The Road Less Traveled – Chapter 9
I pulled the key from the envelope. Looking back on that last fateful day, I spoke with her, she knew what was coming. Knew, or at least suspected Gabe and I would want to go into the house. With his hands stuck deep in the pockets of his jeans, he slouched beside me. It wasn’t that he was silent. He was dealing with some deep anger at Abby for hiding her illness and depriving him of the right to be with her at the end.
I was torn by it. I remember how worn and, at the end, resentful Abby had become by the time our mom died. I didn’t have it in me to condemn her decision to not put Gabe through that hell. If anything, the past couple of weeks had been some of the best in the boy’s life. And while I had serious doubts Abby would approve of everything to which I introduced Gabe, he needed to grow up and spread his wings. And even as I slid the key into the lock, I remained convinced Abby had chosen me, even though she knew Gabe’s life would spin away from my sister’s sheltered world.
I pushed the door open and found the light-switch on the wall. The living room was empty. The walls were bare, the furniture gone. Even the vinyl floorboards were spotless. Except for one corner of the room. Over there were a dozen boxes of various sizes and shapes.
Gabe pushed past me and stared about him, “Where is everything? It’s all gone, Syd!”
I was as taken aback at him as I crossed the threshold. As Gabe darted toward the hall to his bedroom, he muttered, “We’ve been fucking robbed!”
I moved past the boxes and passed through the small dining room. The plain table with wobbly chairs was gone. Even the kitchen was pristine. Thanks to the poor decisions our mom made when we were growing up, there weren’t very many family heirlooms or favorite porcelain plates to pass down. Abby hadn’t been able to add much to that very meager collection from a teacher’s aide’s salary. She had decorated her home from Walmart and Sears, with the occasional item from Goodwill thrown in to the mix.
Twenty-nine years on this earth and the sum total of everything she had was in a dozen boxes. When I returned to the living room, I noticed a manilla folder. Someone had written in cursive, “Gabriel Nelson” across the middle. Gabe burst into the living room, tears scalding his cheeks, “It’s all gone. Everything.”
He spun and ran through the dining room and into the kitchen, “They took everything! Even her angels!”
When I reached the kitchen, Gabe’s eyes were round, wild with distraught. I spread my arms, and he ran to me, nearly barreling me over as fresh tears fell shamelessly onto the shoulder of my blouse. I patted him on the back as, through broken sobs, he continued, “Mom had the most beautiful collection of angels. She kept them on the mantle in the living room. They’re gone too!”
I glanced through the doors. I could see the mantle against the outside wall. Seventy or eighty years ago, when the house was first built, it had included a fireplace. But somewhere between then and now, someone had bricked it up until the only reminder was the painted-over mantle. I hadn’t thought about them at the time, but I recalled a small collection of angels from when I picked Gabe up. They were carved angels you might find at Hobby Lobby or other craft stores.
I ran my hand through his hair as he cried. When he finally stopped, he confessed, “Me and Grandma went to her hobby store and picked them out for Mom each Christmas.”
I had no idea. No wonder Gabe was so distraught. I pulled him back into the living room and pointed to the envelope on the top box, “There’s a letter on top of the boxes. It’s addressed to you.”
He glanced at his name before wiping tears from his face, “Can you read it, Syd?”
I opened the envelope. A lone sheet of paper was its only occupant. “You want me to read it aloud?”
He nodded, resting his head on my shoulder. I pulled it out and read, “Dear Gabriel, your mom asked a few of us from school to help her clean up the house after she went into hospice care. She has been so supportive of other teachers over the years we couldn’t possibly have refused. We know you’ll be living with your aunt, so we boxed up everything from your room that we could and have set it in the front room. One of the boxes, labeled ‘Gabriel’s keepsakes,’ are things your mom wanted to give to you. If there’s anything we can do to help, please let us know.”
There was a lump in my throat that I had to clear before I could add, “There are several names of her fellow teachers. Even phone numbers.”
He released his hold and found the marked box and sat on the hardwood floor and opened it. Wrapped in bits of newspaper were the angels. When he got up, the tears were still there, but a smile played at his lips, “I thought I had lost them, Syd. But they’re still here.”
Gabe experienced something profound as he gently put the angel back in the box and closed it. While he was occupied with the box, the doorbell rang and a moment later the door cracked open, “Anyone here?” a voice called out, “I’m the landlord.”
A plump man stood in the doorway. Gabe and I were taller than him. He peered into the room, which was lit only by light filtering through the windows. “Ms. Nelson?”
Gabe was on his feet, interposing himself between me and Mr. Roly-Poly. For an instant, I thought of him as my bad-boy billionaire, and I alone was his conquest. The moment passed, and I rested my hand on the boy’s shoulder, “Yes?”
He eyed Gabe for a moment before nodding, “Sorry about your momma. I ain’t had a tenant stay longer than her. She was one of the good ones.”
Gabe relaxed a beat. “Thanks.”
The landlord scanned the room, “She was good at her word, when she told me about her illness. This is cleaner than the day I leased it to her.”
I marveled at how my older sister, facing her own mortality, wrapped everything up. Even now, I don’t know if I could do it half as well. I slid my arm down Gabe’s shoulder until I rested it on his upper arm, “We’re here for Abby’s funeral. Maybe take a few days to confirm everything is in order. We’ll get the boxes out before we leave.”
“Take your time. The house is still hers through the end of the month.” Roly-Poly reached for the door and paused. After a long moment, he reached into his back pocket and added, “I was going to inspect the house before deciding what to do about the deposit. But Abby was a woman of her word.”
He crossed the room and handed an envelope to Gabe, “When your mom first rented from me, she paid a deposit. She kept up her end of the lease better than most. It’s only right I do the same. Here’s your momma’s deposit back.”
With that, he turned and left.
Gabe opened the envelope. There was a small stack of bills with Ben Franklin’s face on them. I lived in a cashless world. Everything I earned was electronically deposited into my account. Every purchase I made was just as electronic. In Abby’s world, with small rental houses and postage stamp sized yards, cash was king.
I squeezed Gabe’s arm, “You ready to go? We should get checked into the hotel before the vigil. We can come back later and get the rest of your things.”
Gabe bent over and grabbed the box of angels, “This is all I really want. I don’t want the rest; it’s just stuff I’ve outgrown.”
Even though I’ve always resented my mom her choices, I couldn’t find it within me to resent seeing Abby laid to rest beside her. The writer in me found closure in it. And in a moment of reflection, maybe my problem with my mom was mostly about growing up poor than anything else. That first novel was like bottling lightning, and I never looked back.
Despite the working poverty Abby lived, one thing she had over Mom was a stable of good friends. People who know Abby kept coming up to us, bombarding Gabe and me, and telling us how much Abby meant to them. They were mostly teachers and teacher assistants at the school where she worked.
The tent over Abby’s grave was big enough to hold a couple of dozen chairs. While we had reserved seats at the front, some of my sister’s coworkers couldn’t find space under the temporary enclosure and had to stand under the warm early summer sun.
While we waited for Father Sandoval to prepare the area between the seating and the casket, a woman of indeterminant years approached. She gave us a weak smile, as though anything other than a somber expression was against the rules, “Ms. Nelson?”
I nodded toward her as Gabe fidgeted next to me. “Yes?”
She offered me her hand, “We’re all very sorry about Abby, and I felt called to come over and tell you how much we appreciated your sister. She was one-in-a-million.”
I wondered how many people get to hear this kind of praise during their lives. Or is it the salve that people who yet remain salve their consciousnesses for saying too little before it’s too late. I shook her hand, “My sister had a heart of gold, Ms.…?”
“Fuentes. I’m the PE teacher. Your sister liked bragging about her kid sister, the writer.”
I shrugged. “It pays the bills.”
She gave me an appraising look, “She said you did better than that. When I asked what you wrote, she was evasive.”
That was Abby. Proud of my success, but more than just a little embarrassed I made my living from soft-core smut for middle-aged women, like Mrs. Fuentes. “Lots of women enjoy a good romance novel.”
Her eyes perked up, despite the setting, “Really? I like sweet romances.” She listed off a few authors who played it safe with sweet romance.
I don’t know why, but I felt like she was being nosy. For fuck’s sake, we were there to bury my sister. I gave her a plastic grin, perfect for the setting, “Oh, then you’ve probably read some of catalog.” I gave her my pen name, “Maybe you read my breakout novel, Can’t Buy My Love?”
Mrs. Fuentes’ nostrils flared and recognition flickered in her eyes. She licked her lips, “Ah, I don’t think I’ve heard the name.”
By this time, Gabe wasn’t fidgeting in his seat; he leaned against me, “You’re Ms. Fuentes, right?”
He said, “Mom thought you’d enjoy my aunt’s books.”
Mrs. Fuentes worked her jaw, but no words came out. Finally, she managed a squeak, “My condolences for your loss.”
She beat a hasty retreat. Gabe leaned in and whispered, “I bet she has every one of your books, Syd.”
I bit back a chuckle. Without hypocrites like Mrs. Fuentes, writers like me would have much smaller audiences; still the encounter galled me. Fortunately, that’s when Father Sandoval stepped up to a lectern provided by the cemetery.
He offered a sad smile to me and Gabe, before sweeping a gaze across the crowded tent. He cleared his throat and said, “Our sister Abby Nelson has gone to her rest in the peace of Christ. May the Lord now welcome her to the table of God’s children in heaven. With faith and hope in eternal life, let us assist her with our prayers. Let us pray to the Lord also for ourselves. May we who mourn be reunited one day with our sister, Abby; together may we meet Christ Jesus when He who is our life appears in glory.”
I fought Mom tooth and nail when I was a teen and refused to go to Confirmation, and hadn’t been to a confessional since I was Gabe’s age. Still, I couldn’t deny there’s a pageantry to the liturgy. Gabe leaned his head against my shoulder. A single tear streaked his cheek.
Father Sandoval added, “Amen.”
A smattering of Amens greeted him from the crowd of mourners. The priest opened a Bible and read, “We read in sacred Scripture, from the book of Saint Matthew, chapter twenty-five, verse thirty-four. Come, you whom my Father has blessed, says the Lord; inherit the kingdom prepared for you since the foundation of the world.”
From there, he took a flask containing holy water and sprinkled it over Abby’s casket. Another prayer followed, in which he prayed for Abby’s soul. I wondered if it was a waste of time. It seemed to me if there was a heaven, Abby would have been one of the first to get in.
The liturgy continued, where he explained the ashes to ashes and dust to dust. God or not, it dawned on me sitting there, staring at my sister’s casket, the whole thing wasn’t for her. She was either with the angels or she was only a memory. Were I to strip away the veneer of religion away from the priest’s words, this was all about making it easier for those of us still here to move on. After all, life is for the living.
For the first time in more than a dozen years, I bowed my head and tuned the priest out. If Abby was still around, I needed her to know I would always take care of Gabe. In the stillness of my mind, I said, “Hey Sis, I don’t know if you’re still around, or if I’m just talking to myself. But if you are up there, I just want you to know how much I miss you. If you’ve been watching from up there, you’re probably ready to kick my ass, but I want you to know I love Gabe and promise to take care of him. You knew when you asked me to watch him I’d be a shitty aunt, but you still asked me to do it. So, I figure you knew I’d do my best to be his friend.”
I sighed and looked up. Father Sandoval was still reciting liturgy. Gabe leaned forward, his lips pursed, listening to the priest. I wasn’t very good at this prayer thing, but I needed to unburden myself to my sister, I looked down at the grass, “And as you’re my witness, I’m doing the best I know how. I vow I’ll keep him by my side until he’s eighteen. And I hope for a lot longer. I hope you can forgive me for the things I’ve already done to him, and for the things I’m still hoping for. Just know, I’m going to do my best for him, teach him everything I know, and help him become a man we’d both be proud of.”
The priest said, “Amen,” and again there was a smattering of amens in response.
He blessed the casket, then turned and made the sign of the cross over me and Gabe, “Merciful Lord, you know the anguish of the sorrowful, you are attentive to the prayers of the humble. Hear your people who cry out to you in their need, and strengthen their hope in your lasting goodness; We ask this through Christ our Lord.”
Again, that smattering of Catholics among the mourners responded, “Amen.”
They were the first to get up. Some filed by the casket, but most started back toward their cars. It was surreal. My mom never took me to a church funeral. Of the two I’d attended in high school and college, one was secular and the other was a Protestant service. I wanted to grab Gabe by the hand and make toward our rental car, but that seemed in poor taste, so I stayed in the seat, accepting condolences and making small talk with Abby’s friends. It was a shame Mrs. Fuentes beat a hasty retreat at the end of the service. I so wanted to suggest a reading list of other romance authors.
Finally, Father Sandoval came over, “You guys staying in town long?”
Gabe’s hand found mine as we stood. He spoke, “Mom took care of everything. The house, her stuff. Everything. Not that we had much.”
The priest said, “By the time Abby knew she was sick, the cancer was pretty far along. But she had enough time to make sure she didn’t leave behind a mess to clean up. I can tell you for a fact, most people either don’t get that kind of chance, or figure someone else will unravel the estate after they’re gone. At least your mom made sure that you have your aunt.”
Gabe shrugged, “I love my aunt. Some of me is glad Mom asked my aunt to come get me. But the rest of me is still upset she didn’t let me know she was dying. This sucks as a goodbye.”
The priest put a few items from the lectern into a satchel, “It’s okay to be angry at your mom, Gabe. But don’t let it turn to bitterness.”
He took his leave, walking toward the cemetery’s exit. I slid an arm around Gabe and we stared at the casket for a few minutes before eventually leaving.
The Holiday Inn Express was your typical hotel; two queen beds, a couple of chairs, and a table. When we returned after a painfully quiet meal at the Olive Garden, Gabe disappeared into the bathroom for a while. When he came out, he dressed like he’d been that first night he stayed with me, in just his underwear. He didn’t say a word, he just lay down and rolled onto his side, facing the wall.
“You okay, sweetie?”
He didn’t say anything. I let it alone for the time being. I tried to find something on TV, but after a bit, nothing struck my fancy. I turned it off and tried again. I crossed over and sat on the edge of Gabe’s bed, “Sweetie, you okay?”
His voice was muffled, “Leave me alone.”
When you love someone, you hate to see them hurt. Love can sometimes cloud our judgement. I reached out and touched Gabe’s shoulder. He shrugged it away, “I said, go away.”
I retreated to the other bed, “I’m sorry.”
He must have been trying to hide it until that moment. But now I heard his sobs as his shoulders shook. It took every ounce of my will to not go back to him. Frustrated because I didn’t know what to do, I went to the bathroom, where I tried to relax by taking a long bath.
As I lathered my legs and took my razor to them, I thought back to the last night, less than a week ago, when Gabe and I had fooled around in my bed. Since being back in Bakersfield, we had kept our distance from each other, at least sexually. He wore a shell of impenetrable grief. Although I had touched him, it had only been the way his mom might have. He hadn’t responded even to those awkward maternal touches.
On a scale of one to ten, where one is a preteen girl with no hair and ten is the wife of sasquatch, I’m probably a three or so. If I were to let my hair grow out on my legs, it would be pretty sparse. Even at its thickest, around my ankles, there’s not a lot. So, shaving my legs was a quick job. I’d been shaving my pubes since I found out several of the girls in high school shaved theirs. Once I realized how nice it made it when I masturbated, I never stopped shaving between my legs. After more than a week since my last shave, the stubble was thick between my labia and pubic mound. Still, with practiced ease, I returned it to its preferred state.
It had been a week since I last touched myself down there and part of me, the part who was hurt by Gabe pushing me away, wanted to ravage my clit, work myself up into a powerful cum. I discarded the idea when I realized the water was cooling; I’d been in the bathroom long enough. I dried off and wrapped a towel around my torso and went back into the other room. Gabe lay on his back, staring at the ceiling. His eyes were puffy and his cheeks were wet.
I grabbed a clean pair of panties from my travel bag and turned away from Gabe. I let the towel fall and then slid the underwear up my legs until I lightly slapped the frilly band against my lower abs. I felt his eyes on me and once I slid into my cami, I turned around. “Yes?”
Gabe said, “I-, I’m sorry about earlier. That was a dick thing to do.”
I wasn’t sure if it was a good idea, but I crossed the room and sat on the edge of his bed, “No, I shouldn’t have pushed. You take all the time you need, sweetie.”
He scooted over, giving me a bit more room, “No. I’m really pissed off at Mom. She had no right to hide how sick she was. But she treated you the same way she treated me. It’s stupid to take it out on you. The only thing I’m glad of was that you came and picked me up. I know that’s crazy. Pissed at her because she made me go away. Happy it was with you because you… well, you love me even more than Mom.”
I place my hand on his knee, “I wouldn’t say more than your mom. She loved you like only a mother can. I love you, well, like a girlfriend, only more.”
He wiped at his cheeks. “I-, I like that. Me too.”
He yawned, and I looked at the alarm clock on the nightstand between the beds. It was almost ten. And the day had been one of the worst in both of our lives. I stood and tugged at the covers, “Come on, Gabe, go on and get under the covers.”
Once under the covers, he said, “Um, Syd, is it okay if you hold me tonight, even if I don’t feel like being touched?”
“You want me to hold you, but not touch you?”
A ghost of a smile played at the corners of Gabe’s lips. “You know what I mean. On my, um, dick.”
I had to repress a smile. As I slid between the sheet and the cover, I hoped his lack of interest would not be long term. Even so, it felt nice once I shifted my body over to his back and snuggled against him. Just before Abby’s passing, I wondered if he might have pushed past my height. And now, playing the big spoon to his small, I noticed he was now taller than me, if just by an inch or so.
He grabbed my hand and pulled it to his chest, “Mm, that’s better.”
Before long, his soft sonorous snores told me he was asleep. For me, I lay awake wondering what held. It was a long time before I finally drifted off.
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