Written By: Ellen Davis Sullivan
In the airport on the way home from my brother’s funeral, I consider for the first time how his body got there. I gave it no thought on the way to St. Louis. I’d been stunned by the news of Boone’s death, by the adrenaline bolt of my mother’s voice cutting through a clouded Seattle dawn. There was the rush to make travel plans, cancel meetings, and find someone to cover the Westbrook closing. I packed and drove to the airport too inert to imagine how my brother would be brought home from overseas.
I didn’t think about the actual dead Boone when I got to my mother’s house in Buckley either. Everything looked just like it did a few months before during my annual Christmas visit: paint peeling on the window ledges, the door decorated with a wreath of bay leaves and holly. I stopped to look into Boone’s bedroom. His things were lying out as if he’d just come in: jacket over desk chair, sneakers paired by the bed, video game boxes lined up in a row. This made it easy to believe he wasn’t dead at all. He was just somewhere else, not here right now, maybe still on patrol on a street corner in Afghanistan, the last place he’d been.
Standing arm’s-length from his coffin at the graveside service, I couldn’t believe Boone was in that box. He was always moving, my little brother, on his skateboard, his dirt bike, in his canoe – always moving. Of course Boone hadn’t been that kid in quite a while. He’d graduated high school, worked at the Sav-Mor, fixed motorcycles and loaded shelves at a warehouse. He took time off in between each job to consider his next step. He even came out to give Seattle a try, but we had a rough go. It wasn’t the beer cans and empty fast food bags he left all over my house. It was his approach to his life, easygoing to the point of lethargy. I felt like I’d adopted a dog without the comfort of a warm body lying in my lap. I began to resent feeding him and picking up after him and I let him know it.
“You need me, Dinah,” he said. “Like a thoroughbred needs a goat.”
I thought he meant I didn’t until he explained that trainers sometimes put a goat in the barn to soothe a high-strung horse.
“Hey,” I said. “I got to senior vice president of real estate operations without your help.” I can be such a jerk.
Which is what I’m thinking as I wait for my flight back to Seattle. This is all my fault: the funeral with my mother clutching the folded flag to keep it away from my father who stared at the coffin as if he were more bewildered than sad at the death of his only son, my mother’s friend Sally at the house afterward serving food to people like it was a ham and bean supper, her crack-head daughter Gwen waving her pack of cigarettes and saying “Sorry” as she headed out the front door so I couldn’t tell whether she was offering condolences or apologizing for her need to smoke. None of it would have happened if I hadn’t sent Boone home.
I’m watching luggage ride up the conveyer belt into the plane. That’s when I see my brother lying between a duffel bag and a shiny red hard-side suitcase. He’s in camo, his helmeted head angled, blood drenching his uniform. I’m jolted out of my reverie, but he’s still there. How can I get this picture out of my brain? I stare at the sky, but the blue washes nothing off. I grab my phone. I need facts to drive away the image of my dead brother.
I search “body from Afghanistan.” Up come stories of U.S. troops posing with body parts of dead Afghans. I try again: “transporting body for funeral.” This is it: How to Ship a Deceased Person. I read about steel boxes and the cheaper plastic kind, the proper permits, the American Association of Mortuary Shippers. I start to picture Boone’s journey home, his body brought overseas on a cargo plane like in news clips with troops sitting inside flying warehouses, shrouded corpses in air trays stacked on shelves behind them. Once in the U.S. Boone would have been flown to St. Louis on a regular flight. A flight just like this.
My breathing ratchets up. When my group is called I feel unsteady and grip the armrest to stand. I follow the line up the ramp. Inside the plane there’s the usual inadvertent elbowing and do-si-does in the aisle to let people pass. This distracts me long enough that I settle into my seat and close my eyes. I hardly slept at my mother’s. Each time I dozed, dreams rushed in: my mother with no head, me stabbing a cat. With so little sleep for three nights, my ears buzz, but when I put my head back I’m startled awake. I could be sitting above dead bodies. I open my eyes to remind myself this is all totally ordinary, live humans stuffing luggage into overhead bins, too short shirts exposing pale skin, hands juggling water bottles, coffee cups, E-readers. As I’ve done hundreds of times, I sit with my seat belt tight, belongings stowed, strangers crammed in on either side, but it’s too late to get that normal pre-flight sense of anticipation. The plane feels like a coffin, the ceiling’s too close to my face, exactly like a lid clamped tight. There’s no air. I can’t get enough oxygen. I suck in a breath, but I know the truth. This plane won’t rise. It can’t take off anchored as it is by the weight of dead bodies.
I unbuckle my seatbelt, grab my purse, and lunge to pull my carry-on out of the overhead bin. I’m halfway up the aisle when I collide with a flight attendant whose lapel badge reads “Jake.”
“I’m not feeling well.”
“Are you faint? I can get you water.” His eyes betray his smile letting me know I’ve made myself a problem at the worst possible moment.
“I have to get off. I’m sorry.” Why do I apologize? Ingrained Midwestern habit.
“Take a deep breath.”
“If you just relax, you’ll feel fine in a minute. Then we’ll be on our way.” He glances at my boarding pass then takes my arm heading toward my seat.
With that I see Boone’s ghost face, skin chalk blue, eyes fixed as he lies under the carpet beneath my shoes. I feel the path between the light bulbs sink. My knees give as if I’m about to slide in among crates of bodies below the cabin. I feel like my lungs can only expel air. I’ve had this sensation before, but only when I couldn’t quit thinking about being dead myself. It always passed quickly. Now it won’t leave. I dig my fingernails into Jake’s wrist. “Let me out.”
His smile capsizes. He leads me to the door another flight attendant is in the process of closing. At Jake’s signal, the woman opens it. I run up the ramp.
Off the plane, I inhale deeply. I’m out. I stop and take another good breath. I’m O.K. I take the easy way and text my boss and my staff that I’ll be out of the office another day. A cold, ears blocked too bad to fly. I call my mother and tell her I’m sick.
“Were you feeling poorly this morning? You looked all right.”
Her faint concern stuns me. I can hear that she’d rather I was on my way, like my father, shooed back to Albuquerque by my refusal to go to dinner with him the night after the funeral. “Another time,” I said not realizing there wouldn’t be another time he’d be summoned to Buckley now that Boone was dead.
“There’s not much in the fridge, but I guess we can heat one of those casseroles for supper.”
“That’s all you can think about? Aren’t you happy I’ll be here longer?”
“Course I am. I’m just not sure there’s milk and such.”
I promise to stop by the Sav-Mor, but now I’m sorry I let myself off the plane. It’s not like me to give in to my weaknesses. I hardly even tried to stay in my seat. I let myself run toward my mother. Walking through the terminal, I tell myself my mother sounds cool because she’s at her desk right outside Beth’s door across from where the clients wait. Beth is the lawyer my mother works for.
I could turn around and try another flight, but there’s only one decent connection to Seattle and that plane’s gone.
On the highway I drive fast to escape the feeling that my own lungs could betray me. I depress the pedal putting distance between myself and that coffin of a plane. Home for me was always the place I could floor it because the speed limits are high and the roads wide-open. I taught Boone to drive the year before he was eligible for driver’s ed. He was eager to learn, but surprisingly reluctant for a boy to get up to speed on the highway. I had to sit close and put my left foot over his right to force the accelerator down. I haven’t thought of that in a long time.
Past the last of the malls miles of fields are interrupted by the occasional bait shack or farm stand, no neon, no arches. It looks so desolate, like city blocks have been leveled for new construction that was never funded, weedy lots with patches of glass-strewn ground, only here the furrowed rows will be used eventually. Just now they’re unplanted, winter wheat tamped down by hunters after deer.
My phone pings, my empty office pulling on me like a vacuum tugging skin. I should be there. This plugged up ear story isn’t going to buy me much time. I have to get on a plane tomorrow.
At the pharmacy I turn into the parking lot. Heading toward the cold remedies, I spot Sally in a pink polyester jacket at her station behind the counter handing a woman a white bag. Sally looks up, her eyes fix on me. She calls, “Everything OK?”
I wave. Sally surely knows I’m supposed to be gone. I should have remembered she worked here, but what difference does it make? There’s no shame in being sick. I browse the cold meds, picking up a box of Benedryl.
At the counter, Sally asks how I’m doing with an edge that makes me smile more than I feel should be necessary.
“Not too bad.” I do my best to sound congested. “Couldn’t fly with my head all stuffed up.”
“Your ma’ll be glad to have you with her another night.” Sally rings up my purchase.
“Yeah,” I say, guessing the two of them had plans for dinner tonight, another reason my mother was cool. I don’t know why Sally bugs me. It just seems like my mother, who’s practically a paralegal, ought to have a better best friend than a high-school dropout with a drugged-up daughter.
“How’s Gwen?” I ask, still curious about my classmate who seemed like a nice girl until Buckley grabbed her by the throat and wouldn’t let go.
“She’s all right.” Sally keeps her head down as she counts the change.
“Still working at Burger King?”
“She’s got a job at Shay’s Outdoor Advertising. Not a career gal like you or anything.”
“I guess billboards’ll never go out of style.”
“Not in these parts.”
I smile, but outside in the sunlight I’m ashamed. I might as well have waved my pay stub under Sally’s nose. Why does being in Buckley make me feel like I have to prove I don’t belong here?
Of course I don’t belong here. I have more than a job in Seattle. I have friends and Theo, though last week we decided to give each other a little distance, we’d no longer stick to our schedule of spending each weekend and one weeknight together. This pulling back from Theo is confusing to me. I’m no longer sure what I should share with him if we’re going to depend less on each other. I probably should keep the fact that I ran off the plane to myself, but I want him to know.
He picks up on the second ring. “Everything OK?”
“I can’t fly. I keep seeing Boone.”
“Of course. But how does it keep you from flying?”
“There could be bodies.”
“In cargo. That’s how they get people around when they die one place and have to be buried somewhere else.”
“Are you O.K.?”
“I feel weird.”
“I’m sorry to hear that, but I’m in a meeting. Is there anything I can do right now? If not, let me call you later.”
“There’s nothing you can do.” As I say it, I hear the larger truth in this.
“Come home,” Theo whispers. “I miss you.”
I tell him I miss him and I do. I don’t mention that when I’m in Buckley I don’t think of Seattle as home.
I open the door to the house. On the hutch in the front room there’s a crescent of photos of Boone, dozens of them. They weren’t there in the morning before I left for the airport. In the middle of the semicircle there’s a couple Boy Scout badges, a twig house he built one Mother’s Day and a piece of felt with his name on it, part of a science fair project.
I drop onto the sofa and rest my forehead on my knees. It’s like my mother’s standing in the middle of the room naked, her arms outstretched. I don’t want to look. I don’t want to see her hopeless attempt to grasp at what remains of Boone. Nothing remains of Boone. No incantation will conjure him back to life. I’m flooded again with images of his ghost face, ashen skin from his cowlick to his crooked tooth, and at last I’m open to the hurt, but what comes isn’t pain, but a silence as if I’m swaddled in cotton, my ears plugged, my eyes blinded and this isolation will never end. I want to reach out and feel Boone’s hand, the warmth of his flesh on mine, but that can’t happen. Of course my mother didn’t want me to come into the house to see this.
I look at the pictures again and I understand what’s missing from my mother’s display: that folded flag my brother earned by dying. She must have hidden it away, convinced that anything the country gained can’t outweigh her loss. I foolishly let myself believe the war was necessary when it was someone else’s son, someone else’s brother. I see it differently now. I’ve lost my brother and for what?
For what? For what? I feel stuck and I tell myself it’s this place. I have to get out of Buckley. I go into the bathroom without glancing at the pictures. On my phone I exchange my plane ticket for one for tomorrow. I swallow a pill, unsure if one will be enough. I return to the front room, head turned away from my brother’s pictures. I lie down on the sofa and push my face into the cushion. I pull the coverlet over my head.
A whirl of dream sensation sluices me downward. I grip the armrest and come awake seeing Boone as I did in my sleep, his skull in picture frames staring at me. I look for the photos, but they’re gone.
“You OK?” my mother asks.
“Where are the pictures?”
She bends to put her fingers on my forehead. “You don’t feel like you have a fever, but I can get you an aspirin if you want.”
I sit up wanting my mother’s arms around me more than anything I can think of, but we’re not that kind of family.
She sits beside me and kicks off one shoe then the other.
Did I imagine the photos? She could have put them away while I slept, but I’m pretty sure I woke to the sound of the front door closing. I can’t see her being devious enough to come in, put away the pictures and then go shut the front door.
“Ma, there were a ton of photos of Boone on the hutch.”
“What if there were?” She doesn’t outright lie. It’s not her way. She doesn’t always answer questions either.
“It’s like you built a shrine. He was no saint, you know.” I hear how petty this sounds, like I’m six, but I can’t help myself.
“Honey you want that aspirin or no?” She leans forward getting ready to stand.
I put my hand on her arm. “I bailed him and his pal C.J. out more than once. I never said anything because I could tell you didn’t want to know, like the time they got loaded and drove over Frances Gold’s Chihuahua and I had to take that little yipper to the vet and pay the bill.” I realize I’m telling her this partly to convince myself that I did do things for Boone.
She looks at me with half a smile. “When you said ‘little yipper,’ at first I thought you meant Frances.”
“I did.” When she smiles the rest of the way, I feel like I cracked open a stuck jar lid, but what comes out isn’t relief or at least not enough. Her smile only lasts a second.
“I wish I could make this easier for you.” I let my hand slip from her arm.
“This isn’t supposed to be easy.”
“I didn’t mean that way.” The urge to do something for her wells in me, but what can I do? I share something I’ve been keeping to myself. “I called Theo even though we’re not together like we were.”
“Is he seeing someone else?”
“It’s not that. We still love each other, I guess, but–”
“I don’t like thinking of you alone. Don’t make me have to start worrying about you.”
“Why would you worry about me? I’ve been on my own before.”
“You want so much from life. Boone just wanted to fish and ride his bike.”
“I’m sorry I’m not Boone.”
“I’m not asking you to be him. I just want you to be happy.” She covers my hand with hers.
What she means is that she’d like me to be married, that she wouldn’t worry about me if I had a husband, even though her husband walked out on her claiming she and Buckley stifled his soul. We’ve had this argument before and I don’t see any point to starting in again. Instead I tell her how I ran off the plane.
“I thought you were doing too good. I figured it would hit you before long.” She rests her head against the back of the sofa. “When they first told me, I couldn’t move. Not even to walk over to a chair. I just stood staring. I thought: this is it. I’ll stand like this forever. Next thing I went down on the floor right where I was. If the casualty officer hadn’t been here to get me up, I would have had to crawl to my bed.”
“You didn’t tell me.”
The puff of her hair on my cheek feels like a breath.
“Stay here a few days,” she says. “Rest up ‘til you feel more like yourself.”
“I need to get back to work just like you.”
“You think I’m working because I spent a day at the office? Most of it I was in the ladies blowing my nose. I’m just lucky Beth is understanding like she is.”
This is news. Stupidly I’d let myself think my mother had gone back to her routine and soon I’d be back in mine. All I needed to do was dope myself up enough to get on a plane and stay on it. That she couldn’t sit in her office and answer the phone and schedule appointments pinches a cord in my spine. Could I get back to Seattle and not be able to function? Hell, no. I’m not my mother. I have a career, not a job that leaves my brain free to swim in its misery. I have my plane ticket, a portfolio of promising deals, and a nearly reliable boyfriend who wants me to come home.
The bottle says to take a pill every four hours, not more than four a day. Since one let me sleep in the afternoon, I take another before bed, but now in the dark I’m awake, eyes open watching moonlight shadows shift and then I see Boone hovering in the corner, the way he looked as a kid, but now he’s pale and bloodied, peering out of his casket. I snap on the lamp. He vanishes, but the gloom lingers.
I get up. My mother’s door is closed. I put my ear to it and hear the faint, rhythmic whistle of her snoring. Envious, I head to the kitchen. I’m not hungry. I just need to sleep. A glass of wine might do it, but my mother doesn’t drink. Boone drank, mostly beer, but not upstairs. I open the cellar door and hesitate. I haven’t seen Boone’s old hideout in years, but I’ll risk it for the chance of sleep. I flip on the light and go down a couple steps, stooping to look past the old corduroy sofa. A six-pack sits on a shelf, a souvenir? I go for it, running across the chilly concrete floor, grabbing a can, and opening it as I perch on the arm of the sofa. The yeasty smell is reassuring, the beer cool, not cold.
There’s not much down here: milk crates filled with videotapes, a cedar chest full of woolens and the old bureau that’s been in this spot forever, a perfect place to hide those pictures. I open the top drawer and feel around among worn socks, kids’ pjs and underwear. My mother must have stashed these things down here because her frugal Midwest ways kept her from throwing it all out. At the touch of rough fur, I pull my hand out of the drawer, but it can’t be a dead squirrel or the stench would have overpowered the scent of the beer. I reach in and pull out Boone’s cap, not real hide, the coonskin our father bought him when he was five, the one he wore every day even after his buddy C. J. stopped calling him “Dan” and started calling him “Dan’l Boone.” He kept it on at school despite his teacher telling him it was disrespectful to wear a hat indoors. In the face of his determination, his classmates picked up the name then his teacher gave in. Eventually “Dan’l” fell away and even the family began to call him Boone.
I put it on at what I hope is a sharp angle. Boone would appreciate that though he wore it down nearly to his eyebrows. In the bureau’s mirror, I see the line of Boone’s brow, our same nose with its tiny upturn, the too-long chin. Then I can almost feel his little boy body warm and alive and I long to put my arms around him. How many times did I do that when he was small? Not enough. He wouldn’t have put up with hugging. And I had no idea he could disappear.
I wipe away tears and snot and it all just keeps coming. He’s gone. He’s gone and he can’t come back. Not ever. I’d always expected to become his friend one day, that the texts we exchanged when he was in Afghanistan would turn into calls then we could take bike trips, go camping, canoe. But he’s gone. And it’s my fault.
I pushed him out of Seattle and when he got back to Buckley, he signed up, went off for basic and shipped out. I could have done more. I could have gotten him a job. When my mother told me she couldn’t believe her little boy had been sent off to kill other people, I deflected blame just like I would at work. I told her military discipline would be good for him, that he didn’t have the oomph to make it on his own. But I knew what I’d done.
I slug down beer. I hear Boone asking: “Why do you have to go?” like he did whenever I left for college after breaks. I always gave him the same answer: “I’m getting a degree. I’m going places.” Later he called me “the girl who goes places,” as if my job was just meaningless travel.
Why do I have to go? All the crap on my desk, folders and notebooks of deals that seem so important when I’m at the office, that isn’t a life. Theo says he wants to see me, but I know we’ll fall into our rut, not enough energy to watch a movie much less listen to each other talk. Maybe there’s a reason I can’t stay on a plane.
I wipe my nose on my sleeve. What would I do in Buckley? For a while I wouldn’t have to do anything. Everyone would think I’m here to take care of my mother. “How sweet,” the old women would say, thinking of their own children lost to coastal careers, wondering whether they’d stick around like me if their brother had been killed.
I sit up and tilt the beer can into my mouth. I know real estate. I could to do things here I could never do out west. Land’s cheap. I could buy a few abandoned acres out by the edge of town. Become a developer. I’d be my own boss. This feels like a plan, what I’ve been looking for without knowing it. I raise the beer in a salute then I upend it. The last drops pepper my tongue.
Upstairs I don’t go back to the bedroom where my dead brother lurks in the corner. I stretch out on the sofa in the front room and wake up sure from the dark outside the window that it’s the middle of the night. I check the clock and see I’ve only slept an hour. How is that possible? The pill’s supposed to last four. Of course that’s for its intended use, decongesting and all that. I lie down again and turn over, pull up the coverlet, and push my cheek into the throw pillow. Then I roll over and do it all again. I get up.
In the bathroom I shake out one pill then another. I swallow both to guarantee I’ll sleep through the night. On the sofa I settle in. I can sleep as long as I like. I’m not going to the airport in the morning.
“Get up. Please get up.” A hand shakes me.
I struggle against weighted eyelids.
“You’ll miss your plane.” My mother pushes the hair off my forehead.
“I’m not going.”
“You’re gonna stay a couple days?”
I sit up. “What if I don’t ever go?”
“You’d live here?” She sits beside me.
“It wouldn’t be so bad.”
“It’d be wonderful. I just didn’t let myself think…” She dabs at her eye with a wadded tissue. “Could you be happy here?”
“Is anyone happy here?”
“I’ll fit right in.” I rest my head on my mother’s shoulder. She sets her cheek against my hair.
“Any new buildings around town?”
“They put up a Martial Arts Academy out by the interstate. Sally and I can’t imagine how they’ll make a go of that.”
“They must have done research.”
“I doubt it. It’s those oafs whose pool hall got shut down after they let their friends cook meth out back.”
“How do you know that?”
“Beth represents one of them. Or she did. He fired her after his conviction. Like it was her fault.”
I consider the kind of opportunities I’ll find for real estate development in a place where the growth industries are meth and self-defense. At least I still have a plane ticket.
A rough ball pushes into my hip and I pull out Boone’s cap.
“Oh, lord, where was that?”
“Down in the cellar.” I put the cap on. “This is how I remember him.”
“He refused to take it off even in the tub. Just like you and Mr. Microphone. I couldn’t pry it out of your hand.”
I haven’t thought of my toy microphone in years. I used it to sing and to recite poems I learned by heart. “I bet Boone never touched it.”
“Why would he?”
“I feel like I don’t really know him.”
“You know him. He’s your brother.”
“If I stay, you can tell me more of what he was like.”
“If you stay, maybe I’ll find out more of what you’re like.”
“I’m the reason Boone went into the service.”
“You think he joined up because you wouldn’t let him mooch off you? He was never going to stay out there. He had the military in mind all along. Had the papers and everything. Before he left, he said he was just going out to see what your life was like.”
At that I take off the fur cap and turn it over. Inside there’s nothing to see but the worn places in the lining where it rested against my brother’s temples.
Ellen Davis Sullivan writes fiction, non-fiction and plays. Her essay “The Perfect Height for Kissing” won the Columbia Nonfiction Prize and is published in Issue 53 of Columbia: A Journal of Literature and Art.
Her short stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Moment Magazine, 94 Creations and The Indianola Review. Ellen is a member of the Dramatists’ Guild.
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Twitter: @lndsullivan | https://twitter.com/lndsullivan