“Can’t believe you’re finally doing this.” Aunt Karen squeezed my shoulders, then ducked in for a hug. Her red hair tickled my face. If I closed my eyes and breathed in her Clinique Happy, or opened them and lost myself in her curls, I could fool myself into thinking it was Mom.
Karen had driven down from Santa Barbara, the same beach-town where I grew up. Said she wanted to keep an eye on Mom’s hydrangeas down the street. But I knew she couldn’t bear to let her older sister disappear into thin air, so she held onto Mom’s neighborhood, travel articles, and photo albums at breath’s length. I don’t know how she did it. Since the day Mom and Dad had died, I was looking to move, to run, to row away from the walled-in memories. And Karen looked so much like Mom that for years after her death, people called, “Joanne!” when Karen’s freckled, carrot-top head cruised past. I guess since she put on a brave face for me in the years following the shooting, she never grieved herself. Karen was the one at my hospital bedside when I came to and screamed for my parents. The one who let me sleep on their unwashed sheets for three months, who let me escape the chatter of gossip by sending me to St. Mary’s. She was the one who watched me bungee through the loss of my parents.
“I know. I can’t believe it either.” She had come to say goodbye to the three of us before we left on our final family journey. We walked upstairs in my Mission Beach condo to my bedroom, where I had half-packed. Jeans and tank tops, socks and underwear lay tossed about the room as if a tornado had whipped through.
Karen surveyed the disaster and issued a barely audible laugh. “Oh my. I don’t know how you do it.” She handed over a plastic bag—“I got you some things”—and sat in the green wingback chair, toyed with her crucifix necklace.
I peered into the bag: travel-sized detergent, electrical adaptors, Shout! wipes, a sewing kit and a roll of duct tape—“The guy at the store said it works for everything,” she said, shrugging her shoulders as I pulled out the grey wheel. Unlike Mom, Dad or me, Karen had never lived out of a four thousand cubic-inch backpack for three months.
I held up my yellow and black pack and pointed to the pile on the bed. “All of that. In this.” San Diego’s July sun streamed though the sliding glass, spotlighting the heap.
“Oh dear,” Karen said, crossing her arms, her crucifix now hidden in a fold of her purple shirt. “Okay, forget the detergent. But do wash your clothes at some point.”
“Yes, mother.” I smiled at her. She would mother me for the rest of my life, I knew.
Together we pillaged through the mountain of “must-haves” on my bed and pared them down to the essentials. My pack weighed a ton. “And those?” Karen pointed to the two copper urns that sat on my dresser.
“I’m gonna to carry them on. Gonna take ‘em out of the container. What do you think?”
She walked over to the twin vases, put her small hand out to touch them, hesitated, and pulled her hand back to her hip. “That would make them easier to carry. But wrap them in something, okay?” She sat on the bed. “Do you want help with them?” she asked, still staring at the curved containers.
“No. I’ll do it in the morning.” I had, in fact, washed the dishes, folded my laundry, even scrubbed my toilet, all in an attempt to postpone the inevitable: packing Mom and Dad. I had wanted to zip them away before Karen arrived, but I found myself scrubbing the kitchen floor instead.
“Okay, well…” she stood from the bed, walked back to the urns and quickly, maybe before she could think twice about it, bent down and kissed each of them on the wide bulge in the middle. “Traveling mercies,” she whispered the family send-off.
“T minus twenty-four hours.” My best friend Jodi raised her wine glass. The liquid swirled around as she held up the numbers two and four with her stubby, manicured fingers. Thank god for her—she was usually there when I didn’t want to drink the bottle by myself, though that wasn’t often. Since high school, we had shared at least a cave’s worth of wine and tequila in an effort to forget lingering thoughts: for me, dead parents, feelings of “survivor’s guilt” (such a stupid name), and for her, asshole fathers, jerk-nut boyfriends, penis-wrinkle men who didn’t call the morning after. The names got worse as the bottles grew lighter. He was the one, she’d claim. It’s wasn’t sex, Liv, we made love. He’s probably just busy at work or something. That girl had as many excuses for men who treated her like shit as she did track suits.
I had called Jo over when I found myself frozen in my room. Karen had just left, and I had started to pick a sweater up off the floor, and then caught the glint of the urns. It wasn’t until my back started to hurt that I realized I’d been leaned over, mid pick-up, for some time. Just staring. Like I hadn’t seen them before. Or wouldn’t again. I had called Jo in a panic: “I need you here. I need you to babble. Distract me. I’m leaving tomorrow and I don’t know if I can do this.”
“Of course you can do this. Of course I’ll come over. Isn’t Pete there?” she’d asked. But since my boyfriend, Pete wouldn’t be over for another hour and a half, Jodi had walked over, let herself in, found me still staring at the urns in my room, opened a new bottle of wine, pulled out her ponytail, unclipped her iPod from the waist of her magenta tracksuit and poured two sloshing glasses. She took a long swig of wine and unclipped her pedometer from the other side of her pants. “Ten-thousand-fourteen steps.” That girl was always counting something.
She brought the bottle over to the sofa and told me the mundane details of her day: hot guy in accounting definitely checking her out again, those shoes at Nordies finally on sale, some cutie at Sushi on the Rocks was this close—she pinched her pointer finger and thumb together—to buying her a drink, and day five of Jenny Craig, round four, wasn’t nearly as hard as days two or three.
She stopped spewing just long enough to take a gulp of syrah and stare into my green eyes. She shook her head; “Eeee! Daughter Makes Good on Parents’ Wishes…oh! It makes me want to cry.” She grinned and clasped her hands together like a cheerleader after a touchdown.
I topped up my glass. “Um, you’re supposed to be distracting me, Jo. How long’s this Xanax take to kick in?”
“You know what I say. If it hasn’t kicked in in twenty, a couple shots of old Jim oughta do the trick.” She glanced at the clock. “Pete will be here, huh? I’m gonna go. Gotta do my nails before hot guy in accounting sees I’ve been biting the crap out of them. It’s his damn fault! If he wasn’t so hot I wouldn’t be so nervous when I stare at him from my cube and I wouldn’t bite my nails like some kind of freak. Call me if you need to talk, or cry or freak the hell out.”
We walked to the door, and I thought I could feel my heart rate slow down for a second. The air in the room seemed breathable. The top of Jo’s head fit snuggly under my chin as we hugged, and I could smell saltwater on her brown locks. I hated all this hugging emotional bullshit. She clipped her pedometer back on and walked out onto the sun-splashed bay. I felt that catch in the back of my throat—the Xanax wasn’t working; I yawned to try to catch my breath and retreated to the last bit of wine.
I hope I didn’t freak the hell out. Would I cry? God I hope I wouldn’t cry. Maybe I’d feel nothing. Wouldn’t that be awesome? Just go, do my job, come home and head back to the travel agency, hit the bay for a row, have Pete make me lasagna. Jo was right; this thing was eight years in the making, and in less than twenty-four hours, I’d finally be doing it.
Eight years, and I was finally going to make good on my parents wish. I envisioned the priest who gave my parents’ funeral service almost a decade earlier. He had approached me in his long black vestment, two copper urns in hand. “Olivia, you’ve been really brave.” He had looked too young to be a priest and I was sure it was against priest rules to have a goatee. He had exhaled and glanced at Aunt Karen who mindlessly toyed with her crucifix necklace. “Your Aunt and I think you are the only one who can carry out your parents’ last wish.”
I looked up at him, my brow furrowed. Didn’t he know I was only fifteen and didn’t even have my driver’s license?
“In their will, your parents requested that their ashes be scattered on a beach in Costa Rica. They said you would know how to get there. These are yours, and when you’re ready, you travel with them one last time.” He reached his arms out, presenting the urns to me like Oscars. I stared into the dark cave created by his long, loose sleeve.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I had snapped, and took off running, stumbling on the wet grass. Of course, I knew the beach he meant, and I’m sure a part of me understood what I was being asked to do. But just then, I had to convince myself one last time that my parents, luggage and all, were on the next flight home.