Caleb watched the ant meander through the sympathy cards. He imagined it was as lost as he felt; the small creature weaved around and in the folded paper only to find dead-ends giving it no choice but to scurry out.
He drew a deep breath and exhaled as if trying not to disturb the silence around him. He didn’t need the air as much as he needed to remember he could breathe. His lungs subconsciously deflating like balloons had more to do with the desire to crawl under the safety of his bedsheets than it did with actual suffocation.
It had been a month, but Lily existed everywhere. In the obvious places like pictures on walls illuminating hallways and dresses that hung in the closet, to the less conspicuous well-wishers couldn’t see like the vanilla of her perfume permeating their blankets, cereal bags folded and clipped with care, and movies organized by director.
Caleb’s phone vibrated on the coffee table. His wife’s angelic face faded, replaced by his brother’s number across the screen. Technology. It took her away. That, and a selfish driver. If she had just waited, they would be together. But she left without him.
Caleb rolled over on the couch, pulled Lily’s favorite blanket over him, and began to cry.
Jack sat huddled in his room, cold, afraid, and felt more alone than he’d felt in his entire life. There was no longer any doubt in his mind: he was on his own. He did everything in his power to stay hidden from the other residents who had been there longer and resented it. Time was not on their side – a fact everyone knew.
As much as he tried not to, Jack couldn’t help reliving the scene over and over in his mind. What had gone wrong? What did he do to be forgotten? They’d talked about last year’s camp and how fun it’d been, packed his bag in the laundry fresh with Tide and grass stains, but when they drove off, it didn’t feel right. And camp last year never took this long.
Voices echoed down the hallway; Jack perked up and peeked out the door.
“Sorry, we meant to come yesterday to pick him up but just got bogged down. Did you get our message?”
“Oh yes,” Julie, the college student who runs the front desk smiled at the couple behind her. “It’s no trouble at all. He’s just down here.”
The three figures walked past his door and continued on down the hall. Jack felt his legs turn to water. He just made it to his starchy bed before he collapsed and closed his eyes in an attempt to drown out the happy reunion.
“You’ve got to get out more, man.” Tom passed the bag of chips to his brother and reached for his soda as Doctor Who flipped to yet another tedious commercial break.
“I get all the companionship I need, right here with you,” Caleb fished around the couch for a napkin and gestured to Toms chin.
“That doesn’t count. I’m your brother. And you know what I mean,” he accept the napkin Caleb offered. “We’re coming up on four months – and if I were you, I’d be getting sick of me.”
Caleb snickered his agreement then watched as a small child with green eyes twice the size of her face gazed blankly into the camera. “Did we not just see the same face on a cat in the last commercial?” He reached for the remote to mute the depressed, pleading voices. “Two species, same problem.”
He and Lily hadn’t told anyone they’d recently considered adopting. The commercials made his loss doubly painful and reminded him of how much he’d truly wanted to move forward with it.
As the conversation – and thoughts – moved to safer topics like Tom and Janet’s kids, business, the long summer, Caleb gave thought to his brother’s advice. Tom, always careful but matter-of-fact on the rare occasions he brought up areas even remotely related to Lily. For that, Caleb was grateful. His brother did his best to treat him as a person and not a breakable object.
“Ah, finally,” Tom relieved Caleb of the remote in time to unmute the TV just asDoctor Who made another appearance. “Quality programming.”
“Jack, you’ve got to eat.”
Julie brought in the evening meal but didn’t force him to come out of the closed, musty room. She glimpsed his brown eyes from deep within the shadows as they looked at her with such sorrow she almost cried, then they closed once again. Had he even moved since she checked in last? She sighed and sat near him on the cold floor.
“I know you miss them, and I’m so sorry,” she stroked his dark hair and noticed his shallow breathing. “But don’t give up, okay?”
Jack continued to lie on his bed, despondent.
After consulting Lily’s photograph on his nightstand, Caleb made his decision. He’d at least go visit. Tom was right, he needed to get out of the house.
The drive was short but refreshing with the window down, but when he parked the car, he felt his stomach knot up like it did right before an interview. As he unbuckled, Caleb smiled at the unexpected emotion taking him by surprise. Excitement. He stepped out of the car and into the light.
Jack heard the door open for the hundredth time that week and tasted a brief blast of fresh air weave its way into his room. A new family come to take away another. Not him. He remained in the comfort of the shadows to watch and listen. It was unavoidable.
Julie’s voice, bright and cheery as usual, echoed down the hallway. A warm little light in the darkness which Jack appreciated. He knew he didn’t show it, but he liked it when she worked. As they drew near then passed his room Jack saw a lone man walk beside her, not a family like he expected. The man smiled as he talked with Julie, but he looked sad. He looked – lost. Everyone came here with a purpose, what was his?
Jack looked up. This could be the most interesting person to walk through the doors in weeks. He strained to listen to their conversation as they approached on their return trip.
“No,” the man said. “No, that’s not him.”
“Well, there’s a few more left. I’m sure we’ll find him there.” Jack half-smiled. Julie, always so hopeful.
The couple passed by his room once more as he huddled invisible in the shadows. No surprise – no one stopped to say hi.
“Wait,” the man said.
Jack’s heart beat faster. He forgot it was there.
The man poked his head in Jack’s door. “Hey there,” he smiled and cocked his head. Jack cocked his head in response. He wasn’t sure he could find his voice after all this time. “Why don’t you come over here?”
Jack found he could stand and walked like a blind man to the door then looked up at the kind man whose melancholy face smiled down on him. He emitted such loss and pain, mixed with fearful hope, Jack felt like he’d found a person whose heart reflected his own. He understood without even hearing the story.
“This is him.”
Papers signed and Jack by his side, Caleb left a tear-filled Julie behind and opened the door for his new companion. Jack waited for him in the warm sun on the other side of the door, tail wagging.
“I knew you wouldn’t leave without me.” Jack barked his agreement and side-by-side, the two headed toward their future.
Story by: Joy Burke
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