It's Christmas Eve morning, 1957, and John wakes up to find his parents are missing. When he realizes they never came home from a holiday party they attended the night before, John calls his estranged uncle, a man he barely remembers and hasn't seen in nearly 14 years. Together, they face a life-changing tragedy and John discovers a family secret that's been tucked away like the Christmas presents hidden in his parent's coat closet.
A short work of fiction from our Nibs literary line.
I was five when my brother died. I never knew him. He enlisted in the war in ’42. Three years later, there was a knock at the front door. I remember because I was the one that opened it, stretching so I could reach the doorknob.
Behind me, Mom called out in that tone mothers seem to have that can make you feel two inches tall and make you want to wet your pants all at the same time.
“Young man! What did I tell you about opening the door without asking who it is first?”
Not that it would have mattered. Most times it was a neighbor; another housewife coming to borrow a cup of sugar, a couple of extra eggs, a cup of coffee. Usually, though, they came for what my Dad called womanspeak. And some gossip.
I remember looking up at the man I did not recognize. The sun was behind him and his face was in shadow. All I could make out was a huge flash of white teeth. He wore a uniform like a policeman’s, only without all the shiny buttons and badges.
“Hello, little fella. Is your Mommy home?”
But he could see for himself she was a few steps behind me. I remember her hand on my shoulder, gently pulling me away from the door and nudging me back towards the living room where I was trying, in vain, to put my brother’s Lionel trains together. I can still feel the cold metal tracks in my hands as I tried to insert one end into the other.
I could hear the hushed voices of my Mom and the Western Union man. The sound of her purse as she popped it open. I knew without looking that she was rummaging through it. Then the pocket book snapped shut.
There was a “Thank you, Ma’am.”
And the man was gone.
My Mom walked into the living room very slowly, looking at the envelope in her hand. As she sat at the end of the sofa, the end closest to my Dad’s chair, she flipped the envelope over and pulled out a piece of folded paper.
“What’s that Mommy?” I asked.
But she never answered. I saw her lips move as she read. Then I saw her clutch at her throat. She gave a little sound like a choke, or a gasp. Perhaps both. She then looked out the window and bit her lower lip as large, fat tears streaked down her cheeks.
“Mommy?” I remember like it was yesterday, as if I had just watched the movie myself; except that I was in it. She scooped me up in her arms as I approached and she just squeezed me. Very hard. I didn’t understand why she was crying, but I understood that in that moment, she needed me.
My parents never really talked much about Billy. At least, not to me. But I could hear them sometimes, talking to one another. Late at night. My room was on the other side of what eventually became the shrine of a boy I grew to know only in pictures, the trophies, ribbons and pins he won at school.
And my Mom sobbing in his room long after my Dad had gone to bed.