The search had been futile. Sophie worked her projects and in between haunting the work sites of Cason’s construction company. He wasn’t due back to work until the next week, taking a full two weeks off from the doctor’s recommended one. The first had gone by and well into the second she kept up the search. None of his coworkers had heard from him, but they all had promised to call to keep her updated. She had a feeling, they knew where he was and agreed it was stupid to keep it from her, but they wouldn’t give it up.
Sophie stopped by that evening to her mother’s house, Chinese take-out in hand. She’d been stopping by daily until the last two days when work had gotten slammed with new clients. The week had been brutal to her personal time, leaving just enough hours to sleep before working again. She had mock-ups due and final layouts to approve which made the time pass but her guilt to pile up. Sophie couldn’t even take care of a grown man much less be there for her mother, whom the last time she spoke with her on the phone had sounded distracted. Sophie knew that the honoring ceremony was weighing on her mind, as her brother’s memory was being drug out of the shadows and into the light.
“Hi mom!” Sophie called as she swung the front door shut to her mother’s place. The record player was on filling the house with the sounds of Rolling Stone era rock and roll. It had been a long time, as in well before her brother’s death, that the house had heard that old thing turn on.
Sophie put the food down on the table and dropped her bags on the couch as she went to the player. She turned the sound down and hollered again, “Mom?”
The thought that Dr. Lowe could be over passed through her mind and Sophie quickly thought to grab her bag and leave. Just then her mother came out of her brother’s old room a handkerchief tied about her head and cleaning gloves on her hands.
“Oh, hi! Look what the cat dragged in!” she said a happy cleaning grin on her face.
Sophie was confused, “Hi mom, I brought dinner… What are you doing?” She noticed then the boxes in the hall and bag of trash outside his room, “Did Cason leave a mess?”
Helen looked over her shoulder then back to Sophie, “No honey, I’m cleaning out your brother’s old room. I think it’s about time.”
Sophie felt the shock rupture through her all the way down to her toes, “No.”
Helen tiled her head, “Yes, honey. We’ve lived with him looming over us for ages. We’ve not let go.”
“No mom, he’s…” she said trying to find the words for the hollow feeling that had taken up in her heart suddenly. The one she knew that was always there. “He… that’s his room.”
“He’s not coming back.”
“I know that.” Sophie bit, “It’s just that, you didn’t say anything. Are you just throwing away all his things?”
Helen gestured behind her, “I realized Sophie that when Cason left, it felt like Ryan had died all over again. We’ve not had closure with his death, I’ve kept this room as a shrine honey, and when Cason moved in I allowed myself to - I’m not sure - become his mother?”
Sophie didn’t hear her, the ringing of panic in her ears was too loud, “Are you throwing out his things, mother?” she said again and like a magnet does to steel Sophie was blindly drawn to the boxes and bags in the hall.
“Honey, it’s just—” Helen said reaching for her daughter.
Sophie knocked her hands aside, her panic making her breath come short and she fell to her knees at the sight of her brother’s things.
In the darkened hall Sophie tore dusty paper towels and scrap paper from the bag. Her hands shook as the world she’d carefully protected herself from came crashing down upon her.
Ryan was gone.
“Honey…” she heard somewhere far away, as if she’d been dunked beneath the Earth and just a single tunnel connected her with the life above.
Old receipt's from the last time he’d been home, childhood sticker collection that had been drawn on, and paper scraps he’d collected that held random meaningless notes on them. But to Sophie they were all precious, none could be gotten rid of. Her mother had been its guardian and now she was burning down the House of Ryan.
“No…” she said feeling the rest of her world tilt over on its axis. Its beginning had started in that room, it was fitting then that it should end there. “These are piece of him - you can’t get rid of him.” Sophie said snatching the pieces out of the garbage. She gathered them there into her lap until she couldn’t see through the mist of her tears.
She felt her mother’s hand then on her shoulder, “I know honey.” She said and felt her kneel down next to her. “I know.”
It was all she needed to hear, after all the years of stepping back, that simple action of hearing that her mother knew broke her. No one knew better than her own mother, on how she felt.
Sophie let her self cry, let herself feel the pain of Ryan’s loss once more, this time on the heels of Cason’s absence. She allowed it to rip forward from her subconscious to reality. It was her mother, she had thought, that lived as if he’d walk back into the house after all these years, but it was her too. She let her grief rise up and bury her, let it finally come to the surface and faced it. Her mother’s arms were lovingly tight about her as they both cried for Ryan. For Sophie it was truly the first time.
Sophie woke some time in the middle of the night to the smell of garlic and Chinese spice. She was curled up on Ryan’s bed, his pillow clutched in her hands. Letting go, she smoothed out the fabric and felt a lightness in her chest. As if she’d cleared out something physically from her body, a weight, heavy as grief, was lifted. Eyes swollen she padded to the hall bathroom and splashed water on her face. Keeping the light off, she looked at the silhouette of the woman in front of her. She was just a shadow in the darkness, one that had shed a haunting memory and grief. What was left was solid and skeleton free.
Down the hall Sophie dried her face with her hands, letting the water cool her face as it air dried. Out in the kitchen Helen microwaved the untouched Chinese food.
She turned when she heard Sophie emerged from the hallway, “Oh hi honey. Feeling better?”
“Lots.” She said and pulled out a chair from the table to watch her mother, “You?”
She nodded as she stirred a box of take-out noodles, “Yes, feels like I just did a spring cleaning on my insides.”
Sophie just nodded.
“Chinese food was a good idea dear.”
She looked up and over at her mother, “Yeah, seemed like a great idea at the time.” Then down at her hands. It was as if she was seeing the entire house, even herself for the first time. The couches seemed quaint, the pictures on the wall, including the ones of Ryan seemed fresh. Sophie got up to the picture of the three of them, taken in the eighties when Sophie was little. Her brother sported a yellow polo with a blue popped collar. His and her mother’s hair were puffy and big, his pegged slacks the only outward sign of his rebellion to their mother’s choice for his outfit. Her mother wore a purple dress with boxy shoulder pads and Sophie was stuffed into a pink jumper with white Maryjane shoes.
“I remember he hated those pants—”
“’It’s got pleats ma!’” her mother mimicked then laughed.
Sophie smiled and turned to look at her mother, “Exactly… ‘Pleats!’” Sophie smiled then looked back at the picture. “I hadn’t really realized, but we all were fashionably questionable in this picture.”
“No, you two were perfect. And exactly fashionable. Now, come grab a plate and serve yourself, I have some of his Army letters I want to show you.”
“Oh yeah.” Sophie said remembering that her mother had more than once tried to show Sophie them, “I forgot you had all those.”
Her mother got situated in the living room with her plate of steaming noodles and greasy crunchy citrus chicken and started taking the tops off of old shoeboxes. Inside were neat rows of opened envelopes.
As Sophie piled her plate with veggies and egg rolls before joining her mother she said, “Do you think that this is what normal people do after a breakdown? Do they eat Chinese and go through their loved one’s letters in the middle of the night?”
“If not they should.”
The letters were piled into three shoe boxes, and Sophie chose the first one closest to her. She asked around a bit of egg roll, “Are these in any order?”
“Order?” her mother asked looking up a letter in hand. “Look here, this one is from his first deployment to Iraq. He says it’s ‘Hotter than sh-’ well now, he did have a foul mouth.”
“Especially after bootcamp, I thought I’d heard it all, but when he came home it was as if he was speaking a foreign language. My favorite was when he’d yell at drivers who didn’t use their turn signal that they were a bunch of pig fuc—”
“I remember quite clearly what he said.”
Sophie smiled at her mother’s disapproving frown, “Those were good times.”
Her mother hid her smile and went back to the letter, “Other than—”
“Wait, did you say that these are in order?”
“They should be chronological.”
“Oh,” Sophie said looking down into her box, “These are all mixed together.” She said and pulled one from the top of the pile within the box. Unfolding it she didn’t recognize the handwriting as Ryan’s, “Who’s…” she started then stopped. She recognized this man’s penmanship, then. His concrete calendar was filled with the tight text, but why would he be writing to her mother...? Her gaze went to the top, he wasn’t. The letter was addressed to Soph. He was writing to her.
Confused, Sophie turned over the letter box in one gush all over the couch.
Sophie ignored her mother’s admonishment and rifled through them until she found an envelope. They’d not been posted to her mother’s house nor to any residence that she’d ever had, but to an apartment in town. The last apartment he’d had before being deployed with her brother.
Sophie looked up wild eye at her mother, “How long have you had these?”
Helen’s brows drew together in confusion, “Since he mailed them to me. Must have been years Sophie, you know that—”
“No,” Sophie said holding up a letter, “These.”
Helen leaned forward and squinted, “That has your name on it, but why? And that’s not his handwriting. That’s Cason’s.” She said confused then put her own letter down and held her hand out, as Sophie scanned the letter herself, “Hand it over, let me see what this is all about.”
Sophie’s eyes flew over the tight black lettering that Cason had written… to her. “No.” Sophie said absently as her eyes absorbed his words. They were personal and familiar, they spoke to her as if she were more than just friends with him, that they were intimately familiar with each other. As soon as she finished one, she picked up another and read. He told her everything, the descriptions of his time in Afghanistan, the dry hot weather and interwoven into his reality was his relationship with her. The letters were a blend of fact and fantasy.
At her third letter in, Sophie looked up at her mother, “You didn’t know of these?”
“No, now what does he say in them?”
Sophie shook her head and swallowed hard, “I. I don’t think I should share these with you. Where did you find them?”
“What do you mean, you shouldn’t share them with me? What do they say?” she said holding her hand out, “Pass me one of them Sophia Anne.”
“Where did you find these?” Sophie pressed.
“In with your brother’s letters. Now what do they say?”
Sophie looked down at the letters on the couch. Letters Cason had written to her, letters in which he bares everything, the conditions he was in, the non classified information of his missions and in a wild manifestation, a relationship with her that he begins to live. The anesthesia and pain meds the week before had broken down his barriers and let out his true feelings. And a world that he’d successfully hidden until then.
She looked over at her mother, “I don’t think I can share these with you, they’re addressed to me and…” how did she explain their content to her mother? “They have personal feelings that I think he might want to keep… that he might want,” She said thinking on it, he’d left them there to be found. It was pure luck that it had been her and not her mother. “I think that these are for my eyes only.”
“Well then why did he stick them in with your brother’s letters?”
Sophie shook her head, “I assume that he thought we’d not go in there for another decade. By then—”
“We might have forgotten about him.” She finished.
Sophie successfully avoided allowing her mother to read any of the letters from Cason for the rest of the night. She put them away and locked them in her car then came back and read through Ryan’s field correspondence. Some were emails her mother had printed out, others were old fashioned air mail.
“Do you know. I think this one would be good to bring with us to the honoring ceremony.” Helen said handing her daughter an email her brother had sent to her.
Helen took off her spectacles as Sophie read it, “Yeah, it kind of sums up his time there, he seems happy too.” She said and handed it back, “But do they have an area where you’ll be able to display it?”
“No, I’ve been asked to share a two minute talk about Ryan at the event. I think all families have been asked that.”
Sophie nodded, “Then, it’s perfect. It’s like Ryan wrote your speech for you, now all you have to do is figure out what to wear.” She said smiling and picked up their plates and headed to the kitchen.
“You know, I still have that purple dress from that photo. Maybe I’ll wear—”
“No way, mom!”
“Oh come on, maybe a little perm too to give my hair some boost.”
Sophie started laughing at the thought of her mom in the purple dress and giant permed hair again. “Only if you get gold nail polish to go with and wear matching eye shadow.”
Her mother giggled then reclined back into her easy chair, “And you? What will you wear? Something to make Cason McPherson forget all his troubles?”
Sophie nearly dropped the plates into the sink, “What? Why? What?”
“Oh dear, I might be old but I’m not blind. You two have been circling each other like cats in the courtyard. I was hoping an intervention at his operation would help, but since that didn’t maybe this gala will push you both in the right direction.”
Sophie came around the edge of the counter and just stared at her mother, “I. Well. I don’t see how.”
“Sure, dear.” Helen said hiding a yawn, then said, “Well, I’m beat. I’m headed to bed, I’ll see you in the morning.”
“Yeah.” Sophie said, still shocked that her mother thought she should wear something scandalous for Cason, “See you in the morning…”