sunday, Dad would come home soaked in grease and smelling like sesame oil and fish sauce. I smell hot oil and I can hear my father coming in the front door.
Every year he barely made it, though he did make it. Most days, he had six customers, max, but those major blessings from the rare Southern Protestant saved him—helped him spread it year-round, or at least make it to the next round of debt financing.
A year after Mom left, he let it go under, his stamina burned out, his capacity for defiance obliterated by shame. His body was a shrine of what she could no longer love and even more, what she grew to hate—grease-soaked hands she grew to hate, the smell of egg drop soup she grew to hate, the monolids and bridgeless nose that I’d inherited she also grew to hate.
The restaurant went down, and he went down with the ship, falling to the creeping suspicion that she was right, that he and I were meant to tighten ourselves down to compact units of muted, invisible nothing.
Our cart is full of SpaghettiOs, chicken nuggets, frozen fish sticks, tubes of ground chuck, tomato sauce, ramen (not the cup of noodles, the rectangles), Mountain Dew, and fresh brown mushrooms. Jamie’s decided he wants to collect onion skins, so we’ll get a plastic produce bag and gather old skins that have fallen to the bottom of the bins, go through the same dance with the same cashier who pretends it costs one million dollars.
On one of Jamie’s and my first Walmart trips, back when we didn’t know how to talk to one another, I picked up a tiny Smart TV even though it felt blasphemous to stream premium television within Dad’s walls. I could hear his scratchy voice: Think of the energy bills, V.
I know we should be watching something educational, but I’ve somehow gotten Jamie into Grey’s Anatomy. It’s me, Jamie, a bowl of baked fish sticks, eating on TV Bed while watching Grey’s.
Tonight, as he eats, I’m poking through yesterday’s mail from the PO Box. Energy bill. Junk. Junk. Coupons. Reminder to go to the dentist. Junk. Nothingness is the truest sign of life.
After Jamie is asleep, I wander the house and sit on the porch, listening to the cicadas and crickets, the soft wind—damp from dinner rainfall. The hammock Jamie loves, stretching from a hook Dad drilled in the roof out toward the giant willow, is in a slight sway. A ghost in repose.
Nighttime feels like a second new dimension of the same day. In the day I shrink myself tightly the way Dad and I would tuck ourselves into the corners of this town, holding ourselves still, never knowing how to act or what to say when we were being watched. Just trying to let time pass us by. At night I unravel.
On nights like this after Mom left, Dad and I would lay on the roof. He would tell me the stars were glowworm webs, the willow branches were constellations, and that astronomers look at the world wrong—upside down and inside out. We’d both lay there, both yearning to not know what we already knew, that Mom would never return.
One day I’ll take Jamie up there but he’s not ready. He’ll think he’s been putting tiny planets into matchboxes, little larvae from the sky, and I don’t think his heart could take it.
Back inside I lay down beside Jamie and he wraps his legs around mine. I hold him tighter. A stretch of moonlight streaks his face, the soft eyelids, the drooling mouth. He took the best of Brandy in the way she took the best of Mom—the way Mom couldn’t replicate with me.
His tiny head and lion’s mane have more secrets buried in memories than I’ll ever know, more than a detective or a social worker might be able to find. The fact that he carries around with him the horrors that we, taller and bigger and older, are struggling to comprehend, the horrors that are weakening our stomachs, is unbearable to think of for too long.
I am stricken in this moment by the hope that possibly, maybe, grief can pass him by. How do you build a soul at sea? He doesn’t even know how to spell grief. Maybe I can hold onto his sorrow for him, maybe I can let it ooze into the house and let it go for the both of us. Maybe we can just lay for now, Jamie and I, the two mourners, the little orphans holding each other in a matchbox.
One morning I drop Jamie off at his friend Marko’s. Marko lives around the corner from my dad’s, within walking distance, but I drive him.
Jamie brings with him a Ziploc bag of Oreos and a stick that he’s chewing on.
“How long am I here today?” he asks.
“How long do you want to be?”
“Not very long.”
“Okay. An hour.”
I’m turning him into an agoraphobe. An agoraphobe who makes onion beds and watches soap operas.
I’m heading to town where I have a meeting with the Detective and the Social Worker, the start of a good joke. Before I get there, I veer off and drive by the house, Brandy’s house, where her dad’s broken trailer in the backyard has been hauled away but left a rectangle patch of brown death beneath it.
Once the estate is settled, they’ll fix it up and try to sell it, or raze it entirely because those stains are deep, but until then the house lives as a mausoleum of empty and gone. The longer it sits the longer the stains will blur and the brown grass will grow over, the air will breeze itself anew, the ghosts living in concentration where love once was and death now reigns will saturate themselves deep into the earth. Until then it sits much like Jamie and me, not sure what we’re waiting for anymore, the sneaking suspicion creeping on us that if transition period lasts long enough it just becomes living.
In the dark of my closed eyelids, I suddenly see Brandy on the front porch, Brandy as I last remember knowing her. It’s us at five and nine, making a funeral procession of our stuffed animals. I see her at sixteen, leaving town. I see her at eighteen, coming back with a black eye and a belly scar. I see her at twenty-three, moving back in with her father and her new infant son.
I see a dark secret sitting in the silence of all that love—all that love and all those secrets, the performance of a love that might’ve meant nothing in a house that curled around its own puppet show. I see the silhouettes dancing on the walls against the glow of a television, the one that was still on when his grandfather let off nine rounds in April.
And there, suddenly, is my mother who left this town like Brandy tried to, pulled back by children and men. If Mom had taken Brandy, we wouldn’t be here. If I had taken Brandy, we wouldn’t be here. All the chances.
Finally, I drift back, parking in the alley that the bar shares with the grocery store. Today I’m with Jeremy the Detective and Kaley the Social Worker.
The detective and I went to middle school together, the social worker is from Kentucky. Proximity and routine haven’t brought us closer, but I might consider them friends. Consider them something. I’d invite them to my funeral.
The three of us gather at the bar, the one next to the post office. We ditched the police station a few weeks back because they’re trying to make it feel less like what it is—just disappointing emptiness, telling me they need me to stay for another two weeks. The town doesn’t have a foster care system and outside of Sardis, anything could happen to the forty-two-pound freckled kid with a long, blonde lion’s mane.
A few moments of niceties, we sit down with our beers, and I watch Jeremy and Kaley trying to make sense of my face, trying to find answers.
“So we’ve made some progress,” Jeremy tells me.
“We found your mom,” Kaley finally says.
It drops into the air like an iceberg—a shatter, but not all at once, so vast in size that from the naked eye it moves in slow motion.
“When?” I ask, the way you ask the wrong question after hearing a gathering of four words you’d never thought you’d hear.
“She’s in California. She has a partner—she changed her name. They’re married.”
It drops into the room like a cobweb—a slight flutter, a barely-there glow, so stringy and sticky. It sways and grabs the air but with a grip so light it can’t catch on.
“She’s being called in as a witness once the trial starts. But she has expressed interest in taking over as Jamie’s guardian.”
Suddenly I’m swimming in rage. The way she can pick and choose the life she wants, the life she doesn’t. The way some things want you and the way some things don’t.
“I don’t know how much longer you wanted to stay,” he says. “Obviously, we can assume you’ll be called in as a witness, too. You could file a petition to try for custody under the grounds of the routine he’s built with you—”
“No, I have to get back.”
“Nothing’s definite,” Kaley offers.
“Does she want him?” I ask. What I mean is, Like she didn’t want me?
“She has a home and a farm in northern California—good schools, and financially she seems like a strong support system.”
For the next bit there’s the silence of three people who don’t know one another well enough to do much more than give sad looks. They were bracing for this.
As they move on, onto the search for Jamie’s father that won’t yield anything, I briefly catch the scent of fried rice on the old, burnt wok. I hear a sizzle and my name over boiling broth. I realize I will, someday, lose Jamie. I’ve been adjusting for so long to having him around that it never occurred to me I might lose him.
It’ll just be us again, Dad—the last ones standing, the ones she left behind. Empty buildings, empty hands. One more thing she gets to take with her, one more time she gets to leave us in this town as I stand holding boxes of the dead, unattached and in stillness and pretending the world is upside down.
On the way back home the tape rewinds itself and starts playing again. I park in front of Marko’s and watch Jamie from the car as he lets Marko kill ants with a hammer. I was told when it happened Jamie laid by his mother for thirteen hours until Brandy’s coworker showed up looking for her. He laid there silently—I was told he laid there until morning with two bodies spilling out onto the carpet—that he didn’t scream when the police arrived.
He’s just a shadow now, he creeps in and out of rooms and stays travel-sized, sinking his toes into the weeds and bringing the outside inside to build himself a fortress that he can smell, touch, and trust, long abandoned by the naïve and foolish notion that love is steadfast and invisible. Maybe it is easier to lose that notion early.
I watch him now as I hold a new secret. Someone is coming for you. Someone wants you. This liminal space of lost and alone, you have an escape—you can make it out. Is that exciting? Is that good?
Later that night we go to the bakery which is really just a laundromat that’s also a convenience store that sells pastries. Jamie and I get two chocolate donuts and I get a coffee that tastes reheated from the day before and we sit at the booth in the window, both scraping frosting with our plastic butter knives to suck on like a popsicle.
The sun sets and I watch his tiny fingers poke holes in the dough, chocolate staining his lips. He is wanted by her; he doesn’t know it yet. It’s a holy space to bear witness to. I sat at this booth every day after school, sometimes with Brandy, sometimes alone, pretending I also lived in that space.
But back then I didn’t realize I was pretending; I didn’t realize the yearning was hope or the hope was nostalgia, or the nostalgia was resentment. I didn’t realize anything but the scene that replayed in my tiny head—the scene when they find her and she admits she’s been searching for me all along, she’s spent so long searching for me, and that I was wanted every moment in between.
I crept in and out of that moment, laying by it silently—not screaming. Life spilling out. After tragedy, she wants him. She’s found him. Maybe Dad and I weren’t tragic enough. Maybe I wasn’t tragic enough. Maybe I hadn’t lost enough because the only thing I’d lost was her.
I want to tell him he’s lucky, I know that he’s not. He’s somehow lost everything yet now holds the only thing I ever wanted. It’s a pity to my sense of humor that my grief sleeps at night with my envy.
I let the stale coffee burn my tongue as I swallow down the shameful thought.
I am holding onto this moment. I am saving it for now. I will probably forget it someday, the way we probably forget most things we want to hold onto, and our phantom bodies hold onto so many of the things we don’t need.
For now, though, it is Jamie and me and we are traveling together in the car, we are traveling and listening to the tape that’s been stuck longer than my sister has been dead. If it stays put, we can hold time where it’s at, which is there and with her in some still, spinning universe.
The sun is setting and blinding my eyes—we have to go to Walmart because I want to buy him a tent. I have no money but I’m going to buy him a tent. There’ll be tents where he’s going but not a tent that we’ve been in together.
It was just last April that I was called by the detective to come down to the coroner, because I’m next of kin or closest living relative, to identify Brandy, and collect the kid I’ve never met. The next day I’m on a plane and the next week Jamie and I are at my dad’s house, both of us not recognizing ourselves there. Both of us reckoning with loss on different magnitudes but somehow a loss of the same, an abandonment and betrayal of same. His loss is soaked in trauma and his shadow itself is quieter than most shadows I’ve met.
We met at the police station where he was wearing clothes donated by some of the locals. Word had traveled fast. I crouched down but he didn’t make eye contact.
“Jamie, this is Victoria. She’s your mother’s sister,” Kaley told him.
“Hi,” I said.
“I’ll come back and check in on him tomorrow morning?” Jeremy the Detective asked.
“That works,” I said, horrified. You are leaving this living creature with me.
I decided to do for Jamie what my father did for me—stay, and not reckon with the largeness of his tragedy. It felt like a second chance to love my sister, to know this child—a second chance to atone for abandoning this town.
Kaley calls me to tell me she’s coming by the house. She’s never done that before. I don’t even know that she knows where we live. Jamie is at Marko’s and I’m clipping my toenails, on hold with the water company as I rehearse my story about not receiving last month’s bill.
She pulls up and I let her in. Kaley stands today in the middle of the kitchen, and I feel a pang in my neck like I might get in trouble for not telling my dad a guest is coming. For the first time I notice her eyes are green.
“This is your dad’s place?”
“Are these matches?” Kaley asks, pointing at the seven boxes lined up in a row like dominos on the counter.
“We’ve been cleaning out the drawers.”
We go outside into the backyard where Jamie has been building a canopy of willow tree strands, tying them together and hanging them from the branches of the pecan tree. In their spindly, dangly flow they look like hanging webs. They look like hanging nooses. Gobi follows me, hobbling along and panting.
“Oh, you got trouble,” she points at the silky glowworm nests that coat the trunk and branches.
“Glowworms. We’ve always had them.”
“Those are webworms,” Kaley says, crouching down.
“They’re webworms. Those huge webs start coming out this time of year.” She pokes at one with a stick. “They usually go after dead trees. See them, they clump up like this.”
Webworms. I thought they were dying stars.
We are both doing a yogi squat at the base of the tree. Gobi breathes hot air into our faces. Kaley’s not here to talk about pecan trees. I see the piece of paper she has in her hand. She’s holding it the way you hold bad news.
“Do you want a beer?” I ask, standing up.
“Do you have to pick him up?”
“Not for a while.”
In the kitchen we both stand across from one another, leaning up against separate parts of the counter, each nursing one of the two Miller Lites I had in the fridge.
“Your mom will be in town next month,” she says, finally.
I do that thing where I don’t answer. I don’t answer and I want it to end.
“She’s started the process to be Jamie’s formal guardian. She’ll obviously have to meet with him, but I have to warn you they give precedence to the grandparents,” is what’s said. I don’t know who says it, Kaley, or the puppeteer of this cruel irony.
“That makes sense.”
We both take shallow breaths with what’s left of the air between us.
“Between you and me—” she starts.
“Don’t.” I stop her. It’s better for her. “It’s better for him.”
“He’ll have a good home. And you can visit. That’s easy to set up.”
“It makes more sense.”
Neither of us believes any of this, but the truth has nothing to hold onto anymore, not in here, not in the remains of this empty tomb.
This town makes caskets of us all. We’re just wisps in here, wispy empties trying to form around the corners, letting all that we can’t bear any longer sweep itself out the door and get caught up in the limbs of the trees and stars.
Let it go, I’m telling myself, and I look at Kaley and know she heard it. A translation of my mind to hers sparks itself and she pulls me close in the kindest embrace I’ve had in this house, trying to quiet the moment as Gobi drools on our feet.
It’s Monday night and Jamie has decided he wants a rotisserie chicken, so I indulge him. When everything is ending you save every moment, it is a privilege to be conscious of the last looks you have with someone. It is a privilege to know when it ends. It is something he never got with Brandy. It is something I never got with my mother. With Jamie I am now trying to watch it all. I want to see his feet, his sneezes, his whiplash head jerk to get the hair from his eyes. Our days are numbered.
I try to explain it to him. I try to explain it to him the way no one did for me. I squeeze my eyes shut as we sit on the porch, eating white meat with our greasy fingertips.
“I’ll visit you a lot,” I say.
“Is that when you want me to visit?”
“Can you live with us?”
“No. I have to go back home.”
“To New York?”
“Yeah. But you’ll like California. It’s sunny all the time. Your grandma lives on an almond farm.”
“Does she know me?” he asks.
They’ve never met. I stare at his face and I see Brandy—she pours out of his eyes and tiny mouth, the sister I knew to mourn stuffed dogs and cry out at night for her mother.
Brandy was a mother, I realize suddenly. This is her child. This is a child and she is a mother and here I am, sailing souls from mothers to mothers, affirming a kind of want that left me but that he might get to keep. Let him keep it.
I watch him dig a hole in the dirt with a chicken bone.
“She loves you,” I say to the both of us.
I want him to have everything. She is part of that. I will never lose like he has lost. She is part of that.
It’s Friday night, a week after Kaley’s visit, and Jamie and I are laying on the grass, itchy, staring up through the gaps in the willow tree. He was afraid to get on the roof. Our bodies are sticking halfway out of the tent, halfway sprawled on the picnic blanket. Gobi is at Jamie’s feet. I wonder if Mom won’t want the dog or if she has a better tent.
We’re eating Muddy Buddies and drinking Mountain Dew. The air is chilly but with the windless early evening, it doesn’t feel cold, just clean. The symphony of birds and bugs is a curtain of sound above and around us, pocketing us in the safety that every moment might be self-sustaining. Sound, air, ground, stars. Everything at once—it is everything because it is nothing at all. It is the existence and the moments and the emptiness of life ongoing.
I hear him start to hum.
Maybe everything that dies someday comes back.
I start to laugh at the eight-year-old beside me as I remember how much I loved my sister. I remember how she loved our mother and how much she loved her father and how much she loved the sounds the crickets made and hated this tired, tiny town. I laugh at the boy beside me who I likely will never see again, and I laugh at the home we made together out of these withering things around us.
He and I hold ourselves together in a bundle a few seconds longer, tightening our grip on all that we can hear and touch, knowing we’ll eventually spill out in time, knowing we’ll break open and our hearts will burst. It threatens to at every moment. But not yet.
About the Author:
Tayler Hanxi Bunge is a queer, adopted Chinese-American writer with work that’s appeared or is forthcoming in McSweeney’s, Tenderness Lit, CNMN Mag, Ghost City Review, Vagabond City Lit, and others. She lives in Los Angeles and Philly.
Feature Image by Taylor Simpson/Unsplash