When We Were Young

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Other  |  House: Booksie Classic
When Emma Klein's father passes away on the anniversary of her mother's suicide, she must return to her childhood home to fulfill his final wishes. There she confronts her abusive past and forgive her parents with the help of her brother, Gabriel if she wants a chance at a life of peace. Letting go of the past proves to be more difficult than Emma thought when she finally arrives home.

Submitted: September 11, 2019

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Submitted: September 11, 2019

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For Emma Klein, growing up in her brother’s shadow was the only thing she knew. She hardly complained about the attention he got from their mother and father, and gladly accepted the fact that Gabriel was their favorite.  He was their strong son with a bright future ahead of him, sure to make them proud.  But Emma didn’t mind.  She loved her big brother.  He was the one who comforted her when she was sad, stayed up with her at night when she had a bad dream, and always protected her from the evils of the outside world, and often times, the ones inside their own home.  Gabriel was the reason she made it through her childhood. 

Growing up in the country outside of Coralville, Iowa was Emma’s own personal hell. She spent most of her time exploring the fifteen acres of land where the Klein’s small, white house sat. She and Gabriel used to sneak up to the dam to get away when their mother was depressed and in a mood. They would sit looking out over the town and talk about running away from the dysfunction at home, and dreamed of a better life.

The day that Emma came home from school with her dress torn, Gabriel took her to the dam and made her a promise.  “One day Emma, I will take you away from all of this.  We’ll go some place safe and you’ll be happy.  I swear!”  Gabriel talked big for a ten year old.  Only two years older than Emma, he carried himself like an adult.

“I know, Gabe.  Someday.”  Emma was terrified to show her mother the torn dress.  She would surely blame Emma for being careless and take a switch to her back.  Emma could hear the crack of it just thinking about it.  “Let’s run away, Gabe.  Momma’s going to beat me for sure if I go home.”

Gabriel took her hand.  “I won’t let her, Em.  Not ever again!” 

It was getting dark when Gabriel and Emma made their way down the dam.  Emma slipped on the wet rock and when Gabriel reached out to grab her, he was the one who fell down the dam.  The terrified screams from the echo at the dam attracted not only father but half the town.  Within an hour, the dam was lit up with red and blue lights from the local police cars and the squeal of the ambulance siren.  It was the night that changed everything.

* * *

Twenty years can seem like a life time, especially for someone like Emma who has tried to forget her abusive childhood.  Now a teacher at the local elementary school, Emma is not the fragile little girl she once was.  She focuses her time on trying to impact the lives of her students by providing them with a safe environment to learn, grow, and develop in their education.  It is her hopes that if she can help even just one student succeed, she would know her struggles growing up weren’t for nothing.

A year after Gabriel’s accident at the dam, their mother’s headaches and depression got the better of her.  The morning it happened, Emma was woken to the sound of her father wailing.  Young Emma had jumped from her bed and walked down the hallway to see her father in his room holding their mother’s still body in his arms.  The blood pooled around her body was the blackest red that Emma had ever seen.  Her nightgown was soaked through at the sleeves where her wrists had been slit open.  For a second, Emma had felt nothing resembling sadness.  Her abusive mother was dead and that was fine with her, until her father’s accusatory voice bellowed to her that she snapped back to the reality of what had happened.

“You did this to her!”  Hearing those words from any father would be enough to make you want to curl up and die, but hearing it from those lips of a pastor sent an eerie chill down Emma’s spine.  They were words that no child should ever hear.  If Emma was relieved that the beating would stop, she was about to find out that even in death, her mother’s hatred of her would continue.

After the funeral, their father drank himself into a fit of rage most nights that ended with Emma in the basement, back beaten and bruised, crying, and alone.  It was almost as if it were a sick ritual that needed to be carried on even after their mother’s death. Emma never understood it. How could she? She was so young. How do you explain to her their first born could do no wrong in their eyes, but the little girl that came into their family just a couple of years later was so hated? Gabriel tried to intervene and often times caught the back swing of the belt, but tried his best to protect Emma like he promised. Then one day it stopped. Their father sobered up and went back to preaching, as if it were finally time to move on.

Whatever the reason, Emma was thankful. She thanked God and tried to forget about their mother, the abuse from her parents, and get through her childhood the only way she knew how, with her brother by her side. It took years to try to be ‘normal’ without the constant worry that she was disappointing someone, or that she wasn’t good enough to succeed and have a life she always dreamed about. But she made it through, so did Gabriel. Now as adults, Emma often pushed all of that behind and tried to live her life fully. She even rekindled her relationship with her father, something Gabriel refused to do. It reminded Emma how broken things still were, whether she talked about it or not.

* * *

This Sunday was more dreadful than most for Gabriel as he took his time driving to the church to pick up his sister. He wasn’t the church-going type and questioned how Emma could attend service by their father after everything that happened when they were young. Gabriel had spent his whole life hating his childhood and wishing he had taken his sister away from it all long ago. Instead, she lived in the same city as their father, attended his church, and listened to his sermons on Sundays. It made Gabriel sick.

Streaks of blinding sunlight hit his windshield as he turned down the street of the church. Gabriel squinted as the light shined in his eyes, irritated he flipped the visor down. He wished he hadn’t agreed to give his sister a ride home today when he pulled up to the curb and saw nearly the entire congregation outside. He couldn’t stand to see his sister there in front of the church with their father. It was like a slap in the face, betrayed that Emma could forgive such a monster.

Growing up in their home was nothing but a nightmare. When a home should be filled with the laughter of children, happy memories, and the warmth of a loving family, theirs was a misleading shell hiding the ugliness of their mother’s mental illness and their father’s love of the bottle. Gabriel never could understand how their father preached sober in the small town they lived in when as soon as he came home, the smell of alcohol wafted through the door with him. It was no way to behave as a pastor, yet his father did so well for several years.

His childhood was something Gabriel never spoke of, not even to his sister. Emma had forgiven their father years ago for raising them the way he did, even rekindled a broken relationship with him. Somehow the old man talked her into joining his church and sitting front and center to listen to him preach on Sundays. This Sunday was different though and Gabriel couldn’t wait for it to be over.

* * *

After church, Emma and her father stood outside as the congregation left worship.  Her father put on a smile and shook hands of eager members thanking him for a lovely service.  Gabriel pulled up to the curb in his 1969 Ford Mustang.  The red paint reflected the sunlight into Emma’s eyes, letting her know her brother had arrived to pick her up.

“It would be nice if your brother would come to church.”  Emma could hear the tiredness in her father’s voice.

“You know why he won’t,” she said as she pulled her long, dark-blonde hair up off her neck, cooling herself from the high collar on her dress. The navy cotton dress fitted her curvy five foot-six inch frame enough to show off her figure but still looked appropriate to wear to Sunday service.

“I don’t understand why he can’t get over things. He turned his back on his family and God a long time ago.”

“God? It’s hard for him to turn to his faith after everything that happened, dad.” Emma knew that it would take a miracle for Gabriel and their father to be able to forgive each other and mend their broken relationship.

Gabriel walked up to Emma without acknowledging his father standing beside her.  “You ready?”

“How are you doing, son?”  Gabriel’s father leaned in to shake his hand but Gabriel kept his hands in his pockets. 

“Fine.”  If their father was looking for more of a conversation it wasn’t going to happen. At nearly six foot-two, Gabriel stood taller than his father and shoulders wide and muscular.  He narrowed his eyes at Emma.  “Let’s go!”

“I wish you’d make time to talk, Gabriel.  I won’t be around forever, you know.”

“No, you won’t,” he said coldly.  “Em, I’ll be in the car.” Gabriel pulled a pack of cigarettes from his pocket and walked back to his car.

“Son?” His father reached for him.

“Dad, just let him go.”  Emma took his hand in hers.  “Are you going to be okay today?  I could stay if you want.”

Her father walked with her to Gabriel’s car. He stood on the sidewalk looking at her with his faded blue eyes, now hazy with old age.  “No, go with your brother.  I’ll be fine.”

Emma couldn’t help but feel guilty as she walked away.  Today was the anniversary of her mother’s death and she knew her father’s heart was breaking inside.  At one point in his sermon this morning, he nearly choked on his words as he talked about love and forgiveness. 

Gabriel sat back in the red leather seat, an arm draped across the steering wheel. His lip curled slightly as he glared at Emma impatiently waiting for her to finish her conversation with their father. The pure disgust on his face told her it was time to leave.

Her brother carried a lifetime of resentment towards their father, never forgiving him for allowing the abuse from their mother. He never once cried when she finally passed away. Emma didn’t find out until she was older that her mother had suffered with severe depression most of her adult life, worsening when she had children. Their father never admitted that there was something wrong with their mother and that she needed help for her mental illness. He drank away the responsibility of caring for her, letting her suffer through the bad days, taking out her frustration and anger on little Emma. It was Gabriel who had to come between Emma and their mother, blocking another hit from her angry hand. Emma was always her first target, the child who triggered their mother’s depression and abuse.

Emma gave her father a hug and watched him walk slowly back to the church. When she could see he was inside, she hopped into the car and quickly shut the door with a hard slam. “Why the hell are you so cold to him?” 

“How can you stand to be around him after what he did?”

“He lost his way when mom died.  But he’s come back to his faith so take it easy on him.”

“Faith?  He uses his faith and position in the church to hide what he’s done.”  Gabriel said, lighting a cigarette.

Emma leaned over and took the cigarette from his mouth.  “I thought you were going to quit?”  She threw it out the open window.

“And I thought you were going to get off my back.  I guess not.”  He lit another cigarette and sat back in his seat.  His arm was a sleeve of inked designs and he clutched the steering wheel tight as he started the car.  It rumbled as he pulled away from the church.

“I don’t want to fight, not today.”  Emma could feel a lump form in her throat.  She hadn’t shed a tear for her mother in years, but today she was having a hard time holding it back.

“Where do you want to go?”  Gabriel looked over at her then back at the road.  “You okay?” Even though he may look intimidating with his shaggy dark hair, tattooed body, and intense expressions, underneath the hard exterior was a softness that only Emma had known since childhood.

“Just drive.  I don’t care where we go, just drive.”  She wiped a tear from her cheek and fixed her gaze out the window.  Passing cars and buildings were a mere blur as she sank into her seat and closed her eyes.  It wasn’t long before she felt Gabriel’s hand on hers.

“It’s just you and me, sis.  Always.”  His words were comforting.  Emma knew she could count on him and that no matter what the future held for the two of them, he’d be there by her side. Just like he promised when they were young.

* * *

The next morning, Emma awoke to the smell of bacon sizzling and coffee brewing, filling her nostrils with familiar goodness.  Gabriel was making breakfast.  She took a quick shower and hurried downstairs.  He was already seated at the table eating his breakfast. 

“Dig in before it gets cold.”  He said, shoving another bite of food in his mouth.

Emma poured herself a cup of coffee and sat down across from him. The warmth of the cup in her hand relaxed her.  She had a night of tossing and turning as she laid awake thinking about her mother.  She couldn’t recall any good memory she shared with that woman but somehow she still felt sad for her.

“How’d you sleep?”  Gabriel wiped his mouth and shoved his plate aside.  “I didn’t sleep much.”

“I know.I heard you walking the floor.  I couldn’t fall asleep.”  She sipped her coffee and stared at her brother.  “Do you think about her?”  Emma and Gabriel never talked much about their childhood, especially about their mother.

“Sometimes.  But I know we were better off without her.”  He stood up and took his plate to the sink.  He kept his back to Emma, his broad shoulders hunched forward. She knew something was on his mind.

“What is it, Gabe?”

Gabriel turned towards her, leaning his back against the counter.  “She hated you, Emma.  She was awful to you, and you just took it.  All I wanted to do was protect you.”  He started to choke up but cleared his throat.  “I hated her, Em.  I’m glad she died when she did.”

The words seemed so cruel but flowed from Gabriel’s lips like poetic justice.  He wasn’t wrong. Emma often agreed that life without their abusive mother was a little easier, but it still felt harsh to feel that way.

“How can you say that?  She may have treated me like a mistake but you can’t blame her.  She put up with her illness for years and finally had enough.”  Emma got up from the table and went to Gabriel.  She looked directly into his eyes. “Dad stood by and didn’t help her, and when she killed herself it nearly killed him inside too.”  She could feel the tears streaming down her cheeks.

“We should have run away that day at the dam, Emma.”  His strong wiped Emma’s tears from her cheeks and held her face in his hands.  “I promised you I would take you away from all that and I should have done it then.  I’m sorry.”

Emma pulled his hands away and took a step back.  “Yeah, well, we both know how that day turned out.  I got the whipping of my life for that torn dress. I couldn’t sleep that night. It was too painful to lie in bed after that.”

“That’s why I don’t understand how you can sit in church with him on Sundays and forgive him for what he did to you.” 

Emma was quiet.  She had asked herself that many times.  She could have cut her father out of her life, but it wasn’t that easy for her. Both their parents were sick. Their mother struggled with severe mental illness and their father was a drunk, neither fit to be good parents and Emma thanked the Lord for giving her such a wonderful brother.

Gabriel reached out and flicked her wet hair off her shoulder.  She had rushed downstairs for breakfast so fast that she didn’t have time to dry her hair.  “Why don’t you go upstairs and get ready.  We’ll go somewhere today.  I just want to stop at my place first and change my clothes.” He gave her a hug and walked to the door.

Emma’s phone rang and she could see Gabriel stalling at the door.  She knew that he was curious to know who was calling.

“Is it him?”  He was referring to Nathan, her boyfriend who she recently dumped.  She knew that Gabriel hated him for the way he treated her and after Nathan had cheated on her, Gabriel lost his temper. Always the protective big brother.  “I’ll kick his ass if he thinks he’s coming over.”

Emma looked at her phone.  “No, it’s the church.” She put a finger up and hushed him before answering it. “Hello?” 

“Is it dad?”  Gabriel asked.

Emma shook her head in disbelief.  “No, that’s not possible.”  She looked at her brother.  “That can’t be. He was fine yesterday.”  The voice on the other end was Pastor David, a close friend of their father. Sometime in the night, their father suffered a heart attack and passed away, found that morning when Pastor David couldn’t reach him on the phone.

“What is it?  What’s going on?”  Gabriel took the phone from her.  “Hello?  This is Gabriel, what happened?”

Emma stood watching as Gabriel heard the news for himself.  She couldn’t believe that her father had died on the day of their mother’s suicide. Her breath caught in her lungs and she clutched her chest as Gabriel hung up the phone.

“Gabe?”  Emma could hardly talk.  Her heart sank deep inside her and she felt guilty for leaving him alone yesterday. She knew something wasn’t right. It was too hard for her to believe.

Gabriel said nothing but wrapped Emma in his arms and held her just like the day their mother died. That’s when flashes of her childhood hit her like a ton of bricks. She needed to remember.

* * *

Heavy wooden church doors burst open and Emma ran to the altar where her father was lying under a sheet.  The police officers were standing about quietly, waiting for the coroner to take him. Pastor David was sitting with an officer and Emma recognized the lead detective crouched at her father’s side.

“I’m sorry, Emma.”  It was Nathan. He looked up at her as she walked up to the altar. She hadn’t seen Nathan in a couple of weeks, not since the break-up. Gabriel helped convince her it was for the best, but she still missed him. His big, brown eyes were filled with sympathy, true feeling that he still cared.

Emma kneeled beside her father.  “I can’t believe it,” she said as tears welled up in her eyes and her shaky hand lifted the sheet from her father’s face.  She gasped and quickly covered him. His pale skin and lifeless eyes sent a chill throughout her body.

“Emma, maybe you should wait over there while the coroner takes him away.” 

“He’s my father, Nathan!  I can’t leave him.”  She was angry and hurt, still trying to accept the fact that he was gone. If only she had known that yesterday would be the last day she would see him, she would have told him she loved him. She would have made an effort to spend more time with him and not let him be alone on that day.

By the time Nathan could put his hand on Emma’s shoulder to calm her down, Gabriel was at her side.  “Emma, I’m here.”  He helped Emma to her feet. 

She could see the uncomfortable tension between Nathan and her brother. “Nathan, can we talk over there?”  Emma pointed to the pews near the piano.  She felt light headed.  The reality was setting in and she needed to talk to him. In light of the unfortunate passing of her father, she wanted to tell Nathan that she still had feelings for him. She didn’t want another minute to go by without telling him. She made that mistake with her father yesterday.

Nathan nodded and led the way to the pew in the first row.  He waited for Emma and Gabriel to sit. “Do either of you need a tissue or want something to drink? I can have one of the officers get you something.”

Emma shook her head and kept her eyes to the floor. If she looked up at him in that moment, she would have a hard time holding back tears. Even with Gabriel sitting next to her, she felt alone and her heart ached. She was exhausted.

“What did Pastor David say? He was the one who found him, right?” Gabriel asked.

“Just that when your father didn’t answer the phone this morning he rushed right over and found him laying here by the altar. He must have come here sometime early this morning to pray and suffered a fatal heart attack.”  

Emma sobbed. She could only imagine how scared her father must have been in that moment, clutching his chest and falling to his knees with no one around to help. She should have been there for him.

“I know this is a shock,” Pastor David’s deep voice was full of sorrow as he walked up behind them and put his hand on Emma’s shoulder.  He had known their father for several years and Emma had grown quite fond of the middle-aged clergyman.  “I’m still in disbelief myself.  But it was just his time to go.” 

Emma wiped her eyes.  She hadn’t cried this hard since she was a child.  And it wasn’t at her mother’s funeral.  It was the day that Gabriel left when he graduated high school. He had always promised Emma that one day he would take her away from the torment and abuse, but when he left without her, she cried for days.  It was the first time in her life that she had felt alone.  Gabriel was only gone a few months but in that time, Emma had to rely on her father and it was then that she had forgiven him and made peace with her past.  Something Gabriel had never done.

“Pastor David, thank you for being here.” Emma said quietly.

A tall, lanky pastor walked around the row of pews and stood in front of them. Nathan stood up so Pastor David could sit next to Emma.

“I know this is hard for you, but we need to talk about your father’s funeral arrangements, Miss Klein.”

Gabriel quickly stood and pulled a pack of cigarettes from his pocket.  “I’ll be outside.”

Emma nodded and waited for him to leave before turning her attention back to Pastor David.  “I’m sorry for that,” she apologized for Gabriel’s abrupt departure.

“I understand.  Everyone deals with the loss of a loved one differently.”  Pastor David was kind.  Emma had always admired that about him.  She wished her father had been even half as kind.  Maybe it would have changed the relationship he had with his son. 

“I just can’t believe this.  I knew he was upset yesterday.  I mean,” Emma paused to clear her throat.  “It was the anniversary of my mother’s death.”

Pastor David nodded.  “Yes, I know. As difficult as this must be, we need to discuss your father’s final wishes.”

Emma was confused. “What do you mean? I’m sure he has all of that taken care of with the church.” Her father had never mentioned his arrangements to her, but being a pastor that would be something he would have already planned, given his age.

Pastor David explained that her father had wanted to be cremated and his ashes taken back home. His final wish was to be there, scattered on the family property the same as his wife had been.

Emma shivered. “I can’t go back there.  I just can’t.”  She hadn’t been back home since she left high school and moved out on her own.

“I’m sorry.  It’s his final wishes.  If you’d like, I can help with things here.”  Pastor David stood up.  “I know the past can be hard to face, but whatever happened can be laid to rest now, Emma.”

She knew he was right. Facing the past would be difficult but the problem would be convincing Gabriel to go with her.

* * *

Emma and Gabriel sat quietly in his car, neither looked in the backseat at their father’s urn.  The funeral service provided by Pastor David had dragged on longer than Emma could stomach.  She wanted the whole thing to be done, especially what was to follow.  Taking her father’s ashes back home would be the true test of whether she had really forgiven him and the childhood that she left behind.

“I don’t know if I can do this.”  Gabriel’s voice was low, soft like a whisper.

“It was his last wish, Gabe.”  Emma put her hand on his and tried to smile.  “Let’s take him home and be done with it, once and for all.” 

“Maybe then you can finally be at peace, Emma.”  Gabriel’s tone made her shift in her seat.  She never really felt at peace.  Not when her mother died, and not now that her father was gone.  Maybe Gabriel wasn’t the one who needed to lay the past to rest.  Maybe it was her.

The car ride was long and quiet.  It would have been the perfect time to reminisce about fun childhood memories with their father but neither had a good story to share.  It wasn’t a good childhood. 

“If I could have done something, I would have.”  Gabriel looked over at Emma who was holding her hands tightly together in her lap.  “Emma?”

“I know,” Emma said quietly.  It wasn’t Gabriel’s fault.  None of it was.  But now that her father was gone, it was easier for Emma to see that forgiving her father had helped her move on a long time ago. She wished that her brother would be able to let go like she had.

Gabriel sighed deeply.“Emma, I want you to know that after this is done, I think we should leave.  Start a life somewhere else.  You only stuck around because dad became the pastor of that church. That was his life. Not yours.”

Emma nodded.  She wasn’t going to question Gabriel.  After high school, he stayed close by, was there for her when she needed him. He was not only her brother, but also her best friend.  Even though he couldn’t help more when they were young, he did now.  He had certainly redeemed himself, if that’s what he was getting at.  So if Gabriel said it was time to leave and start over, then she would go with him. They could both work in any city in any state they wanted, find jobs that they could become happy with, travel and see how big the world really is. It was time to leave and maybe they could both finally have a life of peace.

* * *

It was dark when they drove through Coralville.  Each passing neon sign lit the inside of the car.  Emma could see the anguish on Gabriel’s face.  She wondered what he was thinking as they drove through the town that provided them with no support or refuge from their childhood torment.  It was no surprise that the whole town knew about their father’s drinking and mother’s strict hand.  But it was easier for everyone to look the other way. 

“Gabe, are you okay?”

Gabriel kept his eyes on the road.  He was tired.  “We’re almost there.”

“Should we check into a hotel and go to the house in the morning?”  Emma was hoping he would agree.  She wasn’t ready to step foot into the house, let alone spend the night in it.

“I just want this to be over,” Gabriel said as he gave the car a little gas and sped out of the city and into the country.Coralville was a blur of lights in the rear view mirror. 

As they pulled into the driveway, Gabriel lit a cigarette.  Emma knew he was dreading getting out of the car.  She was too. Now that they were home, she wasn’t sure how to feel. They sat a minute with the headlights shining on the old house.  Their father hadn’t sold it when they moved years ago.  Emma thought it was because he had planned to move back when he retired. The white paint was peeling, showing a dark grittiness beneath the surface, fitting since that was how Emma would have described their family growing up. From the outside everything looked nice, but underneath the perfect exterior laid an ugliness that was hard to cover up.

“We can wait until morning,” Emma said softly.  Her eyes were fixed on the front door.  At night it looked like the mouth of an evil entity waiting to swallow their souls. Quite terrifying, really.  

“Grab dad.  Let’s get this over with.”  Gabriel hopped out of the car.

Emma reached in the backseat and picked up her father’s urn.  It was cold and she felt nauseous knowing the reason they were there.  It didn’t feel right, dumping his ashes in the dark.

“Hurry up, Em.”  Gabriel was obviously anxious to put their father to rest.  His broad shoulders stood firm at the foot of the porch waiting for Emma to join him before going inside.

Emma stood next to her brother.  Her heart was pounding and her breathing quickened.  The anxiety consuming her inside was unbearable.  Looking at the front door sent a chill up her neck.  “Gabe, I don’t think I can go inside.”  She clutched her father’s urn against her chest and burst into tears. She missed him and being home without either of her parents there felt wrong. 

Gabriel’s arm around her gave her no comfort.  “You have to, Emma.”  She knew that once she stepped foot inside that she would be face to face with her past.  She let her brother lead her up the porch.  Each creaky step took her breath away as she neared the door.

“Dad’s been paying on this old thing so we should have light inside,” Gabriel said as he turned the doorknob and stepped inside the darkness.

Emma had a death grip on Gabriel’s jacket.  She clung to him as if her life depended on it.  He was the sole reason she made it through their childhood in one piece.  And now, more than ever, she needed his strength. She thought she had gotten over this feeling. The years she spent going to counseling and reconciling with her father should have prepared her for this.

Gabriel flicked a light switch on the wall and the entry way lit up.  The room looked exactly as it did when Emma and Gabriel left, promising each other they’d never come back.  The old wall paper was yellowed and peeling from the walls.  But the kitchen had been touched up in the last few years by their father; the cabinets and table were sanded and freshly stained.

“I can’t believe we’re here.”  Gabriel’s voice was soft with dismay.  He took the urn from Emma and set it on the kitchen table. He looked around into the empty house then turned on the lights in the living room and hallway.  “Emma, come here,” he said, reaching for her hand.

She knew he wanted her to remember what happened at that house. For him, the house harbored everything that was wrong in his life from abusive parents, a dysfunctional upbringing, and an excuse to be an angry adult. He was adamant that she feel the same.

“Gabe, I can’t.”  Emma choked on her words but Gabriel squeezed her hand tight and pulled her further down the corridor of nightmares.  When they came to the first bedroom, Gabriel stopped without looking in.  It was his old room, nothing but empty space that would never be occupied again.  For him, the house meant nothing. He just wanted to show Emma how awful it was so she would stop defending their father and acting like he was a saint.

“It’s only emptiness,” he told Emma, pulling her further down the hall. “I need you to see for yourself.” He was intent on making her remember things the way he did. She just wasn’t ready to do that until she looked past Gabriel’s shoulder and down the hall at the next room.  Her old bedroom was the next room and she could feel every beating, every harsh word her mother said to her, every damn moment of her childhood came crashing down on her.  It was her worst nightmare!

“Gabriel, no,” she cried. “I can’t go any further. I can’t do this!”

Emma’s feet were heavy, like dragging herself through mud as she tried to turn and run away. Her chest was tight and her breath was caught deep in her lungs as she felt an anxiety attack set in. Why the hell was her brother making her feel this? All she wanted to do was bring her father’s ashes home, spread them in the backyard and leave. Why did Gabriel insist on coming inside the house?

“Just admit that this house was nothing but a place for bad things to happen!”

Emma spun around.  “You need to stop blaming mom and dad. I know how awful things were in this house. But we’re grown now, Gabe. We can choose to let go of the hurt and anger and move on.”

“Let it go? How? We never had a happy birthday, or a merry Christmas in this house. Mom reminded us every day how much of an inconvenience we were to her. The burden we put on their marriage. It was just her excuse to treat us like shit and give dad a reason to drink.”

“It doesn’t matter now. They’re both gone,” Emma sighed, putting her hand on his shoulder trying to calm him down, hoping he would stop pushing so hard and let it go.

Gabriel pulled away. “I never understood how you could forgive either one of them so easily. It’s disappointing, Emma. I tried so hard to shield you from the abuse, stepped into a swinging fist as often as I could so you wouldn’t have to feel it. When the hell are you going to be there for me?”

Emma was dumbfounded. Be there for him? She thought she had been her whole life. She stood looking at him as he put on his jacket and walked to the door. How could he think for a second that she wasn’t there for him?

“I’m going out,” he told her. “I can’t be in this house.” His eyes were a dull olive green in the bad lighting, void of emerald spark they normally shine. It was this place. Being home sucked the life right out of him.

“Don’t go. I don’t want to argue about this. Stay.”

Gabriel shook his head. “I can’t. I have to get out for a while. I need some time alone.”

Emma stood still and quiet. There was no point in saying anything more. She didn’t want to be at the house any more than he did, but it was important for her to respect her father’s final wishes. She needed to do that for him. Maybe it was to help ease her guilty conscience for leaving him alone on that day. Being there in the house was her way of letting go of the past and letting her father’s soul rest. Things would be better in the morning, she convinced herself. Gabriel would see things differently after cooling off tonight. Everything would be better tomorrow.

* * *

Gabriel walked out of the house, the old door slammed shut behind him with a heavy thud. His feet pounded the creaky porch steps as he ran down them and got into his car. Before starting it, he looked back at the house expecting Emma to be right behind him. She wasn’t. A familiar feeling filled the pit of his stomach, a sourness churning inside as he pulled out of the driveway without her. It felt just like the day he left after graduation, alone for the first time, without his sister. But he was a grown man now and made his own decisions without feeling responsible for Emma’s foolishness to stay there. The tires kicked up loose gravel as he sped away from the house. He needed to cool off before returning. He needed to clear his head from the memories of his childhood.

The local tavern was still open, a few trucks lined the parking lot and Gabriel pulled in. A couple of drinks would help him forget about being back home and in this hell-hole of a town. He always wondered why no one in town ever did anything about the abuse. They had to have known that something was going on in that house.

Gabriel walked into the bar, neon lights hung behind the counter and the smell of stale whiskey and musty old wood filled his nostrils. He ordered a beer to get himself started. He wasn’t much of a drinker, never had been in fear that he would end up like his father. But tonight he just wanted to relax. A few locals kept to themselves, drinking away a long day at work or perhaps trying to forget they lived in the small town that was easy to forget once you left. A woman sitting a few stools down made her way to the seat next to him. He kept his eyes down, looking at the mug of beer in front of him.

“Haven’t seen you in here before.” Her voice was surprisingly soft and gentle, considering how late at night it was. By now he figured anyone in the bar would be shitfaced and slurring their words. Not her.

“Just passing through,” he told her. He lifted his head and looked at her when he felt her purposeful hand on his thigh. “I have some business to finish here tomorrow then I’m gone.”

The young twenty-something-year old brunette tightly squeezed his thigh. Her big, chocolate brown eyes beamed with excitement. This wasn’t her first pick up in this bar. Gabriel knew the woman was looking for a good time. Her black, low-cup top left little to the imagination as two heaving breasts nearly popped out the front. The placement of her crossed legs pointing in his direction showed her interest in him.

“Would you like some company tonight?”

Before he could answer, her velvety red lips met his and for a moment he lost himself in a kiss so passionate that he almost said yes. Flattered, he respectfully declined and chugged the rest of his beer before standing up and letting her hand fall to her side. He threw down a few bills on the counter. He knew she would show him a good time, maybe even help him forget he was in this shit town again, but the thought of dirtying himself with anyone or anything in this place made him sick to his stomach. Growing up here was like a cancer that drained the life out of his family, spreading its disease to everyone that lived here. He couldn’t wait to leave when he was old enough, and he did when he was just out of high school. He never thought he would be back.

“You have a good night, sweetheart.”

The woman smiled. “If you change your mind, I’ll be here until closing time.”

Gabriel didn’t bother giving her another look. Once he walked out that door, she’d never see him again. He wouldn’t take another drink and let himself make a bad decision like that. Unlike his father, he wasn’t going to let alcohol control his actions or give him an excuse to lose himself in selfishness in this town. He was better than that.

On the long drive back to his old house, Gabriel thought about driving passed. He could speed passed the turn and keep going. But what about Emma? He couldn’t leave her like that. It would be selfish and he wasn’t that kind of man. He sighed heavily and turned down the road that led back home. Before pulling into the driveway he noticed a light in the distance, bright and noticeable in the dark of the night. It was the light by the dam. After the big flood back in the 90’s, the town reinforced the dam and added safety lighting. It brought back memories thinking about the dam, and that night he fell. Even though it was his fault he had fallen on the wet concrete, Emma was the one who took the blame, saying she had convinced Gabriel to go there with her.

Then it suddenly made sense. He had been so angry at his father all these years, unwilling to forgive him, and in return had been taking out his frustration on Emma. All the times he helped influence the decisions in her life, breaking up with every boyfriend she had over the years, hurt that she would rekindle a relationship with their father when he wasn’t ready to. Emma had confronted her past a long time ago and chose to forgive her parents so she could move on and have a chance at a normal life. It was Gabriel who never did that. He suddenly felt awful for yelling at her earlier, saying that she was never there for him. She was always there for him and he was always there for her, not just as children but even to this day.  Gabriel sped faster down the road. He had to apologize to her. He couldn’t leave things the way they were.

* * *

Emma was sitting on the porch clutching her father’s urn tightly to her chest when she saw headlights pull in the driveway. Gabriel was finally home. She sat silently until he got out of the car and walked up to the porch.

“I’m sorry I left like that, Em.”

“It’s okay. I understand more than you think, Gabe.”

His strong arm wrapped around Emma’s shoulder. She was glad he had come back when he did. After he left, she had gone to her old bedroom, wanting to see the room she had grown up in.

Emma had pushed the door in slowly.  The weight on her chest was heavy, nearly suffocating her as she took a deep breath before looking in.  The room was blacker than black, the kind of darkness that was so heavily black that it made you shiver in fear.  She had fumbled for the light switch.  It flickered a moment then lit the room.  There was a small bed in one corner and a faded oak dresser beside it.  It looked like her room but not the way she remembered it.  The smell of her favorite cotton candy lip gloss and body spray no longer filled the room with the sweet innocence of a ten year old girl.  There was nothing but a musty stench that made her sick to her stomach.  Maybe Gabriel had been right to hate the house so much. Seeing her room for herself had changed her mind. She had been fooling herself by thinking she had let go of the past entirely, forgiving her father for the terrible things that happened there.

Now, sitting next her brother, Emma exhaled slowly, letting go of everything she had been holding inside. Years of therapy couldn’t have helped her get over this. It took coming home and confronting her real emotions to finally feel that she could move on.

“Can we just get this done and leave?”

Gabriel seemed surprised. His eyebrows raised and then he nodded. “If that’s what you want. I don’t want to push you to get this done and then you hold it against me the rest of your life.” He squeezed Emma’s shoulder.

“I will be fine. It was overwhelming to come here, but I’m glad we did.”

“Me too,” he smiled. “I think we both needed to be here one last time.”

Emma stood up. The urn in her arms felt suddenly heavy, realizing she had been holding it for a while now. Cold silver beneath her hands chilled her in the night’s darkened embrace. She walked with Gabriel around the house, following the faint glow of the front yard light. The back of the house was shadowed, various trees and shrubs were unkempt and covering the emptiness of the yard. It had been a life time ago since the vacant yard had seen children running through it, now a jungle of nature growing up there instead of a family.

“We spread mom’s ashes over there by the big tree,” Gabriel pointed in the distance to the back of the property. He dug his cell phone out of his pocket and used it as a flash light, walking towards the tree. “Let’s do the same for dad and get out of here.”

Emma thought it was a little rushed but given how exhausted she was, she didn’t argue. It was difficult to come back just to scatter ashes, and the last couple of days had been uneasy with Gabriel. Both were dealing with their father’s loss in their own way, now it was time for it to come to an end.

As the two stood statuesque in the backyard, pitch blackness surrounding them, they each were quiet with loss of words. What was there left to say? Their father was finally gone, something that both of them had wished when they were young but now standing before the big tree that had once felt the grey ashes of their mother, it was difficult to empty the urn. The trunk of the tree was thick, larger and more solid with years of growth alone in the yard. It had never felt the hands or feet of a child trying to climb it, or board being nailed to it as the foundation of a tree house. No, this big oak had been lonely all its existence, taking up space in an empty yard outside of a home that was always broken. It would feel the ridden ashes of an unloved one once again as Emma finally poured the remains of her father out of the urn. 

“Is there anything you want to say?” Gabriel respectfully asked, putting his hand on Emma’s shoulder.

She stood quiet a moment then shook her head with certainty. “It is done.”

 

 

 

 

 

 


© Copyright 2019 Renae Marie Schwemmer. All rights reserved.

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