CHAPTER SIX // THE DAY OF THE VISITATION

A Brother’s Sacrifice: A Story of Loss & Grief
CHAPTER SIX // THE DAY OF THE VISITATION

The house was shrouded in unsettling quiet the following morning as all six of us ate our breakfast. The only sound came from spoons clacking against bowls and the occasionally crunch of cereal between teeth. There were no words, no unintelligible grunts, and no tears. As the oldest child in a family of eight, I was unsure I’d ever witnessed such a thing—silence in the place we called home.

Home is supposed to be a safe place. That’s a line I usually spit to my clients and to my foster children now. I’ve even said it to my own children. Home is supposed to be safe. So I lingered on that thought for a long time, yearning to keep our home a safe space. I started striving toward that goal that morning in the unsettling quiet. We had so many unknowns ahead of us—so many paths we could possibly take, and we had zero control over much of it.

My sister was the one to break the spell. She’d glanced around us, her eyes sweeping the room between slurps of cinnamon-tainted milk. “Where’s Mom?”

I blinked, turning toward her in my confusion. It took me too long to remember that she had been gone the day Mom gave me her credit card and left. She had been gone when Mom said she was done with us—done with me. She had been gone when Mom trashed the kitchen. She didn’t know about any of the events that had happened since the day I told her Dad was dead.

Jarod roughly pushed himself from the table, his chair scraping against the wooden floor. Reece scrambled from his chair, following close behind as Jarod trampled up the stairs. They didn’t need a reminder of all the things that had gone horribly wrong.

As Kaleb continued to eat his fruit loops, Chris answered her, his mouth snarling in disbelief. “Mom left us. Why do you think Austin was the one to find you?” He threw his spoon into his nearly empty bowl of cornflakes, milk splattering out the sides. “She probably won’t even be there today.” There was a long moment of silence as Sabrina processed Chris’ claim.

I’d considered the possibility of Mom avoiding the visitation and funeral. In fact, I was fairly convinced she wouldn’t be attending. Still, I had hoped she would. I had hoped her lapse in judgement was simply that—a lapse. Maybe she would come back, sweep us into her arms, and apologize for leaving us at such a gruelingly difficult time.

It was a while before I eventually stood to break the returned silence. “Do you all want to help find Mom and Dad’s old photos?”

Since I’d decided to keep the services closed casket, we needed plenty of displays that guests could look at. At least, that’s what Pastor Mack told me.

Soon, all six of us were gathered around the table, digging through piles and boxes of old photographs. I distinctly remember finding a sepia-tinted photo of my father at age two—a time when he was probably a happy child in a happy home before his father had to be permanently hospitalized and his mother killed and his brother jailed. There was another photograph of him with our mom taken on the Fourth of July in 1984, Mom’s belly swollen to make room for me.

Hundreds of happy faces smiled at us as we sorted through the photos, assembling them on Styrofoam boards we planned to place around the church foyer. Photographs from Christmases, Halloweens, Easters, and other holidays dominated half the table, several of them threatening to spill to the floor.

We were having a good time. It wasn’t until I started loading the boards into my trunk when I realized things weren’t gonna stay that simple. I stood on the front porch staring at my car, counting seats in my head, then counting my siblings as if that number had miraculously changed, and let out a frustrated roar, my foot slamming into the wooden railing. Only months before had our family owned a minivan—one that was probably in a junkyard being scavenged for scraps. When Dad wanted to take us to church, we usually split between my car and his. We didn’t have his car anymore, not after the accident that totaled it. With Mom gone, it was just my car in the driveway by its lonesome, unable to haul every one of us to the church. Maybe we could have stuffed someone in the trunk. The drive wasn’t too bad. But I hadn’t thought of that and even if I had, my morning vow of safety was too important to break. Tears leaked from my eyes as I struggled to stay calm, but my body shook with the anger it held.

Jarod was the first to find me. For some unknown reason, he thought the best way to gain my attention was to scream bloody murder as he climbed onto the railing. He had miraculously managed to balance himself on the thin, ageing wood, but still, I quickly yanked all seventy pounds of him onto safe ground and urged him back in the house.

Figuring the best I could do was give Pastor Mack a call to see if he could help with transportation, I starting searching for the phone. Before I could find it, Sabrina was running down the staircase, announcing that Dalton was gonna give her a ride.

I shook my head, immediately against the idea. “You know I don’t like that kid,” I vociferated, anger continuing to bubble through my veins. I don’t recall much of the argument that ensued, but it went on until my hand was inches from her face, ready to slap her. I managed to stop myself as she caught her breath, almost as shocked as I was that I’d almost hit her. She continued to glare daggers at me, the clamor of our argument disappearing in an instant. After a moment of silence, she stood with tears in her eyes. “You’re not Dad, remember? Just because Dad died doesn’t put you in charge! God, Austin, he died. Can’t we respect that and move on with our lives? You don’t have to give a damn about me. That was Dad’s job. Stop trying to replace him because it’s not working! Let Dalton give me a ride. For Christ’s sake, it’s just a ride!”

Slowly lowering my hand, at stared at her in disbelief. “He’s a drug dealer, Sabrina. Dad wouldn’t want some stupid sophomore drug dealer to take you to his visitation. It’s a disgrace and a dishonor to his memory.”

I knew, despite my argument, she would leave anyway. She was probably the most stubborn of all of us. I couldn’t help but think she would leave like Mom did and honestly, for a while, I spent a lot of time trying to keep her from doing that. I needed her to stay—to help—because I believed there was no way I could hold our family together without her. It was a fear that stuck with me for a long time. Sighing in compliance, I nodded, agreeing to let her leave with Dalton. I hope that maybe, just maybe, if I gave her what she wanted, she wouldn’t leave me.

I didn’t want to let Dalton’s truck out of my sight, so as soon as Sabrina flew out the front door to meet him, I quickly gathered my brothers, ushering them into the car. Kaleb had different plans.

As I stood at the front gate watching Reece climb out of the tree house, a long-winded scream erupted from within. Recognizing the sound of a Kaleb-sized meltdown, I slouched tiredly forward, making my way to the treehouse. Reece jumped the rest of the way to the ground, leaving room for me to climb the ladder. Luckily, Kaleb didn’t fight my embrace and I was able to carry him to the ground and to my car. Unfortunately, his screams didn’t stop at the change in scenery, and we had to listen to his amplified shrieking all the way to the church. I was practically speeding down Lamar and across Shawnee Mission Parkway, attempting to lessen the time we all had to spend in the car with him. The second I screeched to a stop in the parking lot a few spaces from Dalton’s truck, I ordered Chris to keep an eye on our sister. Reece and Jarod all clambered out of the backseat as I unlocked the trunk, handing the posters to them so they could carry them inside and escape the screaming. Then I hoisted my youngest brother out of his seat and into my arms, hugging him tightly to me the way I did with my kids years later.

“What’s wrong, Kaleb?” I whispered, not expecting an answer. I hadn’t heard him say a word in three days. His screams melted into loud sobs, the water from his tears soaking my sleeve. Most of my siblings had gone inside, but still I stood there holding him, exhaustion seeping in. I couldn’t stop my own tears from joining in Kaleb’s melody.

. . .

The church foyer was packed with people for the visitation. Practically the entire church body had shown for support, as well as eleven junior varsity cheerleaders from Sabrina and Catherine’s squad, six police officers, a few of my friends, and a handful of people I either  vaguely recognized or not at all.

Now, the story I’m about to share I’ve heard from multiple different perspectives, but this is how I remember it.

I was on the other side of the room by a refreshment table, Catherine talking my ear off with trivial gossip I had no hope of remembering. To be honest, I wasn’t paying much attention to her because there were a lot of people passing by us to quickly offer their condolences. The only part I definitely remember was Catherine pulling me to the wall with my tie, one of her knees tickling my inner thigh, her tongue dancing in my mouth. It was in the middle of all that when the room hushed. Catherine had pulled away by then, opening her mouth like she was going to suggest something, when her eyes darted behind me, widening at whatever sight had caught the room’s attention.

That’s when I heard Reece’s desperate voice. “Dad? Wake up. You’re sleeping through the party.” His voice grew more frantic as he continued. “Dad! You never miss a party. You love them. Look at all these people.” The sobs were starting to reach his voice. “Dad! Please wake up!”

I closed my eyes, willing Reece’s words to disappear. Maybe they were a weird, grief-induced hallucination. Because no way were any of the adults gonna let Reece see inside the casket. In that moment, I attempting to collect my thoughts and emotions, my fists and jaw clenching. My sister whimpered in the nearby corner as I struggled to breathe evenly. When I opened my eyes again, Catherine’s were there to meet their gaze, her arm reaching for my shoulder. I flinched, turning to see exactly what was happening by Dad’s casket.

The crowd had thinned since the last time I’d scanned the sea of visitors. The cops were gone, probably to get back to their shifts. Still, most people were still there, standing and staring at my brother’s unraveling.

I couldn’t see my dad. I was too far back to see much over people’s heads, but Reece, who appeared to be on top of Dad in the casket, was mostly visible. Our youth pastor attempted to lift Reece out as I made my way through the crowd, but my brother would only thrash around, disrupting Dad’s corpse. As I got closer, I caught sight of Jarod with his feet balancing on the stand, struggling to see inside. I headed straight for him, my arm tightening around his waist as I lifted him for the second time that day. Angrily, I plopped him a few feet away, turning to help Pastor Brendan with Reece. Jarod quickly returned to his viewing spot, but by then, Reece was my priority. He was disturbing the crowd of onlookers. I nodded to Brendan to grab Reece’s arms as I went for his legs. After I dropped Reece’s legs to the floor, I ran to the casket, grabbed the lid, and threatened to close it on Jarod’s fingers if he didn’t move. It must have scared Jarod because he lost his balance, falling backward to the floor as I locked the casket.

Dragging Jarod to the back of the room, I prepared to yell, Reece’s cries still occurring in the background. I knew opening the casket hadn’t been Reece’s idea. It had Jarod written all over it. Sputtering inaudible words, I struggled to find the correct phrase to shout. Tears were spilling from my eyes, blurring my vision as my emotions spilled overboard. After several seconds, I gave up, pulling Jarod into a hug. I knew why he wanted to see Dad. I just never thought he needed to.

It was another hour or so before most people started to leave. The crowd had thinned to only include a handful of people by the time I realized my sister had disappeared. I knew Kaleb was hiding in the children’s pastor’s office and I spotted Jarod and Reece playing a game of Uno with Pastor Mack’s son. Chris was speaking to an elderly couple near the entrance, but Sabrina was nowhere to be found. I checked all the rooms to be sure I hadn’t missed her before I headed to the entrance to check if Dalton’s truck was still in the lot.

Chris waved me over as I tried to pass and I obligatorily joined his conversation with the elderly couple, peering out the doors every few seconds to see if I could catch a glimpse of the truck.

Chris introduced me to the couple. “They say they’re Mom’s grandparents. They actually raised her for half her childhood.”

“Oh.” I blinked, offering a hand for them to shake. “I didn’t know Mom still had other living relatives.”

The woman chuckled. “We didn’t know she had six children.”

“We haven’t seen her since she married,” the man chimed in. “Not surprising. She’s always been Miss Independent. Never wanted our help for anything.” The man’s eyes sparkled with the lighting of the room. I struggled between wanting to know more about them and wanting to find my sister. Sabrina won.

“I’m sorry,” I said to them the one and only time I met them. Our great-grandmother would pass a year later, her husband a few years after that.

I reached the parking lot only to find the space where Dalton had parked empty.

. . .

Copyright © 2021 E.K. Barnes
This story is the intellectual property of E.K. Barnes. Under no circumstances can the above text be copied or distributed without the express written permission of the author except for the use of brief quotations. Copying and redistributing is illegal and punishable by law.
This is a work of fiction. All characters, organizations, and events portrayed in this novel are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.

CHAPTER FIVE // THE DAY I FOUND MY SISTER UNCONSCIOUS

A Brother’s Sacrifice: A Story of Loss & Grief
CHAPTER FIVE // THE DAY I FOUND MY SISTER UNCONSCIOUS

Sabrina’s diary had neon flower petals made from duct tape neatly decorating the front cover. They’d been flattened, probably for practical reasons, but were still hard to miss. For someone who liked, and still likes, to keep secrets, she probably should have gone with something a little less conspicuous.

“Dalton Carney!” Chris said, exclaiming it as if the name were an unearthed treasure.

I had immediately recognized the name—Dalton Carney wasn’t exactly someone I could easily forget—but the likelihood that he had anything to do with Sabrina’s whereabouts was slim. As far as I knew, they hadn’t spoken in years.

Chris continued. “She claims he’s not her boyfriend, but he’s definitely more than just a friend.”

I scowled. He had to be reading an old entry. Sabrina and Dalton had been close friends from kindergarten until middle school. He hadn’t been a fan of her integration into the popular crowd when she made the cheerleading squad in seventh grade. He spread horrible rumors around school that were so bad, Sabrina would come home crying. At one point, she begged our parents to let her transfer somewhere else. Not to mention that the entire fiasco led to me getting suspended because I picked a fight with him in the middle of the school cafeteria. How could Chris have forgotten any of this?

Grabbing the diary out of his hands, I flipped to the latest entry. The date was recent.

“Apparently, they’ve been sneaking around,” Chris said, summarizing the entry. He lowered his voice, attempting to add a layer of spooky mystery. “It’s a scandal of sorts. Turns out her friends don’t know about it either.”

I rolled my eyes. “This isn’t a game, Chris. If she’s with Dalton, that’s not good.”

. . .

Dalton lived only six blocks away in the same worn-down house on Riggs Street that he’d always lived in. His mother was a single mom who was rarely around, always out working to pay the bills. Sabrina told me later that his mom almost never came home by that time. She’d accepted a live-in nanny position for a wealthy family in Mission Hills. Dalton basically raised himself.

As a teenager and young adult who worked hard to keep his family together—and in the process of doing that, managed to keep us off social services’ radar—I thought of Dalton’s case as just another one of ours. He did what he did to survive. But now, as a fully fledged adult with a social work degree and a revolving door of foster children, I wish someone would have stepped into his life and made a positive difference. I wish his life hadn’t taken the path it did.

It was almost midnight when I got to the door, the concrete steps crumbling under my weight. If it wasn’t for the flickering upstairs light, I would have though no one was home. Dalton’s truck hadn’t yet roared into the driveway. I wasn’t waiting long, though, until it did. My knuckles barely had time to knock on the door.

Slamming the door of his truck closed, Dalton stood with a cigarette crushed between his lips, his eyes assessing me as he stepped into the porch light. He jerked his head to the light in the window, jingling his keys. “I don’t think you want to go in there.” His eyes were wide, staring at me in a clear attempt to intimidate. I wasn’t afraid of Dalton. I had several pounds on him, five years of basketball behind me, and a better pair of lungs.

“Why? Afraid I’ll see something I don’t like?” I asked.

Dalton blinked and shrugged. “Whatever, man. Your loss.” He shuffled past me to unlock the door, then guided me inside.

The house was a disaster, stinking of warm booze and cigarettes. Pieces of popcorn and peanuts were strewn across the living room floor, multicolored chewing gum having lodged itself into the old carpet in multiple locations. Some of the pieces fossilized shoe prints. The couch was the same one he’d had since we were kids, but over the years it had seen wears and tears, fluff and springs sticking out of holes. Blue paint peeled off the walls, revealing a bare, blanks late of rusty manila. The television waws small and outdates, pricked with antennas that probably only collected the free local channels.

I could see the kitchen from where I stood, the sink piled high with yellowing dishes threatening to spill. House flies danced around them, searching for extra scraps of food.

Dalton appeared nervous for a second, sliding something I could see with the back of his foot until it was under the couch. I didn’t care much about what it was at the time. My goal was to find my sister.

“She’s pro’ly upstairs,” Dalton said, slurring a little as he made his way to the short, carpeted staircase.

I followed him to his bedroom, only to find Sabrina passed out on the floor. There was a bag not too far from her, filled with a substance I could only guess at. My heart leaped into my throat, my arm jutting out to grab Dalton, pushing him into the wall. I kept my right arm across his chest to pin him, leaning close to his face so I could study his face. “Are you high?” Dalton laughed, but I cut him off. “Answer me!”

His eyes drifted toward Sabrina before snapping back to me. “What if I am? You gonna call the cops?”

I jerked away, memories from the other night flooding back to me. No cops. I couldn’t take another interaction with them so soon, especially with my mother gone. Swallowing, I blinked away the memories. I didn’t need the cops. The second Dalton stepped forward, I swung my fist, my knuckles slamming into the space between his eyes. Dalton cried in pain but quickly recovered, pulling a switchblade from his pocket. Damn. I couldn’t fight a bladed weapon with my fists. Backing away, I tripped over the bag, losing my footing and falling next to my unconscious sister. Shaking her, I tried to wake her. She was at least breathing, but seemed to be trapped in her sleep.

“What did she take?” I asked Dalton desperately, not that I would have known what to do.

Dalton snatched the bag from the floor, setting it on a small scale on the dresser. “Not coke,” he said after a second of reading the weight. “You thought I got your sister hooked on coke?” He laughed at the apparent ridiculousness of my assumption, shaking his head. “She’s right. You really are dumb. Sabrina wouldn’t touch this stuff if her life depended on it.” After grabbing the bag, he tossed it in the top drawer. “Her morals make no sense to me. I see her smoking weed at parties all the time.”

I knew pot was a popular party drug for people our age. I had attended plenty of parties where people smoked it. I’d even tried it once. But for some reason, when Dalton said that about my sister, it shocked me. Maybe because it was my sister he was talking about. I still saw her as a little girl I needed to protect. We were only seventeen months apart in age, but before we essentially became orphans, we weren’t close. We weren’t partners in crime, so to speak. She had her circle of friends. I had mine. While, yeah, we had attended a couple of the same parties, we were rarely in the same room. I never saw her take anything she wasn’t supposed to.

 But that wasn’t all that was bugging me. Propping myself on my elbows, I addressed Dalton. “If you hurt her so bad, why did she come to you?”

Dalton plopped on his bed, pulling his eyelid with one finger and removing a contact lens with another. He took his time, carefully placing them in a container before answering my question with another question. “If you thought I hurt her so bad, why did you even look here in the first place? Something or someone had to convince you to come here, otherwise you wouldn’t have stepped within three feet of me.” He stared at his worn shoes. “I’m worthless, remember?”

His words sent a shock through my system, reminding me once again of our middle school years. It hadn’t just been that one fight in the school cafeteria. I spent the rest of my eighth-grade year keeping Dalton on a lower than low level. I was the reason he thought he was worthless.

I shook my head, once again ridding me of memories I would rather forget. I zeroed in on a different key word. “If I thought?” That drama with him and Sabrina wasn’t exactly something I had misinterpreted. I stood. “What d’you mean, if I thought? I was there when Sabrina ran home crying every day because of something you said or did. I was there when the rumors you started were circling through the entire school. My mom—” My breath caught in my throat at the thought of her, but I kept going. “My mom was about to launch the entire Johnson County Sheriff’s Office after you.”

Sabrina moaned, my shouting having finally done the job of waking her. “Oh God.” She coughed as she sat herself up, her hand running through the frayed fabric of the carpet. “This floor is awful.”

Dalton and I ignored her, stuck in our staring contest. I knew he wouldn’t have a good comeback ready to aim and fire in my direction. I was right. He had hurt my sister. So why was I finding her in his bedroom of all places?

Sabrina’s hand hit the edge of the mattress, using it to pull herself upright. “God, I must have rolled off.” She stretched her limbs, rolling her neck from side to side. “Guys?” When we didn’t respond, she shoved herself into my side, forcing me to break eye contact. “I don’t you guys to fight. It’s not worth it.”

I stumbled a few steps, but she wasn’t strong enough to completely knock me off my feet. “Let’s get out of here,” I said, wrapping my arm around my sister and guiding her out the way we came.

It wasn’t until we were outside in the pitch blackness of night when I let go. She stumbled out of my loosening grip, rubbing her hands where mine had tightly held her. “You’re the worst, you know that?”

“Please tell me you’re not drunk or high,” I said through gritted teeth.

“What if I am?” She asked, defiant.

I glanced at her figure in the dark, unable to fully assess her. She seemed coherent and she was walking fairly straight as we made our way down the sidewalk. “You’re not,” I said confidentially.

 She was quiet for a long time, hugging her arms to her chest as we walked. “How’d you know where to find me?”

Hesitating, I walked a few more paces before answering. “Chris found your diary.”

“I’m gonna kill him!” she screeched, her hands balled into fists at her sides. For a second, I was surprised she’d continued to walk home with me, but that’s when I realized she had nowhere else to go. I’d found her secret hiding place.

. . .

Copyright © 2021 E.K. Barnes
This story is the intellectual property of E.K. Barnes. Under no circumstances can the above text be copied or distributed without the express written permission of the author except for the use of brief quotations. Copying and redistributing is illegal and punishable by law.
This is a work of fiction. All characters, organizations, and events portrayed in this novel are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.

CHAPTER FOUR // THE DAY I MET MY GRANDFATHER

A Brother’s Sacrifice: A Story of Loss & Grief
CHAPTER FOUR // THE DAY I MET MY GRANDFATHER

My uncle was (practically) on death row. I don’t usually lead with that, nor do I call him my uncle, but that’s what made it so easy to find him.

In 1976, the year my dad’s brother was given a life sentence, the supreme court allowed states to reinstate their death penalty law. They tried to bring it back in Kansas—used prisoners’ names and charges to convince people it needed to be done. Nobody likes murderers, especially ones like Kenny Brunswick. His young age didn’t give him any points with the jury, nor did his family history of mental illness. I have no sympathy for him, even after reading my father’s journal recounting the months leading to Kenny’s initial imprisonment.

Dad held a lot of anguish in his heart regarding Kenny. Despite all that his brother did, I think Dad was still hoping for something good to come out of it. Nothing ever happened though. Kenny killed their mother, which he swore was an accident, but even if it was, it didn’t stop him from being charged with other crimes at a young age. When he was released from Juvie, he killed two more women, which was what ultimately led him to a life in prison.

There’s a line in my dad’s journal from 1979 that reads, “Kenny didn’t want Carlin’s veto.” It’s followed by three messy question marks, the black ink bleeding through the page. Carlin was the governor at the time. He had decided to veto legislation that would bring back the death penalty in Kansas. His veto was something Dad was counting on. But after returning from a prison visit, he’d discovered his brother (as always) wasn’t on the same page as him. It wasn’t too many entries after that Dad wrote about Kenny’s suicide.

I didn’t know most of this until the day Pastor Mack called the Douglas County Sherriff’s Office. Even then, I was only given the short summary of his charges and the name of his last living relative. That’s how I came to know my paternal grandfather.

Dad never talked about Grandpa. Extended family was one of those topics that never saw the light of day in our house. When I was little, I remember asking why I didn’t have one. Most kids have grandparents to tell stories about or share on Grandparents Day. Dad would explain to me that he grew up in foster care. He didn’t have a family, at least, not in the traditional sense. Mom would say nothing. If we tried to prod her for answers, she would hide from us or enter Bliss. For a long time, I thought she was a foster kid too.

Having a grandfather wasn’t something I was prepared for. Or rather, Ernie Brunswick wasn’t the type of grandfather I was prepared for. I thought maybe Dad and his brother were abused or something and that’s what started their family trauma. Maybe Dad didn’t talk about Grandpa because he was a drunk. Maybe he’d died or was absent or Dad didn’t know his name. I wasn’t prepared to be given an address for a mental institution in Kansas City. Even then, I continued to entertain some of my previous theories.

I’d convinced Pastor Mack to let me go alone. He and his wife took my brothers in for the afternoon while I drove to the city.

I’d never visited anyone in a mental hospital before, but it felt a lot like how I imagined visiting a prison would be like. I had to put all my personal effects in a box before they let me in the visiting center. A woman with red horn-rimmed glasses put down the book she was reading only long enough to give me a form to fill. The author’s name on her book was bigger than the title.

When I finished filling out the form and handed it to her, she gave it a quick once-over, stamped it with the date, and motioned to an orderly who looked more like a security guard than a medical assistant. I followed the orderly down the hall and into a large living room type place, where he pointed to a scruffy man who looked like who I imaged my father would if he had lived thirty more years and had abandoned all interest in his appearance.

I tried to walk confidently toward him, wanting to keep the visit strictly business. I figured this man was probably a terrible person. It was easier that way, I guess—easier to have someone to blame. But the way Grandpa’s eyes lit when they saw me threw my mind for a loop. My heart jumpstarted at the sound of his smoky voice. “Aden!”

Aden was my dad’s real name—the one he was given at birth. It was the name my sister gave to her son years later as a middle name, forever blocking any of us from using it.

The man laughed—a throaty chuckle as I reached him. For a second, I thought he would hug me, but all he did was twitch excitedly in his chair, his smile broadening to show the many gaps in his teeth. “How long has it been since your last visit?” he asked as I took a seat near him. “You don’t look like you’ve changed at all. Have you heard from Kenny recently? He still hasn’t stopped by since the last time you were here.”

My heart sunk. This man had been waiting to hear news from his family since 1978 and not one of them had filled him in on anything. He didn’t know about Kenny’s suicide or Dad’s marriage to Mom or me or anybody. I closed my eyes, taking a deep breath before introducing myself. “I’m not Aden. I’m his son, Austin.”

Grandpa’s smile dwindled, his eyebrows bunching in confusion. “But you’re the same age. You look just like him.” His brown eyes darted back and forth, not focusing on anything but his thoughts. His breathing came in quick, panicky spurts as he started to stand. “Unless you’re a clone.”

Maybe somebody should have warned me—the receptionist or the orderly or anyone—that Grandpa had paranoid schizophrenia. Maybe they thought I knew. Who visits a mental hospital without knowing what ails the person they’re visiting? I guess a seventeen year old with no prior knowledge of his extended family and who had lost his father less than forty-eight hours before. The orderly had to step in—hold Ernie Brunswick back.

“There is a reason cloning is illegal. This isn’t fair.” His head kept swiveling between me and the orderly as he tried to explain why it was unethical for them to let a clone in the building.

I tried to step in—dismiss his fears. “I’m not a clone, Grandpa, okay. I am your grandson. I’m Aden’s oldest son. Look, I don’t know how long it’s been since you last saw each other, but it was obviously before I was born. Today is May 26th, 2002, if that helps you at all. My father hasn’t been my age since the seventies.”

“Time traveler?” Grandpa whispered, but he was calming.

I hesitated. There was still one more thing I needed to tell him. “Aden passed away two days ago.”

Grandpa’s eyes narrowed, his jerky movements stilling. The orderly kept his hands held in a blocking position. They moved when Grandpa moved, but all Grandpa wanted to do was slump in his chair defeatedly, letting all the air out of his system for a second before gasping it back in. Tears formed in his eyes. “Did you say my son is dead?”

My hands shook and I worked to hide them. It felt like every time I had to break the news, a piece of my heart broke off. I thought soon there’d be a giant hole where my heart used to be. Nodding, I stared at my shoes, zoning out for a second, attempting to clear my mind from the chaos.

“Always thought Kenny would be the first,” Grandpa grumbled.

I took a moment to collect my thoughts, debating if I should tell him about Kenny too. There was a chance he’d already been told and had blocked the memory or was denying it had happened. We were sitting in a mental hospital after all. But something told me he genuinely hadn’t heard. I shook my head, deciding I would keep the secret. He didn’t have to know that both his sons were dead.

“Do you have any other relatives?” I asked. “Dad didn’t really tell me about his family.”

Grandpa furrowed his brows. “That is not like Aden at all,” he murmured. “I wonder why he would keep the family a secret. He must have just liked you better than me.” Grandpa smiled. “I have parents who live in Lawrence. They would be sad to hear about Aden. He was their favorite.”

I didn’t stay long, even though I felt bad that Grandpa had been abandoned, living without his family in a prison-like building for at least twenty-five years, maybe longer. I didn’t have time to stay with him, though. So I left him in the visiting center and didn’t come back for a long time.

In the lobby, I asked the lady with the horn-rimmed glasses for my great-grandparents’ contact information. Grandpa had given me the wrong details. His parents weren’t in Lawrence. They have never been in Lawrence. Up until his permanent hospitalization, they’d lived near the Plaza in a big house on Janssen Place. Then they moved to Fenton outside St. Louis.

I didn’t have a cell phone then. Not everyone did in 2002. I had to drive home before I could dial their number. On the way, I picked up my brothers from Pastor Mack’s, only giving him vague details of what I’d found out. While I was gone, he had planned the visitation for the next day. When I got home, I dialed the number the horn-rimmed glasses lady had given me and waited for someone to pick up. An elderly woman answered.

“This is the Brunswick residence,” she answered in a shaky but somehow snooty tone—the kind rich people have on comedy shows except without the British accent. I found out later they came from money. I should have known considering their previous residence. The houses near the Plaza have always been marvels.

“Hi,” I said, struggling for a second to find what I wanted to say. “My name is Austin Brunswick. My dad is Aden Brunswick. I think he’s your grandson?” There was a long silence on the other end. I hoped that meant she knew who I was talking about. “I thought I’d let you know that he was killed in a car accident two days ago. His funeral is gonna be this week.”

There was another long silence. I almost spoke again when she finally responded. “That’s a shame.” Then she ended the call.

. . .

My sister didn’t return home that night. I was starting to get worried. So when the phone rang several hours later, I thought it might be her.

“Sabrina?” I answered without a proper greeting, forgetting for a second that she wasn’t the only person who could possibly be calling.

“Uh, actually, my name is Allyson Best.” The woman sounded like she might be my parents’ age. I thought maybe she might be another person trying to offer their condolences.

“Look, Mrs. Best, I’m trying to keep this line open, so I’d appreciate it if you’d let me call you back.” I didn’t intend on calling her back.

“No, no wait. I think I’m your aunt.”

My heart skipped a beat, the breath in my lungs heaving a sigh of relief. Finally, a family member who didn’t seem mentally ill or passive aggressive. She had to be one of my mom’s sisters. “Oh, are you gonna be at the funeral?”

She hesitated before responding. “Wh-who passed away?”

The relief immediately passed. She didn’t know anything either. Then why had she called? Did she normally call my parents? If she did, why did Mom rarely talk about her? I swallowed the small lump in my throat. “My dad. Elodie’s husband.”

“Are you her son?” Allyson asked.

“Uh, yeah. It’s me and my sister and my four brothers.”

Her voice was sincere when she spoke to me next. “Are you kids okay? If you need help with anything, I’m right here.”

I cleared my throat. I hated asking for help. I hated needing help. “And ‘here’ is where, exactly?” I barely knew her name, let alone where she lived. For all I knew, she could be living in Europe. At that thought, I worried about the prices of long-distance calling. It would explain why my mother never seemed to talk to her sister.

“Orange, California.” She was still two time zones away. “What about you?”

“We’re in Mission,” I answered. “Kansas.”

“Mission?” She seemed to recognize the name. “As in Shawnee Mission?”

“They’re two separate cities, but yes,” I answered. Locals mostly smashed all the cities in our area together, calling them Shawnee Mission. That meant Aunt Allyson had been a local at one point.

“That’s near Kansas City, right? We can catch a flight out of LAX tomorrow around noon.”

I gave her the details of the visitation. She’d be late, but not enough to miss it.

After she hung up to schedule her flight, I sat in silence for a moment, listening to the emptiness while I allowed my hopes to rebuild. I wondered how long Aunt Allyson and her family would stay in town and if she could convince my mother come home. I still didn’t know where Mom had gone, only that she’d confirmed Dad’s identity recently, judging by a voicemail that was left on the machine.

Chris interrupted my thoughts, bounding down the stairs and waving a journal covered in neon flower petals. “I think I found a lead in Sabrina’s diary.”

I groaned internally. My responsibilities wouldn’t end anytime soon. Sabrina was still missing.

. . .

Copyright © 2021 E.K. Barnes
This story is the intellectual property of E.K. Barnes. Under no circumstances can the above text be copied or distributed without the express written permission of the author except for the use of brief quotations. Copying and redistributing is illegal and punishable by law.
This is a work of fiction. All characters, organizations, and events portrayed in this novel are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.

CHAPTER THREE // THE DAY I WAS LEFT IN CHARGE

A Brother’s Sacrifice: A Story of Loss & Grief
CHAPTER THREE // THE DAY I WAS LEFT IN CHARGE

It was nighttime when Mom turned her key in the lock to let herself in. I’d fallen asleep on the couch, my arm around Kaleb, when my youngest brother nudged me awake. Mom was pacing in front of the door, her thumbnail in her mouth as she chewed on it. I was too tired to confront her, letting my eyes droop closed as I listened to her feet pace back and forth until they had traveled to the stairs and out of earshot.

My memories of that night are a little fuzzy, because the next thing I remember is Kaleb missing from my arms and being awoken by my mother’s horrendous, moaning cry. She’d kicked a kitchen chair, letting it crash on its side. By the time I sat myself up, she was in the process of flipping the table. I was awake by then, shocked by my mother’s actions. I guess that’s the thing about grief. We don’t expel it in that first moment of revelation. We feel it for days, weeks, months… a lifetime. It had barely been twenty-four hours, but Mom wasn’t done expelling her rage. I quickly learned where Chris got his impulse to throw things from.

Digging through the kitchen cupboards, Mom grabbed can after can, tossing them to the ground along with the cereals and dry foods. I was scared to approach her, afraid she’d lash out at me. So I slowly made my move to reach her, dodging the weapons. She moved on to the fridge, making her way through the condiments in the door. She’d dropped a bottle of ketchup to the floor and was going for the mayonnaise when I was finally close enough to touch her. Mom—the cop—trained to dodge me, did just that, pulling herself out of my reach.

“Mom!” I screamed, desperate to make her stop. I couldn’t tackle her like I had Chris. I couldn’t exactly fight my own mother. I had to shout twice more before she finally stopped what she was doing. She froze, looked at me—or more like, looked past or through me—then collapsed to the ground, her cries somehow louder as she buried her face in her hands.

I wasn’t sure how to respond. What do you say to your Mom when she’s falling apart? So I did what I could. I closed the refrigerator door and began to stack some of the cans scattered on the floor as she cried.

She hadn’t stayed like that for long, though. I’d only gotten so far before she suddenly stopped making noise and stood. Reaching for her purse on the counter, her hands shook, her eyes avoiding mine as I watched warily from a few feet away, not far from Jarod and Reece, who I’d noticed had perched themselves on the stairs in curiosity. Her hands pulled out her wallet, then a credit card. She took a deep breath, stretching her jaw, then proceeded to close the distance between us, her eyes on the floor the entire time. Pushing the card into my hand, she said, “Take care of the funeral.”

I couldn’t believe what she was saying to me. I was seventeen. I had no idea how to plan a funeral. I didn’t remember ever going to one growing up. Both my parents’ families were estranged. When most parents give their son a credit card, they don’t accompany it with those words. But those words weren’t what broke me.

She continued. “It’s not my problem anymore.” Her breath was shaky as she pulled it in one last time before speaking her final words. “And neither are you.”

I froze in stunned silence. It felt like I’d been body slammed, the breath in my lungs immediately catching, refusing to move in or out. I stood there, my mind reeling, my chest aching as she returned her wallet to her purse and left. I remember thinking how horrible that day had been. Still to this day, I consider it the worst day of my life. But Mom’s words had made it a hundred times worse.

. . .

My brothers helped me clean the mess the next morning before church.

Whenever I tell this story, there are always people who are surprised that I’d gone to church two days after my father passed. Not only that, but I’d managed to drag all my brothers with me. My sister would have gone too if she wasn’t elsewhere that morning. Before Mom had come to the house and thrown a tantrum, I’d allowed Sabrina to go to a friend’s house, figuring she needed to be around people.

My short answer to people’s inquiries about why I’d gone to church is usually more about funeral planning than anything. It wasn’t that I needed answers for why my dad was gone. It wasn’t that I thought I could pray to God for healing. It wasn’t to deny that anything happened. It was mainly because I needed somebody who knew how to plan a funeral. Who better to ask than our pastor?

Dad was a church man. A follower of God. The way he talked sometimes, he’d often come off like a pastor—someone who led by word and example. He tried to be there for others when he could, but it wasn’t out of a pastoral obligation. He wasn’t licensed for anything like that. He was just a good person who also happened to believe in God.

I’ve read his story—the one he kept scribbled in an old, battered journal. Even after my many rereads over the years, I still don’t completely understand how he stayed in close relationship with God. Dad didn’t exactly have an easy upbringing—something his death passed onto us. Maybe that’s part of the reason I admire him so much. He found and held faith in some of his darkest moments. Maybe I wanted to do that too. After all, I’m always trying to be who he was. So maybe that was why I went to our pastor first and not to a funeral home.

We probably looked terrible. How could we not? It would’ve explained Pastor Mack’s reaction. I hadn’t thought about the possibility that he hadn’t yet heard. I wasn’t expecting to have to tell more people.

It’s been almost twenty years and still, every once in a while, I will run into someone who knew my father. “How’s he doing?” they’d ask. Some would start to ramble so much that I had to stand there and nod along for several minutes before I could get a word in. “Haven’t heard from him in a while. I was just thinking about him the other day, actually. Thought he might want to play a game of pick-me-up if he’s up for it.”

The last time that happened, I was with my kids in the beverage aisle of Target, trying to keep them from touching everything. Even with my mask, strangers recognized me because of how much I look like my father. This guy was the rambling type. He must’ve known my dad in college when he played for the Jayhawks, maybe a little bit later.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s still in good shape with all the grandkids to keep him on his toes. They certainly keep you on yours,” the man said as I reached for a falling bottle of Gatorade, catching it before it hit the floor.

I try not to think about it too often—what my dad would be like around my kids. The day my oldest was born, I couldn’t help but cry a little, wishing so much that he could have been there to see and hold him. There were days when I never thought I’d get there myself. Having to devote a good chunk of my life to being a father for my siblings took a toll on me.

I studied the bottle of Gatorade, one of my foster kids trying to pry it from my hands. Finally letting the kid take it, I looked at the man. “He would have liked that,” I answered, swallowing the tiny lump in my throat. The thing about grief is that it never completely goes away, it just gets easier to deal with. I was able to smile a little, thinking happy thoughts of my father playing with my kids. “He passed a while ago, but he would’ve loved to run around with these munchkins.”

“You don’t have a grandpa?” one of the fosters asked my middle daughter.

“I have a grandpa,” she responded, confused by the question. She does have a grandfather—one she knows and loves—it just isn’t my dad.

The man tilted his head the way everybody does whenever they offer their sympathies. “I’m sorry to hear that.” He blinked, shaking his head. “Wow, I had no idea. He was a good man.”

The morning my brothers and I walked into the church was the beginning of the never-ending slough of questions. “Where is your dad?” “Why isn’t your father here?” “I haven’t seen your dad in a while.” “I wanted to catch up with your father. Is he around?”

Pastor Mack had been greeting people at the door, smiling and shaking hands with every parishioner who came before us. When we appeared next in line, the weight of grief seeming to plaster itself on our faces, he paused, his hands in midair, his mouth curving into an o-shape.

Our youth pastor came up behind me, giving my shoulder a little shake. “Sorry about your dad.” He’d somehow heard through the grapevine—more likely the local news—but hadn’t thought to pass the information to the other pastors on staff.

“Did—” Pastor Mack stopped his question and restarted. “Did something happen to your dad?”

I inhaled sharply, dodging his eye contact. I’d broken the news to five people the day before, I didn’t want to add more to the list. He was supposed to already have known.

Jarod sniffled, snot coursing through his nasal cavities. We were starting to cause a small traffic jam as people struggled to pass on their way to the sanctuary or nursery.

The youth pastor ushered us to the side to keep the space in front of the doors open. “You didn’t hear about the accident?” he asked the lead.

Pastor Mack’s eyes widened, shaking his head. “No, I hadn’t.” His hands reached for his chest, grappling at nothing. “Is he…?” He looked among my brothers and I, unable to complete his question. Our faces told the truth. Dad was dead. Ace Brunswick was no more. He extended his hand to touch my arm. “Is there anything I can do?”

I hesitated, glancing at my brothers, then back at him. I’m not sure why I didn’t want them to overhear. It wasn’t like they didn’t know Mom had left me in charge. Maybe I was trying to protect them from having to hear more about Dad’s death than they needed. The morning was already taking a tumble downhill. Pulling Pastor Mack to the side, I lowered my voice. “I need your help with the funeral.”

. . .

Pastor Mack guided me to his office. We sat across from each other in silence for a moment, unsure of what to say. Strewn at messy angles on his desk were framed photos of his four children. They were all younger than me, but not by much. We’d all grown up together. In fact, his youngest son was best friends with Reece for years.

There was a large and outdated family photo on the wall behind him. It reminded me too much of the one in my parents’ bedroom that was taken shortly after Kaleb was born. My eyes started to sting at the memory.

“I’m sorry,” Pastor Mack said after clearing his throat.

I didn’t give his apology much thought. “I’ve never even been to a funeral before,” I explained, my throat trying to close. “I didn’t grow up knowing my grandparents or my parent’s grandparents. I know my mother has two sisters, but she never speaks to them. In fact, they could be dead for all I know. My father—” I had to stop for a second, the tears interrupting me. “My father was tossed from house to house because his older brother did some things… bad things to people. I don’t exactly know what he did or who he is or if he’s alive either, only that my father didn’t deserve the harsh childhood that his brother had created for him. I know I’m rambling, but now I’m stuck with this burden, and I don’t know what to do.” The sobs were no longer containable. I had to bury my head in my hands to muffle them.

There was a short pause before he spoke. “I’ll be right back.” Then he left me alone with my thoughts.

When he returned a few minutes later with a phone book in his hand, we spent the morning combing through it, trying to narrow down the list of possible relatives as another pastor took over the service. There were only four people with our last name listed in the area, so we moved on to the White Pages online, hoping to be more successful. Nobody was the right age to be my grandparents or great-grandparents. We switched to mother’s maiden name—Lite. The list grew even longer—tons who fit the right age. I knew that my mother had a sister who went to college in California, but that only expanded our search. I only wished I knew more to narrow the suspects.

It wasn’t until we thought to look into my paternal uncle’s criminal files when we finally got a lead.

. . .

Copyright © 2021 E.K. Barnes
This story is the intellectual property of E.K. Barnes. Under no circumstances can the above text be copied or distributed without the express written permission of the author except for the use of brief quotations. Copying and redistributing is illegal and punishable by law.
This is a work of fiction. All characters, organizations, and events portrayed in this novel are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.

CHAPTER TWO // THE DAY THE NEWS SPREAD

A Brother’s Sacrifice: A Story of Loss & Grief
CHAPTER TWO // THE DAY THE NEWS SPREAD

There are things we can’t control in life. Too many things. Like, when a parent dies in a freak accident. Or a parent leaves. Or being the oldest in a large family with no parent. It only took twenty-four hours for all three of those things to happen to me. I had zero control over any of it. The word “no” had lost all meaning.

I couldn’t sleep the night Dad died. It wasn’t possible. How do you sleep after something like that?

The house was quiet for once. The rain pounded on the roof as it continued to pour, creating the sad background music to my life. I listened to it, wavering between intense moments of body-shuddering grief and disbelief. Mom had cried herself out. Or left. Or both. Kaleb’s constant room-tone was gone. In fact, I didn’t remember hearing it when the cops came, but I knew he’d been awake. I’d heard him crying only moments before. While Kaleb can go from zero to one hundred in a matter of seconds, he wasn’t so good at reversing. It took patience to calm him down. But I didn’t remember seeing him. I didn’t remember seeing any of my siblings.

I waited for the storm to end. Then I waited some more, the clock on my end table continuing to blink the incorrect time. I didn’t know what time it was when I finally left my room, only that light had started to appear through the windows, birds singing as if nothing had happened. For a moment, I thought maybe the birds were right. Maybe a “no” had reversed the entire night. But my clock was still blinking. Which meant the power had gone out. Which meant the storm was real. Which meant that was the first day I had to live without my dad.

Nobody was up. To be honest, I didn’t want them to. If by some miraculous happenstance they had missed the commotion—the cops, the crying, the bad news—it was better for them to stay sleeping, dreaming a world with Dad still in it.

Someone knocked on the front door as I shuffled across the living room floor, barely holding myself together. I hadn’t yet noticed Mom’s absence. I thought maybe she was in her room, hiding from reality. Maybe she had entered Bliss and stayed there. If I had that ability, I’d do that too. Bliss was better than pain.

The knock was a friendly one. And by friendly, I mean, it had to belong to someone who came around the house a lot. They knew not to ring the doorbell that early. I stood in front of the door for a long time, taking deep breaths, trying to pretend nothing had happened, because I didn’t want to be the bearer of bad news. But I couldn’t make myself smile and the knocking persisted. So I opened it before I could hide my face.

Catherine.

It took me a moment to realize why she was there. Catherine was the kind of girl who demanded answers for mistreatment. If she couldn’t get ahold of me over the phone, she would appear on our doorstep or in front of my locker at school, begging to know what my problem was. So there she was, searching for answers, wanting desperately to know the reason for the sudden hang up the night before. We were mid-conversation after all. But her adorable anger melted seconds from seeing my face. The tone of her, “What happened?” changed mid-sentence from anger to empathy.

I turned my head away from her reach. I didn’t want to answer that question. So I stared at the driveway instead—at her car and mine. We had a double driveway that was usually packed with vehicles. My parents and I often had to play Tetris with our cars. But that morning, it was just Catherine’s car and mine. No Dad. No Mom. Damn. I kicked the porch railing, indignation engulfing me for a brief flicker of a second. Then, as reality hit, as it sunk deeper into my bones, into my mind, into my soul, my body tried to expel it, my mother’s dead garden covered in my puke.

Catherine grabbed at my arms, but I stumbled down the steps out of her reach, tears burning the outer membranes of my eyes. If only I could have gone blind for a few days, so I didn’t have to see all the sympathetic faces. So I didn’t have to witness anyone else’s grief. So I could pretend both my parents were still there.

“What is wrong?” Catherine demanded. Always the girl with the questions. Always the girl getting the answers. So I told her, my voice climbing octaves, stretching the boundaries of my vocal chords. My throat ached—tired and burning like the rest of my body. My dad was dead. He was gone. And the silence that followed my confession was never going to be enough to bring him back.

She didn’t stay long after that. Catherine had to start making her phone calls. She had to spread the news the only way she knew how—through the gossip mill of the cheerleading squad. It was supposed to make my life easier—less people for me to have to tell. But it didn’t feel easier. Especially when the phone calls started pouring in later that day. Eventually, I had to disconnect the line.

With Mom gone, it was just me awake in the house, burdened with the news and the troubling responsibility to share it. There were moments growing up when I’d mishear a sibling, believing them to have said, “Dad’s dead,” when they had said something else. That jarring heart thud that always came at those moments was nothing compared to the real grief. I was going to have to be that sibling who said, “Dad’s dead,” and meant it. They were going to have to believe me.

Kaleb was standing in the middle of the living room when Catherine left. I knew he knew. It didn’t make sense for him not to know. With the exception of Mom and Dad’s, his room was the closest to the front door. But Kaleb didn’t cry. He stood and stared at me like a ghost from a cheaply done horror movie, his teddy bear drooping in his hand. It wasn’t until I approached him when the screams began, his arms wrapping around my leg as he had done to Dad before he left—constricting in the way a snake does as it suffocates its prey. My leg started to tingle from the loss of feeling, but at least some of the pain was real. At least I had a physical reason for it. So I let him stay that way, bawling into the wrinkled pant leg of the jeans I still had on from the day before. The only movement I made was toward the couch so I could collapse in despair. Kaleb moved to my lap and we cried together.

That’s when the morning erupted into chaos. How our mother’s screams from the night before hadn’t woken the rest of my siblings, but Kaleb’s cries had, is a question I still ask myself all these years later. But for whatever reason, Chris and Reece had left their rooms to investigate. They stumbled over each other down the stairs, stopping at the bottom to stare at Kaleb and me. I’m sure it was probably strange for them to see us both crying. Before Dad’s death, there was nothing going on in my life that would result in those type of tears. I didn’t have much to cry about.

“What happened?” Reece asked, his voice shaking a little, anxious for the answer.

I shook my head. How could I tell him? He was just nine years old. If Kaleb hadn’t overheard, I probably wouldn’t have told him at all. How do you tell children that their father is gone? That he’s not coming back? That a thunderstorm on a dark night had caused their dad’s car to veer off the road and into a tree? That the impact took his life at only forty-two years when most people got seventy-two?

Chris got impatient with my lack of a response. “Tell us.”

I waved him closer, not sure I could spit the words out, but gearing myself up to try. He stepped forward. I kept waving. He took another step, almost to the couch. Snot and mucus had mixed with the tears on my face, stuffing my nose, making it difficult to annunciate, but I pushed past my heavy tongue to say the two words, “Dad’s dead.” Then a fresh wave of sobs hit me, exploding from my chest. I hugged Kaleb tighter as Chris processed the words.

He backstepped, his hands rubbing his face as if he could rub the truth away like a sponge rids dirt. “No, he’s not.”

I nodded shakily through the tears, unable to use my words, and somehow that was enough for him to accept the truth. He turned to face Reece, but our nine-year-old brother had already left, his bedroom door slamming in the distance. He’d heard. He hadn’t questioned it like Chris had. He hadn’t needed to hear it twice. Damn, I wish he hadn’t had to hear it once. Even today, now that he’s all grown up, I still wish he never had to hear those two words. Although his life is good now, life wasn’t fair to him for a long time after that day. But I’ll get to that.

“What is with all the racket?” Sabrina screeched, storming down the upstairs hallway and leaning over the railing. My sister never had much tact. She wasn’t delicate about matters. She always said what was on her mind. It didn’t matter that we were all mourning—two teenagers and a child bawling downstairs. This struck a nerve with Chris, who hadn’t completely lost his ability to speak yet.

“You don’t have to be selfish!” he shouted, grabbing a tissue box and tossing it in her direction. He missed by several feet. Chris wasn’t exactly athletic. He never could aim. “I can’t believe you have the audacity to scream at us when clearly something terrible has happened! Look around! Just stop and care for once in your pathetic life!” I scrambled to rid myself of Kaleb’s weight as Chris reached to grab the table lamp. Just before he could throw it, I launched myself over him, tackling my fourteen-year-old brother to the ground. Chris still fought me. His anger wasn’t letting me win. “Dad’s dead, Sabrina!” he shouted, ridding me of the responsibility of having to tell her too, but not ridding me of having to see her reaction.

That face—her entire expression falling, melting, morphing into something almost… unrecognizable. It was jarring. Nineteen years later, I still see it when I close my eyes. That moment when my sister heard the news at just sixteen years old—a time when I swear to God, she needed Dad the most—that was the worst reaction for me. It wasn’t Reece, who hid in his bedroom all day. It wasn’t Chris, who started to throw things. It wasn’t Kaleb being clingy. It was Sabrina melting.

“How?” She managed to choke out that one-worded question and I don’t know how she did it.

Something clicked behind me, followed by Kaleb’s daily screaming contest. The clicking sound grew louder—metal against drywall. I turned to see his hand reach into a bucket of toy cars. Two were already on the ground below the wall, splayed on their backs in different directions. He tossed another car at a spot on the wall where the paint was starting to chip. That’s when I let Chris go. He didn’t need me to restrain him anymore. We had bigger problems. Kaleb was having one of his freak-outs and Mom and Dad weren’t home to help. I tried to pick him up as he reached for another car, but he kicked and thrashed, fighting me the entire time. Kaleb could never seem to make up his mind. He’d go from clingy to not wanting to be held or touched. He tossed the tiny car he held in his hand, and I froze, realization dawning. This wasn’t a normal Kaleb freak-out.

I caught his next car after he threw it, my hand curling over the toy. “Wait a minute,” I said as the screaming stopped. Kaleb stared at my hand, shocked into silence. He had been answering Sabrina’s question all along. “Dad was in a car accident.”

. . .

The living room had cleared by the time Jarod woke. Chris and Sabrina had both retreated to their rooms hours before. Kaleb was cuddling against me, his thumb in his mouth, as we watched a string of Saturday cartoons. Well, I wasn’t really watching them. I’d zoned out about twenty minutes into the ordeal. My eyelids were heavy, begging for sleep, but I wanted to be awake when Jarod came downstairs. I needed to stay awake for his sake. He needed to hear the news from me.

I almost missed his entrance. Kaleb had to nudge me to gain my attention as Jarod crossed the kitchen floor.

Jarod was the most unpredictable of my siblings. I wasn’t sure if he’d react like Chris or Sabrina or Reece. My bets were leaning towards Chris. Jarod was always a fighter—a challenger. I thought surely, he’d get violent. But instead, he surprised me by being different. When he heard the news, he’d run.

I had to chase him through the city of Mission—through the neighborhood—until I couldn’t run anymore. I couldn’t stay awake anymore. I couldn’t fight anymore.

. . .

Copyright © 2021 E.K. Barnes
This story is the intellectual property of E.K. Barnes. Under no circumstances can the above text be copied or distributed without the express written permission of the author except for the use of brief quotations. Copying and redistributing is illegal and punishable by law.
This is a work of fiction. All characters, organizations, and events portrayed in this novel are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.

CHAPTER ONE // THE DAY THE HERO DIED

A Brother’s Sacrifice: A Story of Loss & Grief
CHAPTER ONE // THE DAY THE HERO DIED

My dad was my hero. I know that’s cliché, but it’s true. He held my family together even when it felt like it was all falling apart. He was so good. Everyone who ever met him fell in love with him—in the platonic sense of it all. People called him Ace for a reason, and it wasn’t because that was his name. Dad knew how to unite people, how to fix their brokenness, how to convince a panicked crowd that everything would be all right. People trusted him. So did I. I leaned in with every word he ever said, captivated by his unwavering ability to remain strong and loyal and wise. I wanted to be everything he was and so much more, but I’ll be lucky to be half the man he ever was.

That’s the thing. I keep trying anyway. And I don’t know how the hell he did it.

This is the story of me trying.

. . .

Schools end in May in Kansas. Summer starts earlier for us here. So when May came in the late spring of 2002 and school had wrapped for the year, we were all making our plans to hit the pools, the parks, or the roads. My brothers were bargaining with Dad over where to go for the summer. Reece, my nine-year-old brother, wanted to go to all the Royals games. Jarod, who was ten, wanted a trip to Power Play or Worlds of Fun. Arcades and amusement parks were his favorite places to go. Mom grumbled about five-year-old Kaleb, who wouldn’t be able to handle the noise or the crowds. Places like that always overwhelmed him, resulting in a screaming match with the world. Kaleb was born with good lungs. Too good.

I had two other siblings—Sabrina and Chris—but they weren’t as interested in the family planning. They were sixteen and fourteen, respectively, and they had grown out of the desire to be seen in public with our large family. Chris never cared about going out. He was always such a homebody, preferring to stick to books and knowledge. Sabrina had her friends—the cheerleaders—to make plans with. Then there was me. The oldest. Seventeen with one more year to go before graduation. I’d like to say that I was different from them. In a way, I guess I was. I liked family. I liked being around them. But for the most part, I could never seem to shake Dad. His magnetism always pulled me into his orbit, drawing me in, holding me close.

As a child, I used to have nightmares of losing him. He would fall through ceilings and floors or burn in fires. Even then, I knew our family couldn’t exist without Dad holding it in place like the glue that he was. Every night, I would unnecessarily worry that I would wake up to him gone, our family crumbling in the aftermath. Now I think maybe my childhood fears weren’t anxieties, but truth. They saw a future without him in it. Little did I know that the first day of summer vacation would be his last.

Dad had to go to work. Jarod and Reece were still arguing with each other over which activities would make the most of their summer. Kaleb was screaming as he usually did when our brothers got loud.

Over the years, Mom had perfected what Chris dubbed her “Town of Bliss.” Whenever the house got loud and chaotic, she was somehow magically able to escape it without ever physically leaving. You could throw an egg at her face and she wouldn’t flinch. I know. I tried. There was never any shushing or yelling from her when she was in Bliss. She’d somehow tune us all out. That’s what she was doing that afternoon as Kaleb tried to hitch a ride on Dad’s leg.

Sobbing in an uncontrollable fit of anxiety, my youngest brother had wrapped his body around one of Dad’s lower limbs, squeezing tight. Mom sat at the kitchen table, pouring over her notes, oblivious to the hellfire around her. Dad wanted to be gentle—I could tell—but if he didn’t get a move on, he’d be late.

“Austin, a little help here.” He motioned to my distraught brother, who was getting snot and tears all over Dad’s dark slacks. I worked to pry my brother off, but he fought with all the determination of an angry bee who hadn’t yet used his one sting for revenge. Constrictive like a boa, he refused to loosen his grip, and it took all my strength and willpower to remove him. The second Dad was free, he was gone.

There was a storm that night. It was kind of hard to forget. Mostly because I was on the phone—the kind that still plugged into the wall—and every other clap of thunder would cause my girlfriend’s voice to distort for a few seconds. She was getting annoyed at the number of times I asked her to repeat phrases. After a while, I had resorted to pretending to understand her. I’d hoped she wasn’t saying anything too important. Catherine had a tendency to quiz me like teachers do when they think you aren’t listening. At one point, the phone line disconnected altogether, the lights in the house flickering like an eerie warning. Storms like that were common that time of year. It was tornado season, after all. Early summers in Kansas weren’t always bright and sunny like on television. I wasn’t concerned.

Sabrina screeched in surprise from another room, followed by Kaleb’s wails. The lights flickered back on, my alarm clock flashing the incorrect time. Holding the landline in my hand, I waited for Catherine’s inevitable call.

“Please tell me you didn’t just hang up on me,” Catherine said, gearing for an argument. She was always so cute when she got mad. I could picture the foot stomp, her fist at her hip, her brown ponytail swaying, that weird little dimple in her left cheek that always seemed to be begging me to kiss it. I’d have kissed it right then and there if we weren’t at separate houses.

I smirked, lounging on my bed, imagining that kiss. She’d have swatted me away and I would have laughed. Catherine always blamed my kisses on my need to change the topic of conversation, but she didn’t understand how her anger changed the topic first. I wouldn’t have felt the need to kiss her if she hadn’t been so darn cute.

“Relax. The power just cut out,” I said, smiling at the images in my own imagination.

She groaned and I could practically see the accompanying eye roll. “Whatever.” Then she jumped right back into her story about how she and another cheerleader had gone to eat at local diner the night before and how the waiter tried to hit on her friend. “Anyway, so she wrote that fake number—you know, the rejection hotline?—on the bill and told him to call her. Boy, was he in for a disappointing night.”

I knew from our twenty months of dating that Catherine wanted me to laugh at that part, but I only managed a weak chuckle. I couldn’t, in good conscience, make fun of a fellow man for going out on a limb to get a girl’s number. It was a case of bad luck to have been assigned Catherine & her friend’s dinner table. They were always extra mean to the men who didn’t tick off every item on their list of qualifications. I was lucky enough to have made the cut almost two years before and lucky enough to have kept Catherine interested all those months. She was the type of girl every man wanted and, somehow, that was rewarding in and of itself.

“Oh, come on. It’s funny and you know it.” I wasn’t getting away with my shortened laughter.

I rolled on my side, continuing to hold the phone to my ear. Kaleb’s screams had quieted to softer cries. Mom must have left Bliss to comfort him. “Speaking of guys hitting on girls,” I said, leading into my proposal. “How do you feel about tomorrow night being the night.” The night. I’d almost forgotten about that conversation. I had no idea how much things were about to change and not in the way she and I were hoping for.

“Are you serious?” Catherine asked, excitement and surprise filtering her tone. I’d told Catherine not long after we started dating sophomore year that I didn’t believe in sex before marriage. Well, it wasn’t so much that I didn’t believe that it happened, but I was raised in the evangelical Christian church—the one my dad spoke so highly of. I did everything to make him proud of me and for some reason, my tenth-grade self had believed that remaining a virgin in high school was going to keep him proud. I’d been preached at far too many times that the possibility of getting a girl pregnant wasn’t worth the risk. For a long time, Catherine respected that. But lately, it seemed she wanted more out of our relationship. And honestly, so did I. We were almost eighteen—give or take a few months—and at the time, I swore I was gonna marry that girl. So I’d decided. Saturday was gonna be the night.

“I’m dead serious,” I said, pulling open the top drawer of my bedside table to make sure that the condoms I bought the day before were still there. In a house full of siblings, I could never be too careful where I hid things, so I’d made sure to lock them in a box in my end table.

“What are you doing right now?” She asked, giggling through her words.

The doorbell rang.

“I—”

Mom’s shrieks pierced through the air like javelins at a track and field event. Without thinking, my thumb inadvertently pressed the end call button, Mom’s words gripping my insides and weighing them down. “He’s dead! He’s dead! Oh my God!”

Someone was dead. Somehow, my brain knew exactly who it was without being told. My feet hit the floor, pounding into the wood as I made my way to the front door. There, on the porch steps, stood three of Mom’s uniformed co-workers—all from the Sherriff’s department—as they recounted the details of Dad’s untimely death.

There were many reasons for cops to be on our doorstep at seemingly random times. Mom was a detective in the investigations department. If a sudden lead in a case came up, she’d be out the door, leaving with one or two of them. This time wasn’t like those times. These cops had tears in their eyes too—sad for mom, sad for us, sad that they had to be on our doorstep at all.

My lungs locked, refusing to let in another breath of air. There had to be a mistake. Maybe it hadn’t been Dad in the car. Maybe it hadn’t been him in the ditch by the little lone tree off Granada Road. Maybe it had been someone else. Anyone else. But not Dad.

“No.” I said it more than once, but not really counting. The number wasn’t important. The air rushed into my lungs, burning with every sharp breath, as I continued to say it over and over again. “No. No. No.” My feet had brought me past Mom, who had dropped weakly to the floor. My fists were pounding chests, rubbing against vinyl. Strong hands had gripped my arms, pushing me away, but I was barely conscious of my own movements, of my own words, of my own thoughts. I just kept saying, “No.”

In school, that’s what they told us to say when we didn’t want something to happen. When we didn’t want someone to give us drugs. When we didn’t want someone to steal our belongings. When we didn’t want someone to touch us. “Just say no,” they’d told us, hammering it into our heads. But why wasn’t it working in this situation? Why wasn’t the word “No” reversing the event? Why wasn’t it bringing my father back?

So much for magic words.

. . .

Mom stayed on that floor for hours. Or at least, that’s what I’ve gathered over the years. At the time, I didn’t actually know that. Because when I left my room the next morning after a long night of tossing and turning and crying and begging, she was gone too. And I couldn’t care. The muscles in my chest ached too much to care that she was missing. I told myself that she would come back when she was ready. At that moment, I knew how important Dad had been in keeping us all together, because with him gone, there was no chance that the rest of us would stay under the same roof at the same time ever again.

. . .

Copyright © 2021 E.K. Barnes
This story is the intellectual property of E.K. Barnes. Under no circumstances can the above text be copied or distributed without the express written permission of the author except for the use of brief quotations. Copying and redistributing is illegal and punishable by law.
This is a work of fiction. All characters, organizations, and events portrayed in this novel are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.