So I put off bedtime as long as I could when Norma was around. Besides, someone needed to get the holiday decorations put away, and if it wasn’t me, they’d probably still be up come summer.
“Yeah, I read that email.” It was one of the reasons I’d been thinking about him.
“If you read the email, then you know as much as I do about him.”
Norma had waited until after my birthday to call Ben with the news about Dad. He’d taken it fairly well. He’d been upset, of course, but he hadn’t broken down like we’d expected. After that, he seemed to withdraw. Maybe that was his way of handling it. Or maybe he just wasn’t that worried about it, being across the country and all.
But then there was the email.
Norma had left her laptop up and her email open. I’d seen his name, so of course I read it. His four sentences had stayed in my mind like a memorized poem.
Checking in. Don’t bother sending more money this month. I’m working overtime this week. I won’t need any more.
It was fairly banal, really. Nothing special, but something about it put me on alert. It wasn’t the brevity of it—Ben was often a short and sweet type of guy. The message itself didn’t necessarily raise any red flags. And Norma regularly supplemented his paycheck from the movie theater that he worked at, so the topic wasn’t unusual.
Just, Ben wasn’t…strong. I hated to think of him as fragile, but that was a fair description. He’d been better the last couple of years. Not like before. He had his job. He had friends. Boyfriends, occasionally. I supposed I shouldn’t worry.
Still, he was far away. It bothered me not to have him closer where I could see him and know he was okay. Especially now that Dad would be out so soon.
I put my stocking on top of Ben’s, followed by Norma’s. “What did you think about the email? Did it seem strange at all to you?”
“No. Should it?”
Maybe it was me. I felt off. I’d felt off for several weeks. It started the night of my first encounter with JC and only grew more when I’d seen him again, but I refused to give him full credit for throwing me for an entire month. So he’d said some things that wouldn’t leave me. So he made my insides twist and turn with want. It didn’t mean anything. I was due for a total life examination. That he was there when it began was merely a coincidence.
But just because I was going through something didn’t mean that Ben wasn’t going through something too. In fact, considering the circumstances, I’d count on it.
“Maybe not.” I stood and pulled the ceramic stocking holders off the mantel, wrapping each piece one by one in newspaper. “Do you think it’s weird that he asked you not to send any money? I mean, why doesn’t he need any extra spending money?”
She buttered the top of the sandwich that was cooking. “He said he has overtime. He must be doing okay.”
“Even with overtime…is he not going out? Is he turning into a recluse? Is he not splurging on himself ever?”
“Gwen, you’re being paranoid.”
“You’re right, you’re right. I know you’re right.” But I couldn’t let the worry go. I felt an unexplainable anxiety. Like an itch that I couldn’t quite locate, I kept scratching at my mind, trying to figure out the thing that was making me so uncomfortable. So uneasy.
I bent to pack the final stocking holder and closed the tote. “We should go visit him.”
Norma flipped a sandwich, the butter sizzling as it met the hot pan. “Okay, tell me when and I’ll look at my calendar.”
This was how this conversation always went. One of us suggested visiting, and the other said to pick a date, and then neither of us would agree on a good week to take off from work. Maybe Norma wasn’t the only one of us that was a workaholic.
This time I meant it. I needed to see Ben. I needed the break. I needed…something. But what?
An image of JC popped in my head, which I quickly squashed. It wasn’t JC I needed nor anything he had to give. But maybe California for a weekend could make a difference. It was something at least.
I stacked the tote in the corner with the rest of the boxes that needed to be put in storage. There weren’t many—our celebrations were minimal at most. Then I crossed to the side of the island counter that was opposite my sister and stretched my body across it and propped my face up with my hands. “Let’s really do it this time, Norma. Not just talk about it. Let’s really go to San Francisco.”
“Of course.” She didn’t meet my eyes, but she was buttering the next piece of bread, so maybe I was reading too much into it.
The gesture also made me nostalgic. The whole situation did, in fact. It reminded me of days in college with Ben still in high school, both of us living with Norma. She’d cook for us then too. We never really celebrated holidays until it was just the three of us. This year, it had only been Norma and me.
I turned my face so my cheek rested against the granite countertop. “We really should have made him come home for Christmas.”
Norma pursed her lips. “He didn’t want to, Gwen.”
“But we should have convinced him.” So we’d had the conversation a few times. It didn’t change how I felt.
She removed the skillet from the burner and wiped her hands on her jeans. Then she turned her full attention on me. “He doesn’t want to be here. Don’t you get that?”
I straightened to a standing position and met her patronizing tone with one that was obstinate. “Then we should have gone to see him.”
“You didn’t want to miss work.”
“You didn’t want to miss work.”
She rubbed her hand over her mouth, and I suspected she was revising whatever it was she originally planned to say. After a moment, she nodded once. “Neither of us wanted to miss work.”
“Okay, well, let’s both miss work and see him now.” I cocked my head and studied her, trying to read her silence. “Why don’t you want to go?”
She rolled her eyes. “I didn’t say I didn’t.” She put the just cooked sandwich on a plate and pushed it toward me. “There’s grapes in the colander over there if you want some to go with.”
I slid the plate closer to me but ignored the topic of food. “You didn’t say anything. So I had to read your expression and your face said it’s not going to happen. Don’t you want to see him?”
She met my eyes. “I want to see him. Of course I do, Gwen. He’s my baby brother.” He was much more than her baby brother. She’d practically raised him. She’d practically raised both of us.