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Swampfront Luxury by Laura Kenyon

Swampfront Luxury by Laura Kenyon

Fiction, Vol. 7.1, March 2013

During Lexi Holt’s tenth summer, when the world was endless ocean with a ceiling of shooting stars, when pain came with Revlon kisses and a side of mint chocolate chip, she watched her baby brother drown.

It did not happen in the blink of an eye, as those who weren’t there liked to say. It wasn’t like the barrage of edgeless fireworks that lit up Joel’s face just days earlier, filling the night sky with so much color and sound that no single blast could be distinguished from the rest.

Rather, on the days Lexi couldn’t bury, smother, or scrub the memories away, she relived each frantic slap of the sea. She heard each cry as it centered on the winds, took aim, and shot straight through her heart. She remembered Joel’s wild, black eyes—not blurred by a wall of seawater or pinched shut from its thousand salty needles, but drilling straight into hers. Fighting. Pleading. Saying goodbye.

Lexi couldn’t be certain how many of these details were real, and how many had been shaped by twenty years of guilt. Her brother’s eyes had actually been green, for one thing. But she supposed her mind no longer had use for color.

So why, after all these years, was she returning to Goat’s Cove? To the very house from which she’d led her 8-year-old brother that horrible morning?

On paper, it was to celebrate her parents’ ruby anniversary. But Lexi hadn’t been close with them for years. It wasn’t that she didn’t care. She just didn’t know them anymore. She couldn’t reconcile that tight, guarded couple with the people who’d danced with sparklers on the Fourth of July and threw ice cream socials on the neighborhood beach.

It was true that Lexi was returning to mark an anniversary, but it wasn’t the kind that involved cake and presents. It was finally her turn to say goodbye.

*

Lexi’s hair thrashed behind the windshield, pumping up and around like chocolate coral in an ocean current. She hadn’t ridden with the top down since high school. It felt liberating. She pressed her sunglasses tight against the bridge of her nose and inhaled.

She didn’t need Jim’s GPS to know that the bay was just ahead. Even as a little girl, when her family left Richmond for the summer and headed to Goat’s Cove, she could feel the water from miles away. Her mother used to call it a sixth sense, which at the time meant she either had super powers or was half mermaid. Whatever the case, Lexi and the sea had a connection.

Back then, as soon as the family wagon rolled off the turnpike, she’d begin to smell it. Softer air. Fresher. The kind that drifted up her nose, cushioned itself around her brain, and dissolved all childhood dilemmas for the next two months. Soon, the trees would thin out and the sky would start to stretch like an infinite blue highway. They’d drive through the invisible barrier that only she could feel, and come out weightless. On the other side was a separate world—a world where her mother wore dresses that billowed in the wind and her father gazed off toward the heavens instead of the ground.

Now, sitting beside her parents’ adopted son on her way from Norfolk Airport, crossing that invisible barrier felt like hitting a brick wall.

“Are you sure I can’t talk you into staying with us?” Jim asked as the coupe crunched off the pavement and onto a path lined with broken seashells. “Isabelle would love to have a female around who doesn’t drink from a sippy cup.”

Lexi smiled but shook her head. “I already bragged to my students about living in a giant art project this summer,” she said. “Besides, I’m looking forward to sprucing the place up.”

Jim ran his hand through his short brown bristles. “Sprucing it up for what?”

Lexi turned away and let the wind carry off her real answer. Outside, driftwood signs hand painted with names like “Hatty’s Hideaway” and “Lover’s Lane” rushed by.

“I dunno,” she answered. “Maybe they can rent it. Or sell it. Anything would make more sense than holding on to an empty house for twenty years.”

Jim tilted his head and drummed on the steering wheel. “Maybe they’re hoping it won’t always be empty.”

His words hung in the air for a moment and then flitted away. She’d only crossed the Mason-Dixon line a few hours ago; it was too soon for a lecture. Especially coming from him.

Jim had been in her life for almost as long as Joel hadn’t. Lexi hadn’t even been dismissed from the hospital when her mother took him in. She’d attributed it to a “moral epiphany” stemming from her own tragedy and a tearful exposé about American orphans. But Lexi knew Jim was just her parents’ attempt to fill the space their real son had left behind. It seemed to work disturbingly well for them—filling Joel’s room with another body, setting a fourth place at the table, keeping the Hokies basketball tradition alive. Lexi often thought they should have replaced her as well.

Over time, she came to love Jim as a friend. A cousin. Even a fatherly figure, at times. But never as a brother. He wouldn’t understand why one lonely evening over cabernet and PTA brownies, she began to think about their old summer cottage. How for years now it had been languishing, sinking deeper into the past every season. How she wanted to pull it out, dust it off, and boost it back into existence. How she needed to fix something other than microwave dinners and sixth grade paintings of fruit.

She rested her head against the seat and let the radio do the rest of the talking.

When the car rumbled up to their destination, jolting up and down along the overgrown path, Jim jumped out first. Lexi lingered for a while—gathering her plane tickets, checking her phone, searching her purse for nothing in particular. She thought about heading back to New York before she could set her eyes on the house. Before she could paint over the soft, faded memory the way a mortician paints over a corpse.

“Did it always smell like rotten eggs out here?” Jim asked, crinkling his nose toward the open horizon. Lexi shook her head and started tugging a box of rations (care of her mother) from the back seat. The final yank sent her flying backwards and threw the bay into full view.

The tide was out, hence the smell, revealing a soggy beach that pushed up against the green but never stayed long enough. Slowly, Lexi surveyed the fingers of grass that tickled the sky, the stew of sand and dirt covering what was once a staircase, and finally, the Holt summer cottage. It had seen better days.

Once laced with pink clematis and plump roses, it now cowered behind a shield of invasive ivy. The porch swing swept the floor on one side. The front screen tilted off its hinges. Jagged cracks lined the bay window that Lexi and Joel used to dot with condensation smiley faces—back when there were things to smile about.

“Low tide always smelled horrible here,” she said before venturing toward the house, dragging her toes to expose the slate beneath the moss.

Jim shuffled behind her, jingling a chain with a silver starfish, a discount card to the local market, and a brass-plated key. “Mom would have put together a welcome folder too, but I told her you weren’t coming down here for parasailing and outlet shopping.” Lexi gave a weak smile and buried her attention in the box of Virginia peanuts, sliced country ham, macaroons, spoon bread, and a variety of beach-scented bath products. She knew Jim had every right to call her parents “mom and dad.” She’d been through it a million times with her therapist. But it always pricked a little. Sometimes it even felt like a swipe at her.

When Jim pushed the door open, the stench of mold, stale cigarettes, and hot plastic forced Lexi’s nose into a box of sea spray-scented bath salts. How had she expected her childhood to smell after fermenting by the bay for twenty years? Like marshmallows and board games?

“Yummy,” Jim hummed. “Hope you brought an air freshener.”

Lexi gave a staccato laugh but jotted scented candles on the back of a receipt. She remained by Jim’s side as he swept the house for rodents, drained a brand new bottle of spider spray, and tried to explain how to install a fence without concrete.

“Now, you’re sure you’ll be okay here alone?” he asked two hours later, his bronzed arm hooked over the driver’s side door.

Lexi shifted her weight. She often wondered where Jim’s protective nature came from. As the older, biological child, wasn’t it her job to look out for him? Yet another way in which she’d failed.

“I’ve lived alone in Manhattan for the last six years,” she reminded him. “I can handle it. And I’ve got a head full of design plans to keep me busy. Next time you see this place, it’ll be oceanfront luxury.”

“Oceanfront?” Jim took one long sniff and shook his head. “I think swampfront is little more accurate.”

Lexi parted her lips but couldn’t get a response in before the engine drowned her out.

“Well, we’re just ten minutes down the road if you need anything—even a roll of toilet paper,” he called over the radio. “I’m sure Isabelle could use some help with the party.”

Lexi’s arms looped in front of her chest, catching Jim’s attention. He took his palm off the shifter and stared at her.

“You are coming to the anniversary party, right?”

Maybe waiting for the twenty-first anniversary of Joel’s death and her parents’ marriage would have been a better idea, Lexi thought. She hated the thought of two dozen relatives murmuring about how much promise she once had.

“Of course,” she said. “Looking forward to it.” She maintained her smile until the sky behind Jim’s car was brown with dust and she had no one else to face but ghosts.

*

When the sun finally abandoned Goat’s Cove, Lexi unearthed a pair of wrinkled pajamas from her suitcase, checked the locks five times, and peeked into the lavender room that once belonged to her. It looked smaller than she remembered, but everything else was the same. Without stepping foot inside, she knew that the bin in the corner held a collection of handpicked seashells, the bookcase blocked a boot-sized hole, and the trim beside the closet bore a growth chart that ended too soon. The weight in her chest forbade her from crossing the threshold, so she crept down the hall and curled onto her parents’ bed instead.

She felt out of place in this graveyard dollhouse. How many nights had passed here without her? If the walls could talk, Lexi wondered, would they celebrate the joy of a Holt returned? Ending a mourning period gone on too long? Or would they sound the alarm? Lexi no longer resembled the carefree girl who’d cruised its halls looking for monsters. She’d already found plenty.

The sun filtered in around six thirty, illuminating the dust flakes and tugging at her eyelids. They were crusty and raw—the result of blubbery dreams and too little sleep.

She showered with the bathroom door locked and the curtain pulled tight against the tile. Over the years, she’d practiced twisting the knob through its hottest temperatures—until her skin glowed red and the steam made it hard to breathe. Back in New York, she could spin it all the way until it stopped.

Balancing a pile of wet hair atop her head, she stumbled into the kitchen and scoured the cabinets for caffeine. No such luck. Coffee. Laundry detergent. Hedge clippers, she scrawled on a growing shopping list. Then she thought for a moment and added, craft glue. Maybe she could finally do something with all those seashells.

The walk to town was three miles on unpaved roads. By the time Lexi got there, her hair was salty and crisp. The stench of low tide was long gone, replaced by the smell of gasoline and flowers. Little had changed about downtown Goat’s Cove—“downtown” referring to a three-aisle market, a hardware store, and a handful of seaside eateries. But even through the veil of nostalgia, the lampposts and sidewalks and decaled window displays gave off a modern, unfamiliar sparkle.

The open door of the ice cream parlor tempted Lexi as she passed, issuing a chill blast of air and the intoxicating aroma of frozen sugar. She yanked the list from her shorts to verify that, no, mid-morning snacks were not on the schedule.

At the hardware store, Lexi had a strange revelation that she actually was—at least in some ways—Cynthia Holt’s daughter. After two hours of perusing, chatting, and re-envisioning the cottage as a mansion, she concluded that her two puny arms simply wouldn’t do. She arranged for the delivery of a twenty-foot extension ladder, a box of asphalt shingles, brick pavers for the walkway, four gallons of white paint for the exterior and cornflower blue for the shutters, a crate of flowers, several bundles of lumber, and a wheelbarrow filled with every multi-function landscaping and home improvement tool she could find.

“I’ll take some of that insect killer, too,” she told the cashier after assessing the damage. “I’ve still got some squatters.”

On her way home, Lexi treated herself to a mint chip ice cream cone and thought about how wonderful the cottage was going to look by the end of the summer. Her plan was to patch the roof, repaint the outside, prune all the plantings, tidy up the walkway, fix everything that was broken, and enclose it all with a three-foot tall, split-rail fence. It would be an anniversary present no one could ever top. Not her parents’ Hilton Head playmates. Not her busybody aunts or tight-lipped uncles. Not even Jim, the perfect brother and dream-come-true son—if only he was actually either.

A loud group of strangers on the other side of the street snatched Lexi’s attention. She watched through the corner of her eye as they spilled out from the Crab Shanty and stumbled blindly into the road, causing a pick-up truck to swerve out of the way. The blackboard sign behind them advertised a “midday margarita special” from noon to three. Lexi sped up in the hopes of getting by before they reached her. If she’d learned anything sharing a city with eight million people, it was that she only liked strangers at a distance (and New Yorkers knew how to make every inch seem like a mile).

But the closer they came to her—a tiny choo-choo and a six-car steam engine rumbling toward the same intersection—the more Lexi zeroed in on one face. Crooked nose, green eyes, dark brown curls, and cheekbones protruding like knuckles through a latex glove. If Joel had lived to see twenty-eight, this is what he’d look like.

She halted just before they hopped onto her sidewalk—green ice cream running down her arm and puddling between her toes. A frizzy-haired woman eyed her with concern as they passed, but the man flashed a friendly smile. Lexi’s heartbeat pounded in her ears.

“I—” She opened her mouth to call after them, but only a broken syllable came out. By the time she regained mobility, the street was silent once again and the man was gone, stuffed into a stormy gray Jeep and hauled away.

*

Jim’s wife stopped by precisely one week later, while Lexi was gouging the earth with a shovel. She came upon the construction site with a homemade pie, lemonade, and a disposition as sunny as her hair.

Lexi’s only shine came from a thick film of sweat caked along her forehead and dribbling down the sides of her nose. She hadn’t been expecting a visitor, but knew Isabelle’s timing had been carefully calculated; such was the case with everything her sister-in-law did. Lexi pictured her announcing (over a five-course family meal she’d spent all day preparing) that Lexi had gorged herself on solitude for long enough, and would finally be craving a bit of human interaction.

Like it or not, she was probably right.

“Strawberry rhubarb,” Isabelle declared, clearing bits of sheetrock from the counter and replacing them with a circle of golden-brown sweetness. “I figured that with all the work you’re doing, you wouldn’t have time to indulge yourself.” She surveyed the half-dozen empty wine bottles on the counter. “Properly, I mean.”

Lexi smiled and shook drops of dried plaster from her hair. With the exception of a few strolls into town for groceries, she’d been a hermit all week. She enjoyed pretending to be the star of her own round-the-clock home renovation show. She called it “Unburied Treasures.”

“If you aren’t sick of nature yet, why don’t we sit outside and catch up?” Isabelle suggested, the melody of her voice out of place in Lexi’s world of silence and hammers.

“Sure, we can picnic in the back,” she said and grabbed a bottle of merlot. “For after the lemonade.”

Lexi found a quilt in the upstairs linen closet—more for the sake of Isabelle’s sundress than her own muddy shorts—and spread it on the hill overlooking the bay. The view was inspiring, the pie was to die for, and the conversation bounced blissfully from one superficial topic to another—until it didn’t.

“So what are you planning to do with the house when you’re finished?” Isabelle asked, sucking on an upside-down fork. “Are you thinking of moving back? You know we’d love to have you nearby.”

Lexi tilted her goblet and rolled it around, watching the red liquid shade the glass and recede, leaving barely a tint to prove it had ever been there at all. She wondered if Jim had sent Isabelle here to gauge her state of mind, to make sure she wasn’t planning anything desperate.

“I dunno,” she said with a shrug and then looked to the water. But wine made her talkative. She could feel the warmth spilling into her cheeks and parting her lips again. “It meant so much to us at one point—my parents and Joel and I, I mean. It’s just something I have to do. At least one thing should be able to survive having met me.”

Isabelle knotted a loose thread on her dress and broke off the excess. “You blame yourself for too much,” she murmured. “What will it take for you to see that?”

Lexi continued to swirl her wine and stare ahead. This was the sort of question she’d never answer—at least not the way anyone wanted. The sun was making its way down now, revealing a shimmering path from the horizon all the way to the shore below. Finally, when sufficient time had passed to begin a new subject, she told Isabelle about the man she’d seen in town.

“I had the strangest feeling,” she said while her quasi sister-in-law clammed up and slowly lowered her fork. “I mean, obviously it couldn’t have been him.” Isabelle nodded slowly, her eyes intense but silent. “Though they never did find Joel’s body.”

*

Lexi’s mind raged. What did Isabelle know, anyway? Or Jim? Or even her parents? None of them had been on the boat that day. None of them knew how it felt to cut down someone who’d held up the sun. They all had the right to search for happiness. She didn’t.

It took all of forty minutes for Lexi to gobble up the pie once Isabelle left, and ten more to uncork her second bottle of wine. Something about night in the cottage required that she make herself numb.

Clutching her goblet the way a child would clutch a protective stuffed toy, Lexi hovered outside Joel’s bedroom. The plastic license plate that once identified his territory was gone, along with a chunk of paint that had tried too fiercely to make it stay. Lexi stared at the ravaged wood, took a deep breath, and nudged the door open.

Her heart jolted right before it withered at the sight of the room’s sunset orange walls, a cartoonish hockey border, and a personalized toy chest missing two rungs. She felt sucked in and forbidden at the same time—as if she, too, should have died when Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was all the rage, but for some reason Death had sent her back.

Lexi barely remembered her time in the hospital. It was a drug-clogged haze of strangers, clipboards, needles, and her mother using phrases like “just a precaution” and “better safe than sorry.” The doctors were on the lookout for brain damage initially, but after months of check-ups and specialist interviews, she was given the all-clear. Her mind did play tricks on her sometimes—like when it switched Joel’s features with those of her father or Jim—but she blamed this on a lack of closure. By the time she finally went home to Richmond, the summer cottage was already boarded up and Joel’s memorial service had passed. She’d been on some other mental plane when the rest of the world got to say its goodbyes.

Lexi’s arm hairs spiked as she inched onto Joel’s carpet, guided only by the light from the hallway. Two hours could have passed, for all she knew, before his toy chest came within reach. She dropped to her knees and floated her fingers above it, as if inside were the answers to all of life’s greatest questions. A thick blanket of dust clung fast as she raised the lid and slowly peered inside.

A hot wave of anger filled her face when she saw the broken particleboard lining the base. How much had her parents thrown out? Or given to Jim? The chest should have been overflowing with all the things that once made her brother smile. Mr. Potato Head. Transformers figurines. Those tiny vinyl Colorforms that always turned up between couch cushions and in her shoes.

But as her eyes readjusted to the darkness, the heat in her cheeks turned cold. Huddled to one side of the chest, half-covered by an old beach towel, sat a pile of forgotten books. The top cover was puffy and pink with a cheap plastic shine. Along the side ran a tarnished metal lock that could be picked with a paperclip or torn from the binding with one tug. Lexi vaguely remembered keeping diaries as a kid—first filled with drawings, then with words—but she hadn’t thought about them for years. Why would she?

One by one, she lifted the journals and fanned them out on the carpet. Her heartbeat drummed in her ears as she surveyed them. What now? If she read one entry, she’d have to read them all. What would be the point? Pages that she’d painted with happy memories were too painful now, and pages with childish tantrums might just push her over the edge.

Quickly, without giving herself time to change her mind, Lexi pulled the towel from the chest and started piling the diaries on top of it. She couldn’t look at them now. Better to tape them up in a box, send them back to New York, and decide what to do with them later. Most likely, they’d come out one night when she was toeing the far edge of depression. Probably after the last of her friends got married, or one of her parents got sick, or the school finally decide she had no talent.

An ivory envelope spun out from the pages and landed between her feet. It was addressed to her mother from someone named Patty in Massachusetts. Lexi glanced at the door, as if expecting her parents to come in and scold her for snooping. Then she picked up the letter.

Dear Cynthia, she read, feeling a storm of excitement and intrigue brewing in her stomach.

While I cringe at expressing even the slightest bit of happiness at the moment, I want to thank you for helping me stay in one piece during the darkest week of my life. (I wanted to say this in person, but Hannah’s transfer came up so suddenly.) It is a Herculean woman who comforts a complete stranger when her own world has just been shattered.

Lexi lowered the note for a moment to check the date on the envelope. She didn’t need to do the math. It had been mailed barely two weeks after Joel’s accident. She must have met this woman in the hospital.

I hope that we can stay in touch. There are only so many downcast eyes and pity hugs that I can take. You know, every morning when my brain pops awake, there’s this split second when I forget everything that’s happened. For one beautiful moment, I think Hannah will come bounding in with some fantastic plans for the day. Does that ever happen to you?

A memory of Joel pouring a bucket of water into the sand and laughing flashed into Lexi’s mind. He was always doing that, digging holes on the beach. Lexi was always filling them up again at the end of the day, not wanting anyone to fall in. The first time she did this, he cried. He didn’t understand.

She leaned into the bunk bed and tried to swallow the ball of pressure rising up her throat.

The rest of the letter spoke about Patty’s hope for her daughter’s new specialist in Boston, and urged Lexi’s mother to be thankful that things hadn’t been worse. Lexi crumpled the letter in her fist at this absurd statement. (Thankful for what? That only half of her children were dead?). But then she took a deep breath and flattened it out to read the postscript.

I have faith that my little girl’s still in there knocking away at whatever’s holding her in, Patty had written in the corner. Someday she’ll break through. They both will.

Lexi read the last line five times before dropping the note on top of her diaries and violently tying the towel closed. Patty must have been writing figuratively, referring to Joel as breaking through in some spiritual way that Lexi wished she could understand. She’d tried, but the religious route never worked for her. The chanting and the loose handshakes and the kneeling didn’t bring her closer to Joel; if anything, they made her feel farther away.

Her brother wouldn’t be breaking through. She needed to accept that. He’d never made it into a coma. He’d never made it out of the water.

That night, before curling up on her old bed with a stuffed bear that hadn’t been loved for twenty years, she took the bundle of memories down to the beach and flung it as far into the darkness as she could.

*

Lexi convulsed awake as the first roar of thunder clapped over the cottage. She didn’t even remember falling asleep, but it must have been deep because it took a while for her to remember where she was.

Four weeks had passed since she arrived at the neglected cottage, and it was almost fully recovered. She was even flirting with the idea of installing granite counters, selling her condo, and asking the local school district if they needed an art teacher. But either way, today was the big reveal. Today, she would stop dodging her parents’ phone calls, offer up a bandaged and polished piece of their past, and wish them a happy anniversary.

When the storm fled and the birds began their morning anthem, she finally stumbled out of bed. She rinsed out a bottle of chardonnay, uncapped a tub of “beach mist” bath gel, and floated into the shower. She left the door open so the steam wouldn’t fog up the window. It was perfect weather for a rainbow.

Jim honked his horn at one thirty on the dot. Lexi hopped into the car bearing a six-pack of beer and an oil pastel drawing of the restored cottage.

“Nice work,” Jim said, looking over the portrait and its homemade frame of crushed seashells. “Where’s the ‘before’ version?”

“Don’t need one.” Lexi smiled and clicked her seatbelt into place. “Do you mind swinging by the market? I just want to grab some flowers.”

“Not at all, but fair warning: Isabelle bought almost every plant within a ten-mile radius,” he said, flicking a dark coil from his eyes and fretting about how he meant to get a haircut days ago.

Lexi settled into her seat and watched the world pass by. She wondered whether it would be possible to hold her breath from one end of Goat’s Cove to the other.

“So the house looks phenomenal,” Jim said. “And you… You seem happy.”

Lexi felt her lips curve up on the sides. For the first time in years, agreeing didn’t feel like a betrayal.

But as soon as the car crunched into the market’s tiny gravel parking lot, her eyes flew wide. Her smile flat-lined. Bouncing down the steps with a brown paper bag and a frizzy-haired blonde was the man she’d seen downtown weeks earlier. A vintage Transformers T-shirt swam over his torso, and his dark brown hair was as curly as ever. In that instant, all the progress she’d made sunk to the ocean floor.

Jim parked the car and waited for Lexi to hop out, but she didn’t budge. Her knees remained bent in the passenger seat while her eyes bore straight ahead. If she didn’t move, maybe she wouldn’t have to choose between the past and the future.

“You want me to come with you?” Jim asked.

No, she thought, but couldn’t form the words. The man was strolling closer, heading for that same gray Jeep she’d seen earlier.

“Lex, what’s—”

Suddenly, something clicked—or broke. Twenty years of wondering. Twenty years and Joel must have made it out after all. Maybe he just didn’t remember. Maybe…

Her door jerked open violently, snapping too hard on its hinges. Lexi was already running by the time her feet hit the gravel. The rocks kicked up like a force field around her and she heard Jim shouting something in the distance. But she didn’t care. All she could think about was her brother. After all this time. All these years of half-living. It was him. She just knew it.

The man’s fingers were curved over the handle when Lexi careened into the side of his car, tossing her arms around his neck and sobbing. This lasted half a second before he tore out of her embrace, cursing and blocking her from the blonde.

“You’re alive!” Lexi shrieked. “Joel! It’s Lex! Don’t you remember?”

“Lady,” he barked, palms up in a defensive position. “My name’s Robert.”

“Oh, no! You must have amnesia,” Lexi gasped as he started sprinting back toward the store.

Before she could follow, Jim plugged himself like a wall in front of her. His face shone red with splotches, and his green eyes were cloudy.

“Lexi, that’s not Joel,” he shouted, holding her arms until she finally stopped struggling and crumpled to the ground in tears.

“It’s okay,” he repeated, trying to fold over her the way the vines had folded over her cottage, shielding it from the world. “It’s okay, Lex. I’m here.”

*

“Her name is Alexandra Holt,” Jim told the constable. “I’m her brother.”

“Her brother?” The man scratched his head methodically, as if he knew the location of each age spot and was trying to connect them with his fingers. “Ain’t that what she was harassing that other gentleman about?”

“She wasn’t harassing anyone.” Jim sighed, poked the gravel with his sneaker, and glanced to his left. Lexi was perched on a bench at the edge of the parking lot, splattered with dirt from the gravel and rocking back and forth in distress.

“She’s got a condition,” Jim spat, unable to get the words out fast enough. “A brain condition.”

The man leaned to one side and gave Lexi a long look. Then he focused back on Jim. “Looks fine to me,” he said. “She on drugs?”

Jim clenched his fist but pressed it against his side. “No. She has memory loss from the storm twenty years ago.”

“Bob?”

Jim nodded and hoped that explanation would be sufficient. But the constable just waited. Jim swallowed. “She was ten years old and wanted to take me out on the dinghy she was learning to sail,” he began.

“A dinghy in Hurricane Bob?” the man half-laughed. “With kids? Don’t you have parents?”

Jim tossed his head back, letting the hair fall over his face. “Obviously if we’d asked, our parents would’ve said no. But we were dumb kids with no idea what a storm of that magnitude meant.”

The constable supported one elbow with his fist and rubbed his chin with the other. He could have been watching a movie.

“So we just went,” Jim continued. “And we capsized. We’d never seen water that rough, and it was almost impossible to hang onto the boat. We managed to get on opposite sides and join hands across the bottom, but then I started to slip and—”

Jim paused, amazed that he was saying this to a stranger. He still hadn’t managed to tell his children. They just thought their aunt had an unusual imagination.

“So what happened?” The constable’s eyes were wide and focused.

“I started to slip and she pulled up to grab me. My side popped up and knocked her so hard I thought she was dead.” Jim’s eyes swelled and he caught another quick glance at his sister. She was oblivious, as usual. “I honestly don’t know how we made it back. Some people called it a miracle. She was in a coma for a while, and when she finally came out her brain was all muddled. She thought only a few days had passed and that I died at sea.” Jim paused to squeeze the ridge between his eyes. “Somehow she just can’t recognize me. Somewhere along the line, it doesn’t connect.”

“Have you tried showing her pictures?”

Jim didn’t want to seem annoyed, but no stranger’s advice was going to solve what hundreds of doctor visits and medical consultations couldn’t.

“We tried everything till the experts said it could be doing more harm than good.” He looked away. “Trust me. Any idea you have, we’ve been there.”

Granting the kind of pitiful smile that made every Holt sick to their stomach, the constable wrapped his fingers around Jim’s shoulder and squeezed—as if trying to impart some otherworldly grace on him. But Jim hadn’t believed in grace for some time. How could he, when the sister he thought had hung the moon didn’t recognize him? When she lived in a self-made hell over a death he never even suffered?

Jim watched the constable amble away, say something to the man with the Jeep, and climb into his cruiser. When the lot was empty, Jim dragged his feet through the gravel and slid beside Lexi on the bench. Taking a calming breath, he wrapped his arm around her and let her head fall into the crook below his neck.

“I’m so sorry, Jim.” Her voice was weak, like the tail end of a birthday blow. “I really thought it was Joel. I don’t know what’s wrong with me sometimes.”

“Shush,” he hummed, cupping his palm over her forehead. “There’s nothing wrong with you.”

Lexi tried to disguise a sob as a hiccup and swiped at her eyes. It would take a good twenty minutes for them to lose their puffiness.

“I know we should get going,” she said, taking a shaky breath, “but do you think we can wait here just for a little longer? I don’t want mom and dad to know I’ve been crying.”

Jim could think of a dozen better places for her to recover her emotions—the beach where she’d tried to teach him cartwheels, the ice cream shop where they’d split her sorbet after his mint chip cone splattered on the ground, the rock jetty they used to climb while their parents shared a wine picnic in the sand.

“Of course,” he said, blinking back a tear. “I’ve gotten pretty good at waiting.”

Choking by Maureen O’Leary

Memories of Doctor Death by Sylva Nze Ifedigbo

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