Chatter and slow music and the pop of a wine cork.
Aunt Gertrude’s infamous pea soup. A store-bought veggie tray. The neighbor’s onion dip.
The plastic wristband that’s too tight. The paper gown that provides no protection against the draft. The coarse carpet that probably hasn’t been shampooed since my mother bought the house.
She’s sitting on the piano bench away from all the people, and she’s wearing the black dress Grandma bought her when we buried Dad. Her clenched fist is resting on the white keys, depressing three on the left-hand side. She’s holding a crumpled tissue and staring at the ground. Marcus’s sheet music is missing.
I suddenly feel angry. He’ll need it on Wednesday for his lesson. The recital is only a week away, and he’s been practicing “Jingle Bells” my whole visit. I only got him to stop today by offering to take him to get hot chocolate.
If my stepfather took the sheet music again, I don’t know what I’ll do. I turn to find him, to take it back. Marcus can help run the family diner and learn piano. The two aren’t mutually exclusive—no matter what Roger says.
I find him by the front door, talking to one of the neighbors.
“… black ice?”
“No. No. That’s what the police report says, but no. It’s got Alan all over it. He was speeding or texting or something. I just know it. I told Dana that he couldn’t be trusted behind the wheel again. I told her. But she trusted him—God knows why. Only six months sober! If the punk pulls through, I’ll insist that charges are pressed.”
My mother is suddenly beside me, and she’s looking at my stepfather. She’s clenching the tissue tighter now, and a few tears slide down her cheeks and dangle on the edge of her jaw.
They fall, finally, when she speaks: “Alan’s on life support, and—”
“He killed our son. Am I supposed to be singing his praises?”
I did what? I move my lips but no sound comes out. What are you talking about?
My mother raises her hand as if to slap Roger—but she never strikes. Her trembling lower lip drops, and a sob falls at their feet. It lingers there as she spins and runs from the room.
I start to follow her, but then I see them: the flower wreath, the 24-by-36 photo of Marcus on his 13th birthday, the collage of sheet music.
Roger walks through me to go after my mother.