By: Paige Olivia Roberts
When I find the dead body, I won’t be scared. I will walk up to it; nudge it with my boot. Then, I will kneel down next to it; stroke the back of my hand against its waxy cheek. I will hug it, cradle its head in my lap, and run my fingers through its hair while we wait for the police and coroner. I’ll whisper, “Body, it’s okay. I’m here now. I’m here.”
And so what if it’s old, and stiff, and stinking, all covered in maggots? I will still hold its creaky hand. I’ll reach into its pants pocket and pull out its wallet to find its I.D. so I can learn its name. I’ll still call it Body.
When the family shows up and crosses underneath the yellow tape, I will stick out my hand and introduce myself. Learn their names, too, so I can send them a Christmas card, friend them on Facebook.
I will attend Body’s funeral, take two copies of the program, and sit in the back row. I will wear a black dress, with tights, and ballet flats.
At the reception, I’ll eat cheese and crackers, and listen to stories about Body and its life before it died and met me. Sometimes, I’ll laugh, and cry, and nod my head when people ask me, “Do you remember?”
Months will pass, and people will begin to move on, but I won’t. Body will be stuck to me. I could wash it off with soap and bleach, but I won’t. I’m too committed. Body is mine, now.
The pictures are the last to go from Mom’s storage unit. They’ve been in here over a decade, stuffed inside cardboard boxes without lids. Mom helps me load them into the truck, acting as my spotter, catching pictures as they fall out.
“Watch it! Watch it! Jesus Christ, Paige,” she says, cigarette hanging off her lip, as I trip over crap we’ve left strewn along the outer edge of the unit. Mostly ski poles missing their matches, and old cans of paint the dump won’t take.
“Get up in the bed of the truck and help me,” I tell her, and she listens. I hand her box after box until they’re all out of the unit.
At home, I put the boxes on the kitchen counter, and pile the less important relics from Mom’s life on the lawn, preparing for the yard sale.
“I kind of like this.” I pick up a casserole dish; ocean waves and fish are hand painted on the lid. “We should keep it.”
“It’s from the Stephen days.” Mom always refers to the segments of her life in measurements of men. Early on, my sisters’ dad: the Jack days. Then, my dad: the Stephen days. Most recently, my now ex-step-dad: the Kevin days. I don’t know what she’ll call this time in her life.
“I don’t cook casserole.” I don’t cook anything. I put the dish back in the grass. Mom lifts the lighter to the cigarette between her lips.
“Do you want to help me go through those pictures?” I know there are hundreds of snapshots from our other lives, ones that no longer seem possible or real, and pictures of Mom before she was Mom.
“I can’t deal with that right now.” She drags on the American Spirit.
I want to rip the cigarette out of her mouth and stomp it into the ground, pull her inside by the wrist, and force her to recount the past with me, but I don’t. I leave her to her smoking, and head inside to start on the boxes myself.
They are simply labeled: “Old Pictures” and “New Pictures.” I know there aren’t many pictures of my oldest sister, but whatever we have must be in here. I rifle through the top layers of each box, digging until I see pictures from the Jack days. I find a worn and faded cigar box at the third batch of “Old Pictures.” Here they are.
Carefully, I remove the faded lid and reveal the stack of sun-stained disposable film prints; three photos of my oldest sister are sitting on top. In one, she is newly arrived, naked and wet, her umbilical cord cut seconds before. The picture is dark and blurred, worn with its age and stuck to the photo behind it from its tenure spent in the storage unit. This was taken in the hot belly of a thirty-six foot trimaran sailboat, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Hawaii’s Big Island. My sister was born on this boat, Mom and Jack’s only home in Hawaii, May 1, 1987.
She’s stretched long, one leg kicked out, the other scrunched into a crouch. Her arms are above her head, distorted as she cuts through the new air surrounding her. The glare of light shining through the boat’s window smears the edges of the photograph. She was named for that relentless Hawaiian sun: Maysun Leilani.
In the other two pictures, she is cradled in Mom’s arms, curled into the collar of leis around Mom’s neck. My mom is fresh-faced at twenty-one—four years my junior. She is vulnerable: riddled with exhaustion, overjoyed, and terrified—a new mother.
One of these two pictures shows the top of my sister’s bonneted head, a flash of red hair sticking out of the side. But in the final picture, she is looking straight into the lens. Her eyes are wide open and stunningly blue. Her cheeks are full and flushed, the cherry red curve of her lips glistening with saliva. She looks like a baby should: fresh, and perfect, and alive.
I want to hold my dead sister’s little body, but I can’t. Instead, I badger Mom with questions; make her cry over and over again as I force her to bring her back to life so that I can meet her.
“Tell me again, about the red hair and the tiny hands. What about the wide eyes, and gummy lips?”
But those are the most insignificant details of my sister’s twelve-hour life. Instead, her only story is that of the month overdue, the blue baby, and the inadequate midwife. She is the stiff corpse in the hospital morgue, the no birth certificate.
Still, I have memorized the trace of her bonneted head on the sun-stained prints, and given her a life by means of my own obsession. I’ve studied the autopsy report, and know the facts: fatal pneumonia caused by meconium aspiration. Googled it.
Yet, I make Mom go back to the Pacific Ocean and pick out my sister’s ashes from the water, force her to put them back inside of herself and give birth, just to watch her baby die all over again.
“I had to stop drinking gin,” Erin says as she pulls into the Dunkin’ Donuts parking lot.
“Why?” I point to an open parking space, but she ignores it.
“I liked it too much.” She rolls the Volkswagen to a stop at the drive-thru speaker. “What do you want?”
“Iced coffee, extra cream, no sugar.”
She orders my coffee, then her own, pays for both, like she always does. Even though we’re adults now, each with a job and making money, she still takes the lead as the older sibling. Drives the car, pays for the coffees.
“I’ve never had gin,” I say, sipping my coffee.
“You’re not missing anything.”
She flicks the blinker and steers back onto Route 3 towards North Stratford. It’s a long drive from the Notch, and this coffee break is our last chance at civilization for a while. Route 3 twists through acres of dark, thick, pine tree forests and abandoned mill towns. Every so often there’s some beat up deer-tagging station with an old flannel-shirted man behind the counter selling gasoline and cartons of cigarettes. This trip is worth the drive, though. We’d drive across the country if it meant we could meet our sister.
“Do you think she’ll come through?” Erin asks, turning down the static coming out of the speakers as we pass through Colebrook.
“Who?” I know who; I just want her to say it.
Erin answers me with such certainty it’s almost a surprise. Her voice is crisp and sharp, like the smack of a tennis ball against a racquet. I like to whisper Maysun’s name; keep it close to me like the breath of a secret.
“I think so,” I say, and I’m not lying.
I’ve tried to meet my sister through dozens of psychics. I’ve poured money and time into Tarot card readers, astrologists, mediums, and even Ouija boards. Each time I comply, like a good little sister, and welcome her presence, never wanting to jinx it or ward off her spirit by doubting her power. But Maysun has never come through to me. Not once. This time, I begged Erin to join me, if not for anything else but my own selfish gain, to strengthen the supposed spiritual connection by increasing the number of kin.
“Do I turn up there?” She points to a dirt road ahead.
“Next one.” Two Whitetail Deer hover to our left on the Eastern bank of the Connecticut River, staring at us with their coal-black eyes. I peer across the car through Erin’s window, crane my neck past her head of thick red hair to see if they’re still looking at us as we pass, but they’re just standing there, staring down the road, waiting for another car to come by.
I like to look for signs of Maysun in anything. In everything. The sun shining through clouds, the water rings left on the coffee table, deer on the side of the road. At home, I have a deck of Native American Medicine Cards. What do the deer mean? It doesn’t matter.
The blinker clicks and Erin turns onto the dirt road. We’re getting closer to the psychic’s house, and I shiver with nerves, turn down the air conditioning while my arms goose bump.
“She said it’s the fourth house on the left after the big yellow ‘posted’ sign.” Erin didn’t ask but I tell her anyway.
We see the sign and each silently count the houses, but this part of New Hampshire is desolate. Neighbors aren’t next door, but rather a half-mile a part. The fourth driveway doesn’t appear for a while, but then we see a tiny white mailbox with a little scarecrow tied to its post, even though it’s July. Erin pulls in towards the house, which is quaint, with faded shingles; the porch railings still adorned with Christmas garland and lights, the windows speckled with Easter egg stickers. The lawnmower is in the middle of the half-mowed lawn, as if someone quit partway through the job. Maybe they ran out of gas.
“Are you sure this is it?” Erin must be as put-off by the holiday overload as I am, but the number on the door-frame matches the address given to us. 73. Another sign.
“Pretty sure.” I unbuckle my seat belt and open the car door.
We walk through the long grass and up onto the porch. I ring the doorbell, and hear Family Feud playing on the TV inside. The theme song is cut short, and a moment later a small pudgy woman opens the door.
“Hi, girls!” She is pink—her cheeks, her shirt, her nail polish. She ushers us inside like a grandmother, waving us towards the table saying, “Have a seat! Have a seat!” Erin and I sit down at the small wooden table, a Thanksgiving-themed runner laying down the middle of it. She has set out ham salad sandwiches, a few bottles of water, and a package of ‘Nilla Wafers.
“Please, help yourself,” she says as she steps from the teal carpeted floor into the linoleum kitchen to grab some paper plates and napkins. “Would either of you like some coffee or tea?”
“No, thank you,” we answer in unison. I panic as I realize this lady might not even be a psychic, but instead some lunatic who lured us here under false pretenses to drug us and keep us as her pseudo-grandchildren. Erin seems unaware of my sudden realization; she is petting the gray-colored cat that has rubbed against her leg underneath the table.
“That’s Smoky,” the supposed-psychic says. “He’s a real lover!” She reaches up to touch at her blonde helmet of hair, which doesn’t move as she tries to wipe the bangs off her forehead. They stay in a perfect curl across her brow, taut with hairspray.
I reach for a ham salad sandwich quarter, suspicious that it might be laced with something, but I eat it anyway so I don’t offend my potential captor.
“I’m just going to close the blinds and sage the living room before we start the reading. Whenever you girls are ready, you can come have a seat on the couch. If you need it, the bathroom is right there.” She points to the closed door at the end of the short hallway next to the kitchen, and shuffles into the living room.
Smoky jumps onto the table, nuzzles the box of ‘Nilla Wafers and purrs past me to be pet by my sister again, while the psychic waves the burning sage stick around the dark living room; her eyes are closed as she methodically steps around the coffee table in the center of the room.
Erin and I get up from the table and start towards the couch. Smoky follows. He nestles himself between Erin’s thigh and the couch armrest, while I sit on the other end, surrounded by needlepoint pillows.
The psychic finishes her sage ritual, lights a candle on the coffee table, and settles into a chair across from us.
She closes her eyes again, sits still a moment, then crouches forward to place her hands on the table, palms up. She takes slow, methodical breaths, in through her nose, and out through her mouth.
“I just need a moment to channel them.”
I bounce my knee and count the cat figurines decorating her windowsills and fireplace mantel: twenty-two.
“Your sister is wicked funny,” she says, and I feel the ham salad sandwich turn to rock in my stomach.
“She must’ve been a firecracker.” She’s laughing, her eyes still closed. I don’t know what to say, so I laugh along with her. Erin scratches Smoky’s head.
She goes back to her yoga breathing. The grandfather clock ticks from the corner of the room.
“What’s the significance of the number five?”
“The month of May,” I say, before Erin has the chance to answer. I’ve been through this before.
“Birth month or death month?”
“Both,” we say. She cracks open one pink eyelid and looks at us before snapping it shut again.
“Do you feel her presence often?” she asks.
I grasp at the threads of my memory. So many times I have tried to conjure a flicker of spiritual connection, looked for signs of her in the mundane, but, truly, I get nothing; I don’t know how to feel the presence of a person I’ve never met.
“I don’t know,” I answer. “No, not really.”
“Yeah,” Erin says, “Me neither.”
“Look for the dimes,” she says.
“What?” I narrow my eyes, glare at the psychic, even though she can’t see me.
“She leaves you dimes.”
I turn to Erin, and I know we both doubt this woman’s validity. Dimes? It seems so cliché; too good to be true.
“She wants me to tell you that you’ll never be as cool as her.” The psychic laughs again, and I want to get up and leave the reading. Maybe flip over the coffee table on my way out, send her candle flying, just for some dramatic effect. This is another waste of money and time. Of course she’d tell us our older sister is cooler than us; any sister would say that. Hell, I’ve said that to Erin a million times. I’m not falling for this.
The psychic stops her laughing and takes more breaths before asking, “Now, which one of you likes to drink gin?”
I used to count every step I took. One, two, three, four, five, six…The end number didn’t matter. The counting mattered.
I’d touch my thumb to all of my fingers. That needed to be a perfect five, so I’d touch twice on the pointer to make up for the thumb-touch.
At the dinner table, food liquefied in my mouth after being smashed over and over again on each side of my jaw. Thirty chews on the right, thirty chews on the left. If the count was disrupted I started over.
Mom took me to the doctor to have me evaluated for Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, but they said I was fine.
At twenty-two, my anxiety became so debilitating I began to consider medication.
“Try a gluten-free diet,” Mom told me. “What about vitamin B12? Have you tried meditation? Yoga? Essential oils? People go on anti-depressants and kill themselves.”
At night, I check to make sure the door is locked at least twelve times before I feel like I can sleep. I decide to take the medication and keep it a secret.
“See,” Mom says, “I knew you didn’t need it.”
I hate parking on Main Street, but I do it anyway. Practically once a week I get a parking ticket. I never pay the meter. I always pay the ticket.
The meter man is patrolling the sidewalk up ahead. His name is Austin, which is Mom’s father’s name, and her brother’s, too. Sometimes I like to name my hypothetical son Austin, and call him Aussie for short.
I rifle through my center console for a quarter. Pick through the nonsense inside, but there is nothing.
“Dammit.” I have an appointment starting in two minutes. Austin sees my car, and slips the ticket booklet out of his back pocket. He knows.
I rummage through the glove box, desperate for a rogue nickel, anything. It’s stuffed with expired registrations and drive-thru napkins but no change.
Stepping out of the car, I lift up my driver-side floor mat, wipe away the crunchy leaves and old receipts, but still, no nickels, no dimes, no quarters, not even a useless penny. I go around to the passenger side, repeat the mat lift. Empty.
“There has to be something in here,” I mutter, dumping my purse out onto the passenger’s seat. Chapstick. Candy wrappers. No coins. I’m officially late to my appointment, and Austin is creeping closer to the row of meters where I’m parked.
Shutting the passenger-side door, I walk around the car and get in on the other side. My cup holders are empty and crusted with old coffee spills, but swiped clean of any change.
“Okay, Maysun, where are those dimes you promised me?” I ask the question out loud, eyes open, as if I talk to her everyday. I don’t talk to her everyday, though. I don’t talk to her ever, actually.
Austin stands just two cars away from mine, writing a ticket for a silver Buick from Maine. I put the remains of my purse back inside. Before I climb out, I check the console once more. Digging past the checkbook, packages of gum, and pens, I scrape the bottom of the compartment with my fingers, stopping at the small pile of sticky, crumb-ridden TicTacs that found their way into the corner.
I wipe the stickiness off on my jeans, and peak inside the console.
There. Under the TicTac cluster. A dime.
“You’ve gotta be kidding me.” My heart is slamming into my ribs, extremities numb. I blink. It’s still there.
I pick up the dime and hold it in my palm, let F.D.R.’s profile stare back at me a moment. Austin’s in front of my car now, watching the expired meter flash. I put the dime in my jeans pocket and step out of the car.
“Hi, Paige.” The tip of his pen touches the ticket pad, ready for action.
“Just give me the ticket, I don’t have any change.” The dime burns into my hip.
He sighs, “I’ll let it go this time.” He turns and walks past me, onto the next row of meters, slips an orange violation notice under a windshield wiper, and carries on.
I walk down Main Street, blow off my appointment, and instead call my sister.
“Hey,” she answers.
“She sent me a dime.” Erin is silent on the other end, prepared for the long-winded story, so similar to the ones I’ve told many times before. As always, she is patient, and listens through my more-than-detailed account.
After I finish, there’s a long pause before she says, “Well, add it to the jar,” as if I am going to do anything else with it.
Paige Olivia Roberts has a degree in Creative Writing from Southern New Hampshire University. She was the 2018 recipient of the Alumni Scholarship at Tinker Mountain Writer’s Workshop in Roanoke, Virginia. Her creative nonfiction has appeared in the Henniker Review. Since 2014, her monthly column “Turning Right in the Center Lane” has been published in the Littleton Record. She lives in the White Mountains of New Hampshire.