End of message.
The robotic female voice of my answering machine falls silent once more and I find my fingers hovering over the key pad. Over the button that says repeat.
The voice of my little brother snaps me out of my trance and I look over to see Jack in his blue PJs, the shaggy brunette mop of his hair still messy from sleep. He looks younger, somehow.
“It’s Sunday. Can you make hot cocoa?”
His eyes are sad. It feels unnatural how we’re not bickering.
Normally I’d chastise him about making the cocoa himself. When I was twelve, I had to boil my own water, I’d say. But I know this is something he needs—routine, that is. He needs it now more than ever.
Hell, we both do.
I plaster on a smile that I know isn’t fooling anyone. “Sure! Come back in ten, okay? I’ll make the ones with the marshmallows.” I wait for him to leave, my cell heavy as a cinderblock in my hands.
Instead, he sits down at the kitchen table and rests his chin on the marbled surface.
My phone slips back into my pocket. Unsure of what to say, I walk to the sink.
Water streams out of the faucet and collects in an effervescent pool in the kettle. I close my eyes and imagine I’m standing in front of Niagara Falls back in ninety-eight when I used to wear my hair in pigtails.
It was just me, Dad, and her back then, and I vaguely remember crying and feeling overwhelmed by the rushing water and staggering gusts of wind. I had clung to her, seeking the leg of a grownup, and squeezed my eyes shut when she scooped me up in her arms.
“I’ve got you,” she had whispered, pressing her cheek to my head and I breathed in her delicate scent that always reminded me of lilacs. “I promise.”
She always kept her promises.
“Marley.” Jack’s voice.
My eyes snap open to find the water overflowing the kettle. With shaky hands, I twist the handle of the faucet and place the kettle on the stove. A fire flicks on after a few tries. I watch the blue flames lick the bottom of the metal, desperately trying to grasp the kettle, yet not quite being able to.
When I turn around, he’s still watching me with the same expression.
“You okay, squirt?” The words taste awful and I regret them immediately.
“Are you okay?” he retorts and we both pause.
A snicker chokes its way out of my throat, feeling painful and awkward. Jack’s eyes flick to mine and he snorts in response. The snort transforms into a chortle and soon we’re both sniggering to ourselves over the absurdity of my question. I briefly wonder if we’re going to hell.
“We’ll be alright,” I say, crossing the room to rest my hands on his shoulders. “You’ll always have me.”
He nods, his sides still shaking with laughter. “I miss her.”
My gaze drifts out the window where there’s a perfect view of our driveway. Dad’s out right now, but I wish he wasn’t. I need his SUV to block my view from the minivan. From the permanent dent that scars the side of the car.
No one has used it since.
My feet take me to the food pantry and I mechanically pick out two packets of hot cocoa powder (with marshmallows). Walking back to the counter, I pull out a couple mugs from the cupboard and think back to two days ago, when my high school guidance counselor handed me a brochure on how to deal with the pain. Each page listed a step-by-step procedure through which I should be able to move on—as if there was a formula I could blindly follow to get from point A to point B and then poof, I’m cured!
He made me feel like I had a disease.
My hands start to tremble as I grapple with one of the cocoa packets. It won’t tear. I grit my teeth and try the other side. The packet slips from my fingers and falls, a distorted blob on the blurry floor.
Before I can make any sense of this, my hand is in my pocket, fishing out my cell because if there is one thing that I’m sure of, it’s that even when I’m wrong, she’s right, and when she says I’m right, it negates the wrong, and I could never really be lost as long as I have a phone and she has a phone, and most importantly, I know that she’s here even when she’s not here, and right now, all I want to do is surround myself with lilacs and listen to the voicemail on a permanent loop.
The kettle starts to hiss. I fumble with my phone and press play.
Hi, honey. Just running to the grocery store to get you that cereal like I promised! See you tonight, love you.
Silence, then, end of message.
The low hiss from the kettle painfully crescendos into a high-pitched screech. Steam shoots from the spout like an erupting volcano and boiling water spews out, angry and boisterous as it pummels the stove before evaporating into thin air.
I stand there for a moment, watching the flames dance back and forth between different reds and blues when a small hand twists off the knob of the stove.
“I’ve got you, sis,” he says.
Photo by Roderique