The Most Vulnerable

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The morning after the worst storm we’d had all year, the sun rose and clouds parted, illuminating damaged rooftops, toppled sheds, garbage scattered across muddy lawns, uprooted trees narrowly missing parked cars. Residents opened their doors to the aftermath, thankful their homes were still standing but perplexed by nature’s attack on unsuspecting gnomes, flamingos, bird feeders, fountains, grills, and wicker furniture now broken and twisted, too fragile to use, too blemished for curb appeal.

We drove around, retrieving city-issued receptacles and other items that had journeyed across the neighborhood, checking on the most vulnerable to make sure they had survived. Familiar faces filled yards and hoisted Hefty garbage bags over their shoulders. Parents with children and Golden Retrievers by their sides, strolled by handing out water and granola bars, offering their assistance with broken fences, tree removal and stump grinding.

When I returned home, I put away my candles, scraped wax off the coffee table, reset the clock on the microwave, and opened the windows to let in the fresh air. My phone buzzed with text messages from friends, family. I responded with emojis and one line messages that conveyed general concern, an invitation to respond if they needed anything. And after two cups of coffee, I went out into my backyard, clearing branches and leaves, fast food wrappers and wrinkled notebook paper with spelling words written in cursive, math problems scribbled on one side, answers blurred. Plants in ceramic planters leaned to the side, their roots exposed, so I secured them, adding more soil to keep them upright. I swept dirt from corners and restored the awning.

Around midday the doorbell rang, my sister and her children on the other side of the door, peering through the peephole to see if I was home. I sat at the kitchen table, eating an egg salad sandwich, listening to the children run across the grass.

“I know you’re home,” my sister yelled. “Your windows are open.”

“Yeah, we know you’re home,” the children parroted, giggling as they went back to their game of tag.

I went to the door, put my hand on the lock, and then froze, stepping back a couple feet.

“What do you want?” I asked.

“I’m checking on you…I can’t check on my sister?”

“I’m fine,” I said. “I don’t need anything.”

“Okay,” she sang. “Well, we’re fine too,” she mocked.

“That’s good.”

“You wouldn’t know because you never call or come by.”

“That’s not true…” I started.

“It is,” she turned to walk away. “That’s the way it’s always been.”

“No,” I said, watching her rally her children.

They were the most vulnerable, and even after years of acrimony, I still checked on them first.

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White Puffy Clouds

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Our plans to binge watch The Wire were thwarted by a collect call from my sister, Aurora, claiming she had been falsely accused of stealing her neighbor’s dog.

“Why did you steal your neighbor’s dog?” I asked, still making sense of what she was saying in between angry and sorrowful cries.

“I didn’t,” she blurted. “Can you come?”

Wesley and Tia went home, wanting nothing to do with the situation, but Miranda reluctantly agreed to take the two-hour drive with me.

“Do you mind if we listen to my audiobook?” she asked when we got in the car.

I plugged her phone in and backed out of the driveway, listening to the opening credits. Miranda leaned back in her seat, slipped off her shoes, and closed her eyes. I thought she might fall asleep, but she didn’t. Occasional gasps and groans overlapped with the speaker’s voice, a sarcastic, nonchalant first-person narrator with everything to gain and nothing to lose.

Drawn in by the character’s flaws and her underlying desire for good, we rooted for her, let the speaker pull us inside the chaos, the mystery, the joy though it was fleeting, swiftly swapped with sadness. We screamed at the end of each chapter as the narrator was swept away by yet another bad decision, and we cried for her at the beginning of every chapter when hope began to fade, when she realized loss was eminent and embraced the wound long before it appeared.

Most of the drive felt seamless; in fact, there were parts I didn’t even remember, long stretches of highway unaccounted for, but the emotional trek was rife with potholes, arduous hills we had to downshift to climb, a weepiness we couldn’t shake because at times it was like looking in a mirror.

“Do you mind if I pause it?” Miranda asked, as the narrator weighed the pros and cons of leaving her daughter with a friend.

“Go ahead,” I said, anticipating silence.

Instead, she pointed towards the bend.

“Look…”

The highway curved, and we were riding alongside white, puffy clouds, miles of unexpected peace shielding us from where we had been and where we were going.

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A Story

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I was two days into my three-day trip to my grandfather’s cabin, a small one-room, log home he’d spent a lot of time, remnants of his woodwork still scattered, hidden as if they had been part of some scavenger hunt. Already I had found a small pack of wooden wolves lined up under under his bed, owl faces in the window sills, birds perched on ceiling beams, and a figurine of a women wearing a feather hat and a ballroom-inspired dress, her face blank, smooth.

In plain view were stained coffee mugs, a jacket still wrapped around a chair, boots by the door, logs he had stacked in the corner, the debris collecting, home to insects I rehomed near the creek that ran alongside the cabin. I cleared the cobwebs, but I left everything else alone, preserving his last days there, learning as much as I could about who he was.

“I don’t advise it,” my mother warned. “Who knows what he did in that cabin.”

“What is that supposed to mean?” I defended. “Just because he liked to go out to the cabin doesn’t mean he was doing anything wrong.”

“Well, I guess we’ll see,” she gulped the rest of her wine and went to the kitchen for a refill.

I got lost twice on the drive up, missing faded road signs, narrow turns down ominous paths, before arriving to a dense, overgrown piece of land. The trees around the property seemed to lean towards the cabin, their branches reaching out like arms. A nearby waterfall plunged into the stream, white noise slowing my thoughts, quieting the worry, my own and others’. This was my cabin now, willed to me because I told him I wanted it.

“What are you going to with it?” my grandfather asked from his hospital bed.

“I want a place I can go to write… like Virginia Woolf,” I said, leaning over the bed rail.

“Like Virginia Woolf?,” he laughed and reached for my hand.

“And take pictures…paint.”

“If I give you the cabin, you’re going to do all those things?”

“I already do…”

“I want to see what you have,” he smiled. “I want a show.”

So I gave him a show, right there in his hospital room. I brought my paintings, pictures, and read chapters from my novella while he dozed off, awaking when my voice trailed.

“It’s all yours,” he said, sitting up and then clearing his throat.

He changed his will a few days later, and at the reading I learned that he had also left me enough money for the upkeep.

“Figures,” my mother stood up and left.

I made sure everything stayed the same. I lived on the edge of the space, not in it, a visitor aware of how her presence changed the energy, but also of how our lives intersected, a story I was now responsible for weaving together, changing it into something new.

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Hillside

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When I was thirteen, about six months after my parents’ divorce, my father and I moved to Elford into a small house on the hillside, over a hundred miles from my old school, my friends, my mother who kept our dog, Lily, and had a new boyfriend named Terrance, whom she told not to tell my father about but I did anyway, to which he said, “Okay,” and shrugged.

There were only two bedrooms in the house on the hill, instead of four, like our old house, and the rooms shared a wall, a thin wall my father’s snores drilled through like a jackhammer. We ate meat and potatoes, the only things he knew how to make, at a table for two. He woke me up at 4:30am and I dressed for school, finishing my homework in the truck during the hour drive while he listened to the Aaron Neville cd stuck in the player. When we made it into the city, he bought us breakfast sandwiches and coffee from Caroline’s a few miles from my school, and we parked in the empty lot. Our conversations centered on sports, professional basketball teams and the St. Francis’ girls’ team where I played. As we took our last bites, he asked how I was doing, and I nodded, chewing until the food was mush.

It was the two of us and our neighbors down the hill, Holly and Glen, who brought us figs from their tree, invited us for dinner on Sundays, and gave us a baby goat who chewed through the enclosure and made his way back down the hill, to the only home he’d ever known. My friends called every day, updating me on the gossip, even including me in their girl’s night celebrations. I watched them for a while, jumping into the excitement when a space opened, but eventually hung up and read choose your own adventure books until I fell asleep.

Some Saturdays I hiked with Holly who would always invite me to make pickles with her, and I would decline, reminding her that I didn’t like pickles.

“You don’t have to like pickles to make them,” she explained.

“I don’t like the smell,” I said.

“I see,” she said sweetly but always asked again to see if I had changed my mind.

On my birthday, while my dad went to get a cake, she walked up the hill, toting a pink giftbag and an invitation to help her feed the baby goats.

“Remus misses you,” she laughed.

“He ran away,” I grabbed my jacket. “Pretty sure he doesn’t miss me.”

We took our time down the hill, admiring the greenery and the flowers spring delivered. She schooled me on what was edible and what wasn’t, the animals and insects native to the area, what to do if I ever got lost.

“I only go to school and home, Holly.” I laughed.

“You should always be prepared…how old are you?”

“Fourteen. It’s my birthday,” I stopped, waiting for her to remember.

“That’s right…” she laughed.

At her house we slipped into work boots and went out to the goat pen. It soon became clear that they had already eaten. Remus played with his buddies, oblivious to my presence.

“I know what you can help me do,” Holly said. “I have these jars I need to wash…they’re not pickle jars,” she teased.

“What’s going on?” I asked, detecting something was off.

“Nothing,” she sang, a smirk forming as she tossed me a pair of rubber gloves.

“Is my dad trying to surprise me?” I fished.

“I don’t know,” Holly said, staring out the window at the goats.

“Do you know if my mom is coming?”

“I don’t know,” she repeated, this time her tone sympathetic. “When is the last time you saw your mother?”

“Right before we moved here,” I said. “But I talk to her every couple weeks.”

“Oh good,” her body relaxed.

We washed jars, labeled boxes, and cooked fruit until it was soupy. Glen poked his head in the kitchen from time to time, praising our progress, throwing hints that made no sense.

“Glen,” Holly threw him a glance.

“I think I already know what’s happening,” I laughed, and they both waited for my guess. “A party?”

“Umm ,” Holly and Glen avoided my eyes.

“My dad went to get my mom, and we’re going to have a party,” I said, satisfied with my guess.

Holly looked out the window again at the goats, I thought, but creeping up the road was my dad’s truck, bouncing on the uneven terrain. I ran out to greet him, Holly and Glen chasing after me. And the closer he got, the clearer it became: We weren’t having a party with my mother. My dad sat in the driver’s seat, his body large behind the wheel. Next to him was a small-framed girl with curly hair and braces. She waved wildly, freeing herself from the seatbelt.

“Sophie,” I screamed.

Charlotte, Hannah, and Ester were in the back seat, their hands raised to the ceiling as they cheered. They jumped out of the truck and swept me into a group hug. I glanced over at my father, offering a non-verbal thank you for bringing home to the hillside.

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The Choice

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As soon as I started climbing the stairs to Sabrina’s apartment, I heard her yelling at Vincent, her boyfriend of two years. I slowed my pace, unsure if I should interrupt or come back later. They threw complaints and insults at each other, pain the enemy fueling the dispute, replaying past traumas and dramas. I waited outside the door, ready to knock, to distract them from the wreckage.

“Choose,” he yelled.

“I can’t,” she yelled back. “I won’t.”

A few minutes later, the door swung open, Vincent racing past me, down the stairs, leaving behind the smell of his cologne and the sound of wrought iron vibrating long after he had released his grip on the rail.

“Hey,” I said.

“Hi,” Sabrina exhaled, ran her fingers through her hair.

“Are you okay?” I asked.

“I’m fine,” she crossed her arms at her chest. “You want to take a short walk?” she grabbed her keys.

“Sure. It’s a nice day, and I could use a walk,” I joked, but she stayed quiet.

We headed west on Market Street, past residential sound walls, into the heart of downtown where we were greeted by honking and rage, blocked intersections and broken meters. Sabrina took her time, strolling along unbothered by the noise, by drivers who were blind to pedestrians.

She stared up at the office buildings, their rounded corners, bay windows, brick siding. The half-lit structures loomed, drowning us in shade, like an ominous prequel to a thriller, but still she continued her stride, her silence. We moved past couriers pushing packages in wire-framed baskets from one building to another. Workers in suits and rimless frames stood poised, waiting for drivers. UPS trucks double parked in the alleyways to unload boxes they transported into building lobbies.

Things quieted the closer we got to the Punch Bowl, the smell of pizza, burgers, fries, and spicy noodles hanging in the air. There weren’t fewer people, but they stood quietly in line, scrolling through notifications. They wandered into boutiques, bookstores, jewelers, galleries, and day spas. Sabrina still moseyed along, pausing to read store signs, muse at artwork, collect brochures she glanced at and folded in half.

At the corner of Market and Fifth, she stopped, looking first at the coffee shop on our left and then at the coffee shop on the right.

“What do you think?” I asked. “Should we go to…” I watched her cover her face with her hands.

Soft cries turned into long, silent stretches labored with the kind of pain that suffocated before it offered release. We stood on the corner, temporarily invisible to passersby who didn’t understand just how complicated the choice was, or why in this moment picking one over the other brought sadness and not joy.

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Green Smoothie

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“…And I came home to a note from neighbor about my guests parking in front of her house,” Valentina said as I came back from the bathroom, examining three mangos before selecting one and putting the other two in the refrigerator. “They don’t own sidewalk,” she complained.

“That’s ridiculous,” I supported.

“Besides, the only guests I get these days are Jerry and Jean,” she cut the mango into slices. “They come in together and park right in front,” she pointed the knife towards the street.

“What about me?” I nudged her with my elbow.

“You don’t count,” she tossed the mango slices into a bowl. “You’re my daughter…I mean friends.”

“What happened to Hillary?” I moved over a little so she could get a bag of kale out of the refrigerator. “Why don’t you take out everything you need, instead of going back and forth…”

“Because I do it this way,” she snapped.

“So what happed to Hillary?” I laughed.

“Oh, I don’t know,” she fiddled with the bag, trying to open it without spilling the kale.

“Here…let me,” I grabbed the bag and cut the top corner with the knife, creating a small opening.

“I can’t get my hand in this,” she grabbed the knife and started widening the opening.

“Pour it, mom,” I reached in, tilting the bag.

“Well, now I have to wash the knife,” she walked to the sink and rinsed the knife.

“I thought you only used this thing to make soups.”

“I make smoothies,” she defended. “Jean gave me this recipe a couple weeks ago, and I thought I would try it since I’m here,” she pulled out two produce bags from a drawer.

“Why didn’t you go to the flea market today?”

“Didn’t feel like it,” she shrugged, untwisting the wiry twist ties.

“Why not?” I pressed.

“What are you with the FBI or something?” she scoffed, measuring seeds and pouring them into their own bowl, finally ready to make her green smoothie.

“I ran into Hillary at the post office today,” I confessed. “She said you weren’t returning her calls.”

“Interesting,” she said, the icemaker rumbling as it dumped ice cubes into a bowl.

“Are you mad at her?”

The motor of her newly dusted Vitamix screeched as its blades cut through ice, mango slices, kale, pumpkin and flax seeds. She yelled over the sound, defending herself, but I could only understand her hand gestures, her disgruntled facial expressions, the meanings of her words drowned by the blender while swirling bits turned to liquid.

“I’m the one that should be mad, right?” she asked, the motor winding down from a screech to a whirr before ceasing.

She poured a little bit of the smoothie into a glass and took a sip, the smell of fresh kale and mango still lingering in the air.

“It’s not that sweet,” she set the glass on the counter, looking at the recipe again.

“Is it supposed to be sweet?”

“That’s what Jean said,” her tone sad, defeated.

“Maybe it’s sweet to her,” I explained. “Or it could be the mango…” I said, but she had stopped listening.

She began cleaning the space, piling the bowls in the sink, pouring the rest of the smoothie into the glass and rinsing the container.

“Why don’t we go get a smoothie?” I suggested. “There’s a place downtown that’s good.”

“Never mind,” she wiped the counter twice.

“Are you sure?” I put my arm around her, squeezing her.

“Enough of that,” she broke out of the hug. “I’ll just make something else.”

“They’re sweet,” I teased. “And green…”

She put the dishes in the dishwasher and with her back to me said, “Let me get my purse.”

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Hiding Places

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By age ten I knew how to perform the day-to-day duties in my parents’ bookstore, helping customers find books, running the cash register, making sure I slipped a free bookmark into the bag when a customer spent at least twenty dollars; restacking books customers decided not to buy, and directing delivery drivers to the back where my parents were, lost in a lively conversation about transcendentalism, citing and reciting writers like Emerson and Thoreau.

It was also my job to look after Albert and Jackson, our sixteen-year-old Himalayan and the young man who spent his days in the aisles of the store, a history buff who dabbled in Myths and Legends, sipped black coffee and nibbled on muffins my mother got from the day old bakery. Albert knew all the nooks and crannies and hid from us until it was time to eat when he filled the store with his meows and rubbed against our legs, white hairs flying through the air. Jackson wore a black leather coat and boots year round, mumbled while he read, and minded his own business. He had no family, no friends, that I ever saw, and at times he didn’t seem to have a home either. But he always found his way into the store, grabbed his stool, and picked up where he left off the day before.

“He never buys anything,” I complained to my dad after Jackson left one day. “This isn’t a library.”

“That’s not for you to worry about,” my dad said calmly, peeling an orange and leaving the peels on the counter.

“Dad…”

“What?” he turned, an orange slice sticking out of his mouth.

“Your garbage.”

“Why don’t you take care of that for me,” he winked.

I threw the peels into the garbage can near the entrance, and as I turned, out of the corner of my, I thought I saw something shiny so I took a closer look. There were two silver bracelets stacked one on top of the other. I reached in, grabbed them, and slid them onto my wrist, remembering the young women who had come in earlier. One led the other into the store all the way to the self-help section where they spent an hour flipping through chapters on healing before they decided on two books, one written by a psychologist, the other written by national radio host. I tried to remember if I had seen either dump the bracelets on their way out but came up with nothing. Squiggly designs on each made them look expensive, or at least not cheap. On the inside names had been engraved, Lucy and Leanne. I decided to put the bracelets in my backpack, thinking my mother would certainly see them and ask questions.

The shop closed at 8pm, giving us just enough time to get home, eat leftovers while playing a quick game of Scrabble, and then we were off to bed. My parents always left the house before me, leaving me behind to get dressed, make my own breakfast, and catch the 19 bus that stopped a block from school. I sported the bracelets that day at school, playing with them while my teacher blabbed on about fractions, parts of speech, osmosis. I ate lunch with Sybil and Priscilla, played a little dodgeball at recess, and goofed off during the library tour with Mrs. Walker.

“You don’t want me to contact your parents, do you?” she asked.

“No ma’am,” I said but kept pushing books off the shelves.

After school, I took the 30 bus and then transferred to the 11 bus, walking a few blocks to the store, past the Salvation Army, a gas station, a four-level apartment complex, a park, and the bakery my mother bought muffins and nine-grain bread. The front of the store, usually bustling with delivery drivers, customers who heard we had a copy of some out of print book they needed for a project, was quiet except for the three police cars parked side by side.

“What’s going on?” I ran inside, my bracelets clanking.

“This is our daughter,” my mother offered. “Go in the back, please.”

I cut through the store, feeling my mother’s eyes on me until I was out of sight. I waited a few seconds and then crouched down, making my way to the next aisle, crawling to the middle where their voices were clear, where the problem burned like a wildfire and they couldn’t figure out how to extinguish it.

“He wouldn’t harm them,” my father said, his tone weepy.

“Several witnesses have…” one of the officers started.

“It can’t be true…none of this…It can’t,” my father cried. “They’re his half-sisters…Lucy and Leanne.”

I slipped the bracelets off and hid them behind a book, my hands shaking, my flesh burning.

“When he was here yesterday,” another officer chimed. “He seemed okay, like everything was normal?”

“Everything was fine,” my mother said. “Also…” she paused.

I heard my father sniffling, trying to compose himself, and then voices on the officers’ radios announced codes that meant something to them and nothing to us, adding more stress to the moment.

“He’s…” my father started, his voice faint. “Jackson is…my son.”

Albert found me, his meows loud as he rubbed his face against mine. I didn’t know what else to do so I scooped him into my arms and ran to the front of the store.

“I think they came into the store yesterday,” I said. “They bought two books.”

My father shook his head, and, as if it were contagious, my mother started shaking hers too.

“No, they didn’t,” she said.

“There were two…” I started.

“They aren’t allowed to come in the store,” my mother explained.

“But I found their bracelets in the garbage can,” I admitted.

My father covered his face with his hand, emotion moving through him. His body shook with pain, and I wanted to save him, protect him the way he had protected Jackson, but I also wanted to scream at him and tell him to stop hiding.

“I threw them away,” I lied, watching his eyes perk.

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Memory Keeper

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“What do we do with the pictures?” Alexandria asked.

“I’ll get some of those picture boxes,” I said. “How many do you think I should get?”

“Depends,” she scratched her head and put her hand on her hip, surveying the walls, the faded Polaroids, the unframed images taken by disposable cameras, all of children who had passed through Aunt Linda’s third grade class. “There are the ones in the back rooms too,” Alexandria remembered.

“Oh yeah…” I counted the top row of pictures and then the ones along the border, hoping a little multiplication would help me figure out how many pictures there were. “I’ll stop by Michael’s on the way home and see what they have.”

We finished covering the furniture with sheets, emptying the cupboards of expired canned goods and mite-infested bags of flour, cornmeal; wrapping dishes in newspaper, and making a list of all the things that needed to be fixed.

“I can’t believe my mother just left,” Alexandria said, emotion in her throat. “I don’t know if I could leave everything behind…walk away and start over somewhere else.”

“You never know,” I stacked two small boxes on top of the big ones we had already packed, taped, and pushed to the side. “Maybe it was something she always wanted to do.”

“Maybe,” Alexandria said, dissatisfied with my answer. “I think it was something she just decided to do without even thinking about how it would effect us.”

“It doesn’t really effect me…not that much,” I clarified. “Plus, now we have someone to visit in Alaska.”

“I’m not going to Alaska,” she clenched her teeth. “Why don’t you start taking the pictures down…we can get the boxes later.”

“Okay,” I stood up and slipped past her, weaving through boxes on my way to the living room.

My Aunt Linda had used some kind of adhesive to glue the pictures on the wall, making it impossible to remove them without destroying them first. Decades of smiling faces collected like yearbook pictures, some children wearing their Sunday best, others standing in grass-stained jeans, in baseball uniforms, in leotards and tutus, with younger siblings, parents and grandparents. There were pictures of birthday celebrations, children reading their favorite books, building sandcastles at the beach, riding new bikes in their cul-de-sacs; fishing with grandpa, camping in the woods, sleeping under character comforters with their teddy bears next to them.

I ran my fingers across the pictures, wondering why she had chosen to keep them in this way. For most, the fine details had been blurred by time, by the cold and hot air blasting through the vents. What remained were bits and pieces of the moments parents had captured and sent to her as a thank you, a forget me not. And Aunt Linda had found a space for every child, lining up the pictures so their faces reminded her of their days together, so they were not forgotten. Her walls had disguised the passing of time, until it crept into her bones, an aching that sent her on a adventure she’d live, even if it meant letting go of the memories that had once kept her safe.

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Light

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Denise pulled up to pump 9, got out to pay and realized her tank was on the opposite side.

“How long have you had this car?” I asked.

“Um…like five years,” she said, pulling around to pump 10.

“And you still don’t know what side your gas tank is on?” I teased.

“Ha, ha,” she got out, slid her card into the machine and entered her pin, looking around while she waited for the prompt on the screen to select a fuel and begin pumping.

I leaned back and listened to the sound of gas gushing through the hose, panhandlers asking for change, a young salesman announcing his merchandise: gold chains, designer sunglasses and wallets, Cd’s.

“Ready?” she asked, getting back in the car.

“I don’t know,” I shrugged.

“Well, you better get ready,” she doused her hands with sanitizer.

We were on our way to take groceries to our sister, Sandra, who, for the past year, had walled herself in her house, living off microwave dinners and romance novels. I usually let Denise do the drop off while I took mom to her dialysis appointments every week.

“You need to come with me,” Denise pleaded. “I think we should do an intervention.”

“Are you serious?”

“She seems really unhappy,” Denise explained.

“Sometimes people are unhappy,” I dismissed.

“No, like really unhappy, like she doesn’t want to be here anymore.”

As we drove south on I5, Denise went on and on about the new hire at work, pausing when she had to make a lane change, when someone cut her off, when she tired of the topic. The quiet neighborhood she lived was tucked behind a wooded bike trail, a few miles from the main road.

“Is she even home?” I asked as we got out of the car, each grabbing two grocery bags stuffed with fresh fruit and veggies. “You think she’s eating this stuff?”

“I’m just trying to be helpful,” she sighed and rang the bell.

All of the windows were dark, but we heard footsteps and then locks unlocking. Sandra poked her head through door, squinting at the sunlight.

“What do you want?” she muttered.

“I brought you some groceries,” Denise said.

“Why can’t you leave me alone?” Sandra tried to close the door, but Denise wedged her shoulder between the door and the frame.

“I wanted to see how you were doing.” Denise said. “I brought Hazel.”

“Hi,” I said, like a stranger who had tagged along to get out of the house.

“Can we come in?”

“No.”

“Not even for a few minutes?” Denise persisted.

Sandra looked inside her house and then back at us before opening the door for us to enter.

“Don’t touch anything,” Sandra warned.

Boxes of books cluttered the living room, small stacks collecting on the end tables, the sofa and loveseat, on the dining table, the chairs, and countertops.

“Wow,” I said, “Are you starting your own library?” I asked and Denise jabbed me with her elbow.

We followed Sandra into the kitchen where she unpacked the grocery backs, frowning at each item as she stuffed them onto the empty shelves of her refrigerator, cabinets, pantry.

“There,” she wiped her hands on the front of her pants.

“So what have you been up to?” Denise pried.

“Time to go,” Sandra pointed towards the door.

I backed up right into the table, her laptop resting on a pile of newspapers wobbling, the light on the screen flickering against the darkness in the room. Denise pressed Sandra on her daily activities while I snooped, clicking through the open tabs on her laptop, the pill bottles hidden behind craft books, receipts for slacks, blazers, button-down blouses, the appointments scribbled into a planner.

“Get out,” Sandra was yelling now.

“Come on, Denise,” I grabbed her arm, guiding her to the door.

“I’m concerned,” she kept saying, Sandra on our heels, ushering us towards the door.

When the door slammed in our faces, we paused for a moment, processing what happened, adjusting to the sunlight, its familiar warmth.

“She’s fine,” I comforted Denise.

“No…” she shook her head. “We have to do something.”

“She’s already doing something,” I put my arm around Denise and walked towards the car. “I think she got a job.”

“What?”

“Yeah…on her laptop there was an email from her manager, and she bought clothes…”

“Really?”

“Yep,” I said, waiting for Denise to unlock my door. “She’s finding her way.”

“Well, that’s good,” Denise relaxed, turned on the radio, and bopped to the beat.

She was excited, unburdened, and now I would carry the truth on my shoulders, weighed down by the fact that our sister was sick and was not searching jobs but for doctors who could help her find the light wanting to shine through.

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Hidden Treasure

Photo by Ibadah Mimpi on Pexels.com

“Ill be right back,” I said, ditching the paved path for a grassy ground littered with leaves, fallen branches and tree roots.

“You want me to come with you?” River asked, already moving towards me.

“No…uh, I’ll just be a second,” I assured.

“We’ll wait for you,” Selah blurted.

The sound of my boots crushing lush vegetation followed me into the dense forest, quieting in spots where crisp leaves had been dampened by moisture, where rodents and insects had staked their claim, digging elaborate tunnels in the floor. I mapped my steps as I went along, clusters of white flowers, like clues to a hidden treasure, leading me to its precious gems–small, shiny stones cut from the earth, each offering a glimpse into the meaning of life. With limited time and the fog thickening, I postponed the quest, walking until I could no longer see the path, River, or Selah. And I found the perfect Redwood to lean against, one with a massive circumference, hundreds of years living, outsmarting disease, reaching for the sun and the moon, dazzled by twinkling stars, constellations giving shape to the sky.

I lay my hands on its trunk, finding comfort in the smoothness, the unpredictable breaks in its bark, its skin. In exchange for calm, I offered my tears, salty seeds it could plant, nurture, and protect like minerals from the earth, their meanings coded with life’s little dark secrets.

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