It wasn’t the first time death had brought Sean back to his childhood home.
As he stood in the living room, with its earthquake cracks running down the orange plaster walls, and the stacked boxes of mail-order shampoo and non-fiction books from Publisher’s Clearinghouse, he thought about the last time he returned, more than a decade earlier.
The email had come from his sister Amy. He read it in the hostel lounge.
It’s Andrew, she wrote. He committed suicide.
His extended family spoke in whispers. They gathered in tight circles inside the funeral home, its sterile smell lingering, an amalgamation of flowers, and cologne and cleaning products. Sean stood in a daze between his mother and Amy, her blue eyes brimming with tears.
It seemed familiar, standing there, as though someone had played a cruel joke, had filmed their lives and rewound the tape, only on this viewing they were down one more cast member. It was the second funeral in as many years. Their dad’s brain tumour had acted swiftly, and when the hospital ethics committee denied the surgeon’s request to perform an experimental procedure, his fate was sealed. He decayed, comatosed. Dead at 57. They'd held the memorial service in this same room.
It was around that time that Sean left. He didn’t exactly run away - he had a plan, of sorts, and phoned occasionally from the road - but he didn’t exactly have plans to return, either. He thought about what compelled that decision: had he been seeking adventure, or did he simply need to leave, to get as far away from that home, those memories, as possible.
He couldn’t settle on a clear answer, though either way, it seemed driven by selfish motives. Would things have been different for his brother had he stayed? he wondered.
He watched his aunties, in their black knee-length skirts, wiping makeup-smearing tears with dark handkerchiefs, taking bird-sized bites from neatly cropped sandwiches: sliced ham and Swiss cheese, pressed between two triangular pieces of crust-free white bread. His uncles, with their heavy guts bulging over their belts, shook his hand authoritatively, forceful, as though they needed to impress upon him the crushing weight of a brother, lost. They nodded during these exchanges, with grimaced looks on their jowled faces.
Sean remembered how, in the days afterward, neighbours delivered pre-cooked casseroles, almost as if they were abandoning babies on the stoop of an orphanage. They’d knock on the door, shifting their weight back and forth, left foot to right, while they waited, as if preparing for a one-hundred-metre dash. When he or Amy opened the door, they’d make a brief handover, reciting lines from a rehearsed script, before scrambling back down the steps and the walkway, out of sight. The instructions for reheating the casseroles were always neatly spelled out on a sticky note, or a crisp sheet of lined paper, and taped to the foil cover.
In the autumn nights following his brother’s death, Sean would sit with Amy on the back porch, listening to the suburban quiet; the whirr of cars on the mainstreet, two block away, and the almost inaudible electric hum of the streetlamps - a quasi-silence interrupted, only occasionally, by the baritone bark of the neighbour’s German Shepherd, Lyka, which took exception to the odd racoon or telephone-wire-scampering squirrel.
Sean would roll a small joint and they’d pass it back and forth, taking long drags until their smoke-filled lungs felt heavy, and ached. They would sit for long stretches, talking about their brother, watching each other’s faces distort in the flicker of candlelight. Were there warning signs? Sean would ask, and Amy, only recently finished high school, would just shake her head. He always seemed happy, she used to say, closing her eyes. They talked, on other occasions, about their dad, recalling memories of him at work in his garage, in his grease-stained lab coat, and their mother’s deteriorating health, saying how sad it all was, and they made promises to look out for each other.
When the silences got too long, too meditative, Amy would yawn and stand up. She’d lean over and touch her brother’s shoulder with her small hand. Get some rest, she would say, before going inside to bed.
Andrew’s death triggered Sean’s first bout with insomnia, which lasted through the winter. When the house was quiet, he would go to his brother’s room and rummage through shoe boxes underneath his bed, flipping through photographs of him, drinking beers in the park with his friends, and reading his old journals, trying to isolate meaning in the words and thoughts he’d written down, an attempt to gain some kind of fragmented insight into who he was becoming, or why he took his life.
On other nights, Sean would simply wander, often for hours at a time, completing long circuits around the neighbourhood. He’d head south to the waterfront, and traverse the boardwalk, watching the shaky reflection of the moonlight, a white carpet unrolled from the horizon, lapping against the drift-wood covered shore. Or else he’d wander through the riverside park, where his family used to have picnics, dining on buckets of KFC chicken, with coleslaw and macaroni salad; where he and Andrew would play frisbee in the long grass, and not worrying at all about the mild stench from the nearby water treatment facility.
Sean recalled the tessellated pattern of the paper thin ice, a dark skin of pentagonal shapes, insulating the water, muting its rush on those cold, darker-than-normal nights.
When the spring came, and the ice thawed, Sean packed a bag and boarded a bus for Los Angeles. Amy came with him to the terminal, rode with him on the subway. She needed to drop a resume off at a shop, anyway, she said. Amy never asked where he was going, or what his plans were, or when he was coming back. She just wanted to be close to him, up until he left, Sean decided. He was happy she tagged along. When they hugged goodbye, she told him she loved him. He kissed her forehead, and told her he'd call soon.
Sean watched from his window seat, on a half-empty bus, as she walked away, into the grey city. That morning was the last time he’d been inside their home.
He walked across the room and sat on the piano bench. On the wall there was a painting of a country manor, with a girl in a white summer dress on a tire swing, and a small black dog jumping excitedly beside her. A rainbow of refracted sunlight shone on a piece of sheet music, on the piano. Sean remembered how his mother used to practice singing in the afternoons, and how, just before he left, she made a comment that his brother was present in that refracted light, keeping her company. Her belief in the afterlife had kept her going. Sean held no such illusions.
His mind veered to another story she used to tell him, about the final conversation she had with her own mother. I adore you, mum, she had said, one evening, after she went round with some dinner. Well, that makes us the founding members of the mutual adoration society, her mother had replied. They parted ways, his mum and grandma, and the next day she fell asleep in her front room and never woke up.
A hint of a smile crept across Sean’s face, remembering their kindnesses, but it melted away almost as quickly. He thought about his final words to his mum. They had spoken on the telephone, briefly, around Christmas. Amy held the phone to her ear. She kept calling him by his brother’s name, and Amy, in the background, would correct her. “It’s Sean, Ma. Sean.” He had wanted to apologise, but he wasn’t sure to whom -- his mum, or Amy.
“You’re a great mother,” he said, uncertain if it was actually true. He wasn’t confident in his memory any more, eroded by the passage of time, scrambled by the encryption of distance. “I love you.”
After a long pause, filled with raspy breathing, she replied. “I love you too, Andrew. It’s so nice to hear your voice again.”
Her funeral was a simple, quiet affair. Only some of the same aunties and uncles were in attendance, diminished in size, and greyer. She was buried in a cemetery near the airport, next to his dad, where the graves were insignificantly marked with flat granite slabs, no elaborate tombstones. At the burial, the minister occasionally went silent, hands folded in front of his midsection, while 747s passed overhead.
In the wake of her passing, nobody delivered casseroles. Sean decided it was only customary to do so when death was sudden, unexpected; when others felt shame or guilt for their good fortune, to have lived.
Sean touched one of the white keys and the resulting out-of-tune sound, louder than he’d anticipated, filled the room. As it reverberated, his sister appeared in the doorway.
“Is there anything you want?” she asked, startling him. She dropped a cardboard box onto a stack, and came and stood behind him. “If there is, I suggest you sort out some kind of storage? We need to have everything out of here by the end of the week, so the estate agent can start showing people through.” Her tone was matter-of-fact, not sentimental.
Sean turned on the bench so his body faced her, but he resisted making eye contact. “There’s probably some valuable stuff here,” he said. “But,I don’t think I’m in a position to take anything. What would I do with it?”
Amy shrugged, as if to say, not my problem, and brushed some stray hairs off her forehead. “Well, think about it, okay. I’ve posted a ton of things online. Who knows if they’ll sell? And I’ve arranged a dumpster for Friday. Anything that’s still here is going in, never to be seen again. Not in this life, anyway.”
Sean looked up at his sister. She was nearly six feet tall, and despite her slender build, had a commanding presence in the room. Her dark hair was pulled tight into a ponytail, and the skin around her eyes had become dark with fatigue, or stress, or both. But she was strong. he could see it in the veins that bulged in her forearms, and the shape of her. He felt small in her presence, and a buried guilt, coiled-up and repressed for so many years, sprung to the surface; it had been bobbing like a buoy since he arrived. “I’m sorry I wasn’t here to help with mum,” he said. “With everything.” The words he wanted to find dried up in his throat, crumbled away and were swallowed, like invisible toxins. “Thank you for taking care of her.”
“Somebody had to, Sean.” Her response snapped like a whip. Amy's glacial eyes drilled into his, as though trying to decipher some kind of code, carefully deconstructing the puzzle pieces that comprised this man, she didn’t really know. She wasn’t in the mood for his sympathy, or his apologies, or any thank yous. “She went downhill fast,” she added, looking away quickly, as if she had found what she was searching for, and was mortified, or worse, ashamed. “It could have been a lot nastier. For everyone.”
Sean nodded, returning his gaze to the floor, where he felt it was safest. The room fell silent.
“Right,” she said. “I have to pick Oliver up from school, and then I’m dropping him at Susanna’s place.” She spoke about her step-son in a purely functional way. He and Sean had been unacquainted until the funeral. “Are you sure you don’t need a place to stay?”
“I’m fine,” he said. “I’m meeting a friend for a drink, and then I’ll drive out to the hotel. I’m staying by the airport. It’s good for quick getaways.” He smiled, but his sister didn’t see the humour.
“Okay. You’ve got my number. Ring if…” she paused. “Ring if you need anything, or if you want to come spend time with your nephew.” She collected two forest green garbage bags, filled with clothes and bath towels, which were sitting by the front door and walked outside. From the window, Sean watched her drive away and breathed a sigh of relief.
The hotel bar was mostly empty. There were two men in business suits drinking Coronas and watching the baseball game, indifferently, on a wall-mounted television, and there was a couple sitting down to dinner, reading their menus skeptically in one of the booths, with a window overlooking the parking lot.
Sean cradled a glass of rum and coke in his hands, and looked at the clock on the wall. 9.35pm. He had called his friend, the one he planned to meet for a drink, but he’d been called into the halfway house where he worked for an unexpected evening shift. Sometimes we need extra eyes on these kids, he said. Some of them have real problems. He tiptoed around using the word suicide.
Sean had taken his mum’s car, and driven back to the hotel. On the way, he stopped at the cemetery, but it was dark, and he couldn’t find the plots where his parents were buried. After several minutes of wandering aimlessly, he sat on a curb and began to sob, the noise of it drowned out by the rumble of aircraft overhead, and the incessant hum of cars and tractor trailers speeding by on the nearby expressway.
Back at the hotel, he tried to call Tina, hoping she might answer a number she didn’t immediately recognise as his. It rang seventeen times before the line disconnected. It had been four months since she told him to leave. Amy had met her just the once, when she visited him in San Diego after finishing her nurses training. He’d been working as a landscaper, and had met Tina through mutual friends. “Nice enough,” his 22-year-old sister had said, when he asked her what she thought of his new girlfriend.
She was nice enough. And he screwed it up, he thought. He wanted to hear a familiar voice; someone who knew him, understood his faults, even if that someone hated his guts. He didn’t mind being hated, at least not as much as being judged. After a second attempt went unanswered, he lay on the bed and thought about sleeping. But instead, he left his room and went down to the lobby.
After finishing his drink, he drove back to the house along backstreets, trying to remember the routes through the city he had learned growing up, on joy rides with friends when they first got their licences.
When he got to the house, he was surprised to see Amy’s silver SUV in the driveway, and a light on inside. He sat in the driver’s seat, wondering whether to go in. He had never intended to exclude her from his life, or planned on her becoming the sole caregiver, but it was him who constructed the tyrannical distance between them. Maybe it was too far gone, too late to break it down?
He found Amy on the floor of her old bedroom. She was flipping through the pages of family photo album. “Hey,” he said.
She looked up and, for the first time since he’d been home, smiled. “What are you doing here?” she asked, looking back down at the album.
“I couldn’t sleep,” he said. “And I couldn’t drink either.” He sat down next to her on the floor. “Why are you here?”
“Susanna’s got Oliver tonight. I was feeling lonely,” she said, looking up at him. “And part of me can’t bear the thought of all these memories going to landfill. At least not without pretending to sort through them.”
“There are a lot of memories,” he said, looking around the room, which had been his, once upon a time. Some of his sister’s drawings, from when she was a kid, were still hanging on the walls, framed, and there were even a few stuffed animals on her old bed.
“Do you remember this?” she asked, swivelling the photo album so he could see. Her index finger was pressed against a photo of the three of them, as kids, in a yellow canoe. Sean was standing, bare chested, on one of the seats holding a paddle above his head like a championship wrestling belt; Andrew was in the middle, wearing an orange life preserver, with his arms out like a surfer for balance, and Amy, wearing a pink baseball cap turned backwards, had her head tilted skyward, giggling at some long-forgotten joke, the dimple on her chubby cheek a perfect crescent.
Sean laughed, and nodded. “I’m pretty sure we tipped right after dad took that photo. You probably weren’t so happy after that.”
“You tipped us, you bully,” Amy replied, elbowing him in his side. “Andrew was terrified of drowning, even though it was only a couple of feet deep. And you were rocking us back and forth. He was screaming for you to stop.”
“And you thought the whole thing was a riot?”
Amy nodded, and pulled the photo out from its plastic sleeve. When she turned it over they both read their mum’s distinctive cursive. In blue ink it said: Kids frollicking in canoe, Lake Kempshaw, Summer holidays, 1994. “She was a meticulous labeller,” Amy said.
She placed the photo on a stack she was collecting, and turned the page. There was another photo of their parents, asleep together on a hammock, and one of Andrew, with a too-tall fishing rod, smiling at the camera with a sheepish grin. “I miss them,” said Amy.
Me too, Sean thought. He wanted to say the words, to share that experience with his sister, but he couldn’t bring himself to do it. Somehow, he felt he hadn’t earned the right. He watched his sister, expecting tears to form in her eyes, to roll down her cheeks; expecting her to elaborate or say something else. But she kept still, eyes trained on the photos.
“I’m mad at you Sean,” she said, after a long silence. “I know I shouldn’t be, but I am. I know you have your life, and that’s fine. But you didn’t have to see mum… wasting away like it did. I was the one. Where were you? Huh? Where the fuck were you?” She pushed him, forcefully, knocking him backward onto his elbows. There was another silence, a frozen moment. The floorboards creaked as he sat back up.
“Tina and I split up,” he said. “That’s not an excuse, it’s just a fact.” He didn’t know how much to tell her, or if she even cared. “She kicked me out and I’ve been living in my car these last few months. I should have come here sooner, but I kept thinking I’d be able to fix things with her. I never should have left after dad died,” he felt tears welling in his own eyes, felt Amy’s handprint like ice on his chest. “Maybe Andrew would still be here. I’ve been thinking about that a lot.”
“What about me?” she turned to him. “You both left me. And sometimes I’m not sure which of you is worse for it.” Her voice trailed off. “Andrew is dead, Sean. There's nothing you, or I, or anyone else can do to change that. He was young and he made a stupid decision. No matter how shitty your life is, you still get to wake up every morning. you get to breathe, and fuck, and plant your flowers and your trees.” She looked down at the floor. "We missed you. Mum, and me. We needed you Sean. We felt abandoned."
He reached out an touched her hand, it felt hot. “I’m not leaving this time,” he said. "I have nothiong left to go back to." He thought about the distance between them, the distance he'd created. "This is home." I’m going to be here for you, from now on, he thought.
Amy looked at him, her blue eyes like confused planets, floating in white space. "I don't think this has been your home for some time." She picked up the photos and stood up. “Relationships fall apart,” she said, placing her free hand on his shoulder. “We’re still family, Sean. We’re all we have left.” She turned at the door, and smiled faintly. “Get some rest.”
Sean nodded. I’m going to be here for you, from now on, he thought.