Mama’s gone. Gone. Gone.
Cold tears slithered down his cheeks, but he lacked the strength to wipe them away. Did this mean he was an orphan now or was that just for kids? Why hadn’t she told him she was sick in any of the letters she’d sent? They were all about the knitting club and the new restaurant in town that used farm to table practices and had become a favored meeting place for her and all her friends. In her letters, she’d keep him appraised of what books her book group was reading, and sometimes, he’d head down to the local library and see if they had a copy, if only because spending a rainy-day reading had been their favorite way of spending time together.
He remembered climbing into her lap when he was small, cuddling against her shoulder and listening, fascinated at the worlds that spilled forth from the pages. From a young age he’d fallen in love with the magic, mystery, thrill and drama of those literary worlds, devouring books once he could read them on his own, challenging himself to read above his grade level and always reading more than the recommended number of words per quarter. Hell, sometime he’d finished the annual requirements before winter break, and still kept going, earning an outstanding reader award every year, which his mother proudly stuck to the refrigerator.
Not that books had been his only love. He’d excelled on the football field too, those Friday nights in rain and snow made a little easier by his parents’ faces in the crowd and the thermos of hot coco his mama always supplied him. She’d been his biggest cheerleader, and when he’d announced that the girls who tried to drape themselves all over him held no appeal, she’d hugged him and told him it didn’t matter who he loved as long as that person loved and cherished him.
Love. The tears flowed faster the moment it dawned on him that the last person in the world who loved him was gone. There would be no more letters, no more lumpy woolen sweaters hand knitted with love, no more Thanksgiving dinners to pop in on, no more warm, welcoming presence to great him on those rare occasions when he finally made it back home. No more home.
That last part was like a knife to the ribs. With fumbling fingers he grasped at the backpack, hugged it and the four sweaters it contained like they were a lifeline, buried his face against the ragged cloth and wept until there were no more no more tears left to give. There was no way to know how long he sat there, minutes, hours, but eventually, his back protested the hunched position and his aching ass reminded him that the worn carpet didn’t provide much in the way of padding.
Unfurling himself from that position took time and a coordinated effort between his mind and body that he wasn’t sure he would be able to manage. With slow, deliberate movements he grabbed the edge of the couch and struggled to haul himself to his feet, the strength in his arms failing him twice before he could manage it. The answering machine still flashed, but there was no reason to hit repeat, every word was burned into his soul.
In a daze he shambled to the door, fumbled with the locks, patted his pockets, frantic for a moment, until he remembered dropping the key. His eyes landed on the answering machine when he went back to retrieve it, little red light mocking him Why hadn’t Ray called sooner? Why hadn’t he hit the road as soon as he’d received the message, instead of taking the time to shower and put on clean clothes?
Cause it wouldn’t have mattered, the voice in his head screamed. She’d have been gone before you even reached the highway. Dejected, he picked up the key and trudged back to the door, leaving the latest in a string of cheap apartments and rooming houses behind.
The air outside smelled of snow, a welcome change from the marijuana and onion stench inside. Drawing in a deep breath, he fought to center himself, get the backpack strapped securely to the back of the bike and his helmet on, wishing he had chaps, but as bulky as they were, they’d have taken up all the space in his saddlebags.
At least the cold would keep him awake. The roar of the machine, usually so soothing, did nothing to calm him down. Over a thousand miles stood between him and the place he’d grown up. The beautiful Smoky Mountains would still be alive with summer blooms right about now, and yet, there would be nothing joyful about this homecoming.
He pointed the bike south, shivering the moment the winds started piercing through his clothes. The jacket was some help, though he paused after less than a mile to zip it. There was nothing he could do for his lower half, so he gritted his teeth and gutted it out, watching the miles inch past as he rolled through the night.
Twenty-seven hours later, he pulled up in front of the house he’d been raised in, the light burning in the kitchen a bit of a shock to him, but then, he hadn’t been sure what to expect. The whole way down had been a blur, questions flashing quicker than he could latch onto answers. What happened next? The funeral, or was that something he and Ray would have to plan? He tried to recall what they’d done for his father, another death that had happened so abruptly, it had taken him months of wandering before it fully kicked in.
Dusty, road weary, and exhausted, he trudged up the steps, backpack over his shoulder, hesitating with the key halfway to the lock, wondering what he’d find inside. Had she fallen? Had she lain in the house for hours, or even days before someone had found her? Would the remanence of her fate be awaiting him on the other side of the door? It was enough to make him wish he could hop back on the bike and disappear somewhere. It wasn’t as if there was anyone left who’d be itching to track him down.
After the funeral, he told himself as he slipped the key in the lock and let himself in, stepping into a foyer that had changed little since the last time he’d been home. When had that been, anyway, he mused to himself as he removed his boots and set them off to the side, adhering to that rule despite the fact that his mother would never again pop around the corner and chastise him for forgetting.
That pain in his chest returned, not that it had ever left completely, but somewhere around southern Iowa it had eased up enough that he could draw a full breath. Now, he leaned against the wall, eyes on the floor, terrified to take another step, the silence reminding him of the emptiness of the place.
No more mama singing while she cooked, barefoot in the kitchen dancing to whatever song had popped in her head. No more warm aromas of baked goods permeating every room, the sugary goodness tantalizing his senses, drawing him into that hub of laughter and conversation. No more holiday decorations, the elves perched on every shelf in the house. No more snowmen grinning from every corner and crevice. It was the end of everything. What the hell had made him think there would be time to come back and enjoy everything he missed once he’d accomplished what he’d set out to do?
Every muscle quivered as he made his up the hall, intent on a glass of lemonade and giving Ray a call. Then sleep, ‘cause he’d been up for almost forty hours and every cell in his body screamed that it was exhausted and on the verge of giving out completely. Those last few miles had been accomplished on sheer force of will and grim determination.
On trembling legs, he stumbled into the kitchen, blinking at the sight before him. Ray, a bottle of whiskey by his left hand, an empty bottle by his right, staring glassy eyed at him from his seat at the table.
“’Bout time you showed up,” Ray slurred, the undercurrent of anger and frustration that always seemed to be there whenever they spoke was even more prominent tonight.
“What are you doing here?” He asked, placing his backpack beside the microwave stand before dropping into the seat across from his brother, lemonade momentary forgotten.
“Waiting for you. Took you long enough. Thought you were only twenty hours away.”
“That’s without taking a break, unless you wanted to get a phone call telling you I was smeared all over the highway.”
“Don’t you think there’s been enough death in this family to last us awhile?”
He punctuated his words with a guzzle straight from the bottle, and Derrick cringed, imaging the burn and wondering how his brother could chug it like that.
“You should have been here,” Ray muttered as he set the bottle down. “She asked for you. She wanted to know where you were. If you were okay. She made me promise to bring you home and tell you she loved you, not that it’s ever mattered to you.”
Growling, Derrick felt his exhaustion give way to a hot burst of anger as he smacked his hands down on the table, causing the whiskey bottles to rattle.
“Why didn’t you call and tell me she was sick!” Derrick growled. “I started packing the moment I got your first message on the answering machine. I’d have been here if you’d let me know something was going on.”
Face flushing red, Ray came half out of his seat, firsts clenched. Derrick waited for him to throw a punch, throw a bottle, but all he did was snarl whiskey breath in Derrick’s face.
“You should have been here regardless!” Ray snapped. “I hope whatever you were out there doing was worth all the worry and heartache you put mama through. She needed us here, especially after pops died, but you couldn’t be bothered to stick around for even a week!”
Sighing, Derrick scrubbed a hand over his face. He was too tired for this shit, nerves too frayed and he kept having to remind himself that this was his brother and they were in their dead mama’s kitchen and no way could he disrespect her memory by cracking his brother in the face no matter how much he was itching to.
“You want me to tell you I couldn’t handle it? Fine, I couldn’t handle it,” Derrick admitted wearily. “I hit the road and I wandered the country until I could wrap my head around the fact that we’d lost him.”
“And you think I could handle it?” Ray ranted. “You think mama could handle it? You never think about anyone but yourself. It’s always about what Derrick wants, what Derrick needs, though in a way, I blame mom and dad for that ‘cause they spoiled you rotten and you never learned to appreciate a damn thing, did you?”
Derricks fingers dug into the wood, a mantra going through his head, reminding him not to choke the hell out of his brother.
“I appreciated plenty,” he grumbled between grit teeth, body tense, shaking with a bust of adrenaline, endorphins and fury that was making his head ache. “You don’t know shit about me, never have, and I doubt you ever will. You want to think the worst of me, fine, go ahead, it’s not like I’m going to be around long anyway. After the funeral, you’ll never have to lay eyes on me again, I can promise you that.”
Snorting, Ray lowered himself back in the seat and finished off the bottle. “Should have figured you wouldn’t stick around. It’s the same old shit with you. When is it going to end?”
Derrick threw his hands up, frustrated and tired as hell of trying to figure out his brother’s double speak. “You know what, talking to you while you’re drunk is making me want to drink.”
“Fine, here,” Ray replied, reaching down beside him and lifting a bottle of tequila from a brown bag on the floor. “Go ahead, we can toast to whatever the hell has been going on in your life for the past few years, may it always be a poor substitute to the family you kicked to the curb.”
“Fuck you,” Derrick snapped, even as he snatched the bottle from his brother’s hands and made short work of getting it open. God that shit burned, but he kept on swallowing, hopping for blessed oblivion, or better still, to wake up and discover that every moment from the time he’d stepped foot in his old apartment to now, had been nothing but a horrible nightmare.
“Maybe one day, you’ll be honest and tell me what we did to make you hate us all so much,” Ray muttered as he lay his head on the worn wood of that old table.
Tipping the bottle up further, Derrick chased the numbness he knew it would bring as soon as the alcohol hit. Shouldn’t be long, considering there was little in his system as it was. Food simply hadn’t appealed, not the smell or the taste. That last burger he’d eaten had left him vomiting in a trash can, vowing not to bother until he could settle the twisted knot in his gut and the burning anxiety that roared through him. God, if mom could see them now, she’d be so disappointed in them on so many levels, he thought as he set the bottle down, half empty. In her last few letters she’d urged him to reach out to Ray to finally lay to rest the animosity between the two. Only problem was, the animosity had always come from Ray, all Derrick had ever tried to do was stay out of his way and do as little as possible to be a burden or a source of frustration.
Laying his head on the table, Derrick closed his eyes, his brother’s soft, drunken snores lulling him to sleep. His last thought, before the alcohol swirled with the exhaustion in his brain, was that it was a hell of a thing to bond over, easing their grief over their mother’s death by getting pickled with booze. Damn but she deserved more than that from them.