“I never would’ve guessed how much of a difference one person makes.”
– The Journal of Charisma Roberts
Same Day: Ann Arbor, Michigan
“I think she’s here, Mommy. I think she’s here!”
The excited clamor of a little girl’s voice accompanied the impatient shuffle of small feet inside the house. A set of tiny eyes peered over the windowsill, eagerly watching Cris’s every movement. Underneath a cloudy autumn sky, Cris walked casually along the side of the road, coming up to the house with the rusty station wagon in the driveway. Glancing down, she caught sight of an untied shoelace dancing around her foot at each step. It kept her attention better than the sweater draping itself over her skinny, modestly tall body. She debated if a long skirt was appropriate for fall.
She continued ambling up the driveway and made her way along the grass line to the door, once again filled with the same quiet apprehension she could never quite understand. This place always left her uneasy. She shouldn’t be here without him.
The smell of freshly baked cookies drifted into her nostrils as the aroma coasted through the air. She caught it and exhaled slowly. Though the scent brought her only unpleasant thoughts, it inspired the knots in her stomach to loosen up. She arrived at the door just as Tabby, Kody’s mom, opened it, welcoming her inside.
“Cris, you made it! Come in.”
“Thanks, Ms. Lehane.” Cris nodded, forcing a half smile.
“Crissy, Crissy! You’re here! Didja bring him with you?”
Kara grabbed her by the hand and drug Cris along into the kitchen before she had a chance to respond or even take her shoes off. Cris looked around, unable to contain her surprise at all the decorations Tabby had already put up. Balloons filled the room, streamers hung from the ceiling, and confetti littered the floor. A few presents sat on the table, a card resting beside them. A picture of a regal little cat with a crown was drawn on the cover of the envelope.
Kara looked up to Cris, her eyes full of the pleading eagerness of a young child. She brimmed with the joy of an eight-year-old enjoying her birthday.
“Hm? Did I what?”
“Bring him with you!”
“Bring him with me? How would I…Oh, you mean—”
“The kitty! Mr. Bugsby!”
Cris laughed to herself. She imagined what the regal feline would think of being addressed with such an amusing title.
“It’s Bixby, sweetie, and no I didn’t bring him. He wanted to come, but he needed a bath so I had to drop him off at the kitty salon.”
“Aw…but it’s my eighth birthday today! He should be here, so we can play games!”
“I’m sorry, honey. I’ll bring him next time, I promise. Maybe I’ll even let him stay the night as a birthday present. That okay?”
Kara paused in contemplation. “A sleepover?” she asked. Cris nodded. “Hm… I can do that.”
Tabby brought a plate of freshly baked cookies to the table. She offered Cris a seat, the latter cordially accepting as she watched the exchange between mother and daughter.
“Kara, go get dressed, okay? Your friends will be here pretty soon, and Cris and I still need to finish setting up.”
Cris watched as Kara trudged off to her room, her dejected body reluctantly moseying away. Cris bit her lip, curious how quickly the young girl’s spirit would mend, probably at the suggestion of cake and ice cream. She let out a deep breath to try and clear her head.
“How’re you holding up?” Tabby asked, meeting Cris’s eye line with concern.
“Shouldn’t I be asking you that?”
“How I’m holding up? My son’s been gone for months, and all I can tell his sister is he’s visiting family she’s never heard of. I’m worried about him, of course, but he is my son. He was going to venture off on his own sooner or later.”
“Plus she’s got me.”
Geroge poked his scruffy, dark face around the corner, nudging the door shut with his boot as he walked into the room. With his heavy, somewhat muscular frame, he sauntered into the kitchen, carrying a giant wrapped box tied with ornate ribbon. He set it down on the table and grabbed a soda out of the fridge, popping the cap to create a fine, echoing fizz. Cris scooted over, pulling a chair for him to sit down.
“And there’s G, who for some reason spends as much time with us as he probably does at his own home. Somehow I manage.” Tabby nodded toward G. “But what about you, Cris?”
“I have my sister, who pretty much insists on being my best friend, mentor, life coach, and therapist. And you guys, of course.”
Tabby smiled, getting up to check on food in the kitchen. She came back and leaned down behind Cris, placing her hands on Cris’s shoulders.
“I know I’m his mom, but that doesn’t mean I agree with what he did. I don’t care what his reasons were—or what happened between you two and Alma—he shouldn’t have left you like he did. If you ever need someone to bitch, vent, or just blow off steam to, I have two good ears.”
Cris reached up, placing her hand over Tabby’s. Tabby patted her shoulder as she headed back into the kitchen. Cris and G broke away from the table, heading into the living room to set up for Kara’s party.
“Thought you’d be here earlier,” Cris said.
“Yeah, well…what can I say? Jeany’s a funny lady. We had something to take care of earlier, and she decided that on top of making us late, it’d be funny to roll out while I was in the bathroom. Had to walk back to get the van.”
“I got way better jokes.”
Geroge chuckled as he fumbled around unpacking small speakers he’d left by the door. He carried them into the living room, taking his time to set up a kids’ playlist on his laptop. Cris watched him as she put games together in the living room, trying to figure out which Kara would like best. As she watched Geroge, she could never understand the relationship between him and Jence—Jency—Jeany—whatever she responded to—but somehow despite all their issues it seemed to work for them. Before long, the place was ready for a little girl’s birthday party.
“I’d say that’s an easy day’s work, hermana.” Geroge tossed his arm around Cris’s shoulder.
“Setting up’s the easy part. Ever dealt with a house full of eight-year-old girls?”
Cris jumped as her pocket vibrated, immediately catching Geroge’s attention. He cocked his head, sporting an accusatory grin. Cris reached into her pocket, shaking her phone at him with a furrowed brow. She broke away from Geroge, stepping aside to check the text she’d received from her sister: Gotta talk to you ASAP. Looks like he finally came home. Be over there in a couple minutes. Meet me outside. –Em.
Excusing herself, Cris headed into the kitchen to inform Tabby something had come up. She promised to make it up to Kara and explained she’d come back as soon as possible. She turned toward the door, Geroge catching her on her way out.
“You bailing, chickarita?”
“Just for a bit. Don’t think it’ll be too long—sister stuff.”
“Ah, of course. Don’t let my Y chrom-y get in the way. We still good for tonight?”
“Should be. I’ll text you if anything changes.”
Geroge waved a two-finger salute as Cris stepped outside the house. She took a seat on the steps of the porch, texted her sister, and put her phone away as she sat waiting. She started playing with her hair, combing her fingers through chestnut tresses and twisting them about. She caught a whiff of her conditioner as she twirled strands in front of her face and deliberated if Rainforest Radiance was really the right scent for her. She had seen citrusy-scented shampoos recently that looked promising, and considered it might be time for a change.
The wind started picking up, blowing her hair and skirt tails back toward the direction of the road. Ambivalence, given the past few months, had caused her to question much less, and follow the beaten path much more. The whole graduate-head to college-find an amazing job plan didn’t play out the way she’d hoped. In its stead, the breath of the Earth was her guide, and she would be its disciple.
She gathered herself up, pushing off her knees, and ambled along the driveway only enough to let the wind lead her. She drifted back and forth along with the sway of the tree branches, blurring her existential line between humanity and the spirits. The trees continued to rustle above, their leaves still green—but not for much longer—as she moved without purpose or compassion toward an unspecified goal. As always, the lukewarm breeze felt cold.
“Hey, wandering lady, want a ride?”
Emma pulled up next to her, as fashionably dressed as she was fashionably late. Her sister lowered her unnecessary sunglasses in an apparent attempt to figure out what Cris was doing.
“Hm…guess that depends. Where are you headed?”
Cris shrugged. “Eh, good enough.”
She opened the door of the old yet classy sports car and climbed in. Emma’s car reminded Cris of her old convertible—the one she had promised to lend Alma, which had since gone missing; a promise she had felt too guilty about to report the car as stolen. They headed off down the road and onto the expressway, with no particular direction in mind except to pass the time.
“So you said he came home?” Cris started, trying to reorient herself by fidgeting with the radio. She skipped through the channels, looking for an alternative rock station until Coldplay’s “Fix You” lulled her into a pensive dreamland.
“That’s what his dad said. Figure we’ll give him a day or two to get settled in before we bombard him.”
“His dad? What’re you…” Cris trailed off. “You don’t mean Kody, do you?”
“Kody? No, crazy, I mean Glenn. He’s finally home.”
Cris looked down to her untied shoes, unable to stop her foot from shaking. She tried to keep her mind clear, listening to the song as it continued to play.
“Look, if this is too much… I get it if you aren’t ready to see him,” Emma offered.
“No, it’s just—you weren’t there, Em. He was lying there, breathless and covered in blood. He’s dead. We left him for dead.”
“You keep saying that, but I’m telling you—he’s not dead. The ambulance that you called saved him, or brought him back, or whatever. Believe me, I was there. Soon as they called me off that old emergency contact card in his wallet, I was there. He wasn’t great, but he wasn’t dead.”
Cris stared out the window, not focused on any particular thing as they continued down I-94. She gazed out on Ford Lake, wondering how long until it froze over and the winter scenery would finally set in. Was Glenn really alive, and had he come home? Was he the same Glenn who had left on that trip with her only a few months before? Then again, was she the same naïve girl who had just wanted to see some of the world?
Even if the stories about him surviving were true, she couldn’t shake the memory of his cold, lifeless body lying on that motel bed reeking of dried blood and orange juice. The idea of him miraculously surviving and coming home seemed farfetched at best. She’d left him for dead. The same way she had left Alma behind. Her recklessness made it all too obvious why Kody had abandoned her. The Dropkick Murphys’ humble piano requiem, “The Green Fields of France,” played on in the background.
“Crissy, don’t stay in your head. It’s a scary place in there. Talk to me.”
“I’m good, Em. Just thinking.”
“That’s kinda my point.”
Cris brought her hand up to her neck, fingering the hemp-beaded necklace Kody had made for her. She kept her gaze fixed on the leaf-littered roadside as they continued past Belleville, traveling the trails they’d oft ridden so many times before. Driving through nearby towns with her sister remained one of her few treasured pastimes. Along with good music, driving aimlessly was one of the only things that always helped clear her head. She couldn’t go back to the party so distracted.
As they drove along, she leaned her head against the window and continued to watch the dissolution of nature. Its death was beautiful, even if depressing. She had never been a fan of autumn.