Rachel had not heard from her brother in years, nor had there been much attempt to talk. Mom and Dad didn't really approve of him, and, back from college, she wouldn't have changed her mind much, agreeing, as she did, with her mother's prejudices was more than just good, dutiful behavior, it was smart policy if she wanted to keep her summering privileges, her tuition, her books, the used car they'd bought her, and the insurance that went with it. Nothing unusual in that, except that she found her brother's boxes in the garage while she was looking for her old tennis racket, packed away and buried, as things tended to be.
They had moved for most of Rachel's life, and it wasn't unusual. Her brother, Sam, was out of sight, out of mind, as far as her parents were concerned. He was eleven years older, so the loss was not great. But a box fell, and photographs fell out, and Rachel was just naturally curious.
It was an old house in Nebraska, near the old trail on the Platte. Victorian gingerbread, but not ornate, they had lived there ever since her grandparents were killed in a Ford Bronco on Interstate 80, which ran near the house. Elm and cottonwood ringed a yard on a block that still didn't have gutters, on a road that was still gravel and dirt. The old iron horse-head hitching posts bookended a blackened chunk of concrete that started the cracked walk.
Rachel still shuddered in the nights, even though the old wallpaper had been replaced by panelling, then new wallpaper; the house rebuilt, renovated, reborn. It still had the old smells: the dank of the basement, of leather and grease from the basement door that Grandpa and Uncle Pete had hung their overalls; Pete's trademark bombardier jacket; his leather cap and oily rags.
The front door still had the old brass doorbell, no rewired electric one. The colored and frosted glass she used to watch the mailman through as he came up the walk: first
blue, then gold, then red, then a green cloud. The old monsters still seemed there in the new closets. But it was a good house. Rachel heard the trains late, ghostly going by. Slept to the lullaby of the cicadas and the crickets. Avoided the reassuring whine of the air-conditioner and opened the windows to the heat of the nights.
The garage was the same: the old oil stain from the old ford; the cold smell of mildew. The black widow webs and hornet's nests. And boxes. But it was home, finally, all memories were good ones: Pepper, Uncle Pete's mutt running to meet her when they visited; Grandpa's unvarying oatmeal every morning; the old tin-lined bread drawer filled with cookies Pete brought home from the bakery.
These were the earliest memories she had, and it was always good to be home. University was new; it was wonderful; it was frightening. But this, this was home for summer.
Marcy wanted to play tennis near the rock gardens, and Rachel's racquet was being restrung, or she'd have never been poking in the garage for her old wooden racquet. She preferred the new graphite one, and she never thought about the old one, its paint chipping, the handle taped usefully if sloppy. But she needed to lost those pounds of good German cooking Mom had ladled onto her plate, and Marcy didn't have another racket.
Shuddering at the thought of centipedes and spiders, she dug into the boxes in the garage, and the box fell over. Sam's the pictures said, and curiosity got the better of Rachel.
Her mother knew something was different when they ate that night. There were many new questions, but she had to be careful. You never knew what would set Mom off. If she was in a good mood, she'd babble on and on about people and events; but it was just as probable that she'd get angry over some private thing, and you'd suffer for evoking a memory you'd never be privy to. You just knew you were being punished for it.
"Wasn't Sam in the merchant marine once?" she asked, after steering the conversation to oil, and then tankers, then World War II and her uncles in the navy. And after hearing about the conga line down Main Street on VE Day, and Frank Sinatra, and her uncle the navy Captain who
never sailed on a boat, but spent the entire war in college at Uncle Sam's expense, learning engineering.
"Well, for a while. I think he said he loved it at first, but he didn't like the loneliness of the sea, and he gave it up."
How to nudge it along without hitting a mine? Rachel wondered, working studiously on the mountain of mashed potatoes in front of her.
"We used to get post cards from the most amazing places," Mom said, nudging Dad, who was feeding the cat, Tipper, under the table in defiance of his own rule. "Guam, Portugal ... where else, Dear?"
"Haiti," her father said, looking not very interested.
"Oh yes," Mom said, warming to it. "I remember when we got that gift package from Hawaii. That was just before he married that little tramp." Her face fell. Clouds and thunder in the gray eyes. "Mmmmph."
Dad had known her too long. "The new storm windows are ready to pick up, Ton says."
"I'll be glad to get them in," Mom said, distracted.
I used to believe you, Rachel thought. What else haven't you told me?
She knew that she shouldn't have done it, but who would know? Rachel pulled the brown paper bag from under her bed when she was sure that her parents were finally in theirs.
It was wrong to spy, to rummage through other people's lives, but, hell, how many times had she come home to find the question, the angry silence that eventually became an accusation because Mom had been reading Rachel's letters, her diary, or looked in her desk and found the innocent condom that had been a schoolgirl glggle but was, to Mom, sinister proof?
Who will know?
And there was still a question. What did the message stenciled on the boxed mean? Well, it wasn't important. She looked through the photographs, pulling the first pile from the 1-hour envelope, and restoring the negatives to order in their flap.
Sam. In a bar of some kind. Faces. Sam and his pals, in
funny caps and poses. It could be anywhere, she thought. The pictures were dated five years ago. Maybe six or seven, depending on how long the film had stayed undeveloped. She remembered Sam's legendary forgetfulness. A dog. A back yard. Snow. Sam on skis. Two women on skis, mugging for the photographer.
She pulled out the second set of photos.
They were wedding pictures.
"Lagan _ n." said the dictionary. "maritime law: goods cast overboard, as in a storm, with a buoy which identifies the owner.:
Rachel put down the dictionary. A sailor's gallows humor, she thought. It fit. The boxes were stenciled "LAGAN." She wondered if her patents knew what it meant. She wondered what the storm had been. She knew who the woman was. Did it have to do with her?
She rummaged in the boxes the next day, looking for clues. Maybe it would have been better if I'd never found this stuff, she thought, carefully examining each piece.
Finally, she found an old cigar box, carefully tied with twine. Inside, letters. Someone called from the house.
It'll have to wait, she thought. "Yeah Mom?" she yelled.
"Lunch is ready! What are you doing in there?"
"Looking for my racquet," Rachel said, wiping her hands on her shorts as she emerged to see her mother standing on the porch.
"I though you found it yesterday," her mother said as Rachel passed into the cool of the kitchen.
"I found the rotten one," she said, realizing that she'd roused the watchdog. "I was hoping I could find the good one."
"The yellow one?"
"Oh, honey, we sold that at the garage sale, don't you remember?"
"Oh," Rachel lied.
"We're having baked beans," her mother said. "I thought you'd enjoy something special."
Rachel hesitated. I hate baked beans, she thought. Sam loved baked beans. "I hate baked beans, Mom. You know that."
"Oh," her mother said. "Oh."
There was a long, uncomfortable pause. Rachel jumped in. "I mean, I like your baked beans, Mom. Mmmmm. They smell great."
The silence was deafening.
The first important letter was marked "Return To Sender." It was addressed to her parents. It began:
"Dear Mom and Dad:
I know there's been some hard feelings about Cheryl, and I know that you don't approve of the marriage, but I'd like to bury the hatchet. She really looks forward to meeting you. I think when you get to know her, you'll really like her. She's an orphan, and having a set of in-laws is very important to her. It's important to us both."
He was trying to make peace. He was begging to be let back in the family. What had happened?
She read the letter carefully. It was several pages long, written in a laborious hand. News about the wedding. Plans to move to Portland. A dog they'd got at the pound and named "Spike."
The next important letter was dated several months later. It was a letter of termination from a convenience store. "Inventory has indicated that a substantial amount of stocked goods are missing," it began. "Though we do not have enough evidence to press formal charges, we find it necessary to terminated your employment at this time, in accordance with the terms of ...."
She read through several love letters of varying degrees of pornographic intent. Rachel was embarrassed, but it was cheerful pornography.
Do they really think that way? she wondered. She could not imagine her brother really wanting to do _ or doing _ those things. Maybe it was poetic license. It wasn't very poetic.
Then, the letter from Cheryl.
Rachel could not sleep. It was hot and her dreams were troubled. When the 2:38 roared past, she came awake with a start, wrapped in the sweat-soaked sheet. Since she didn't like the air-conditioner (and because turning it on would chill her to the bone), she got up and sponged herself with water from the basin she kept upstairs in her bedroom. There was no bathroom upstairs, and going downstairs was a long trouble for not much.
She couldn't get the two letters out of her mind.
Sam had been accused of theft, and Cheryl was leaving him _ hinting at something darker between them. And Sam had written a letter to her pleading his innocence and begging her to come back. It had been his fault, he said, that things weren't working. But she had to bear some of the blame. He was not guilty, and he would try to fight it if it were important to her.
But he wondered why she could not believe him.
And why she was leaving.
There was no address on the envelope. It had never been sent. Rachel wondered if he had sent another like it, or whether he had know where to send a letter. Hers had stated: "I am going somewhere where you will not find me." His had said: "I am going to drop my things at my folks' and I will make things right by us."
Rachel understood why the boxes were marked "Lagan."
But she could not sleep.
She searched every box, the next day. There was no clue. She put the letters back, looked at all the pictures again: the wedding party at a bar, with wedding cake on a pool table (Mom and Dad disapproved of pool, of bars: hell, of Sam!); the honeymoon pictures, the apartment pictures. Old pictures of Sam in ports of call. Of high school, and one, an eleven-year-old boy holding a baby, proud and awkward.
Holding me, Rachel thought, holding Sam in her way.
But the story ended there. That letter had been the last thing before Sam dropped off his belongings: a few boxes of clothes; some junk and souvenirs; photos and a battered
old cigar box, tied with twine. Rachel had thought she could retie it so no one would know. But Sam's sailor's knots confounded her. He would know, she thought. And so, she wrote a note of her own:
"Dear Older Brother:
"I love you. I am sorry I didn't get to know you, but I want to now. I need you in my family, even if they don't want you in theirs. Please call me:"
she gave her address and clear instructions where she could be found ...
"your sister Rachel."
And she filled the bottom of the page with XOXOXOXXes.
Green to brown; then fields to fallow, and straw; and snow. Summer seemed far away as she returned to her life, and as she left, she left Sam, though she would wonder, now and then, if he had returned; if he had found Cheryl or justice.
But this was the beginning of a new life, and the end of a semester, and Sam was far away from her thoughts when she heard a familiar voice behind her in the cafeteria.
She wheeled around, books clutched to her breast. "Daddy?"
"They told me I might find you here, and so you are."
"She's home. I thought I'd drive up and see my little girl," her father said, but there was something else, and she knew that it was important.
It was that look he had when Cobbles died and she had come home and he hadn't wanted to tell her. That look that he got when Mom had decided to move and left him to tell Rachel she was going to have to say goodbye to all her friends _ or the times there hadn't been time and he'd had to tell her that, too. This was something like that, she knew.
"Is it Mom? Is she sick?" she asked, guiding him to a table.
Her father smiled a sad, forlorn smile. "No."
"I found this," he said, holding out an envelope to her. It was her letter to Sam.
"I -- oh, I'm sorry, Daddy," she said. Mother had found it, she thought, and there would be trouble: no tuition, or no car, or no something. She was sorry -- not that she'd written it, but that it would never get to Sam, and that she would pay for it anyway.
"Your mother doesn't know," her father said.
"Oh," she said; and then, realizing it, "OH!" He was there to bail her out. To keep them both out of trouble.
"I want you to promise to never tell her that you know about Sam's affairs," he said. "I want you to promise."
Rachel nodded seriously. "I promise. You've heard from Sam, haven't you?"
"He got her back, didn't he? I just knew he would!"
Her father looked pained. "No honey. He didn't see Cheryl again."
"But he's all right now. He found someone else and picked up his things. Please, tell me, Daddy. He's my brother and I have a right to know if he's all right. Did you know what 'lagan' means? I looked it up _ " she was flooded with words. It was enough that he'd driven up to see her, to tell her something that he would never tell Mom. That was new. That was unique in her whole life. It meant that they were finally going to be a family again. It meant that Sam was finally going to come back to them. Mom needed him. She wouldn't admit it. But Rachel knew that she did. That was why she'd made baked beans. That explained a hundred slips she'd made during the summer. That ....
"I know what it means," her father said. "But Sam didn't stencil those packages."
"Well, who then?" Rachel asked, stopped in mid-think.
"Cheryl sent them. Now, I want you to swear to me that you'll never tell your Mother what I'm going to tell you."
"All right," Rachel said. Something was wrong.
"Sam is dead."
"He died in a car accident; he may have been drinking. We don't know. But Cheryl sent us his things. She was the one who stenciled that ... word. Your Mother refuses to believe it. I play along with it, because I'm afraid for her. And I need you to play along. Will you, Princess? Will you go along with me? I'm afraid that ... you see, your Mother won't accept that he's dead. She says that the coroner's report and the death certificate are lies. That the obituary is fake. She thinks Cheryl did it to spite her. Will you promise?" She had never seen him helpless. Now, she did.
Rachel stared into nothing. Sam was dead. Sam had been dead before she ever opened the boxes.
"Will you promise?"
She looked at her father and understood. Sam was not the only one who had died. Nor was her mother. She saw the look in her father's eyes and she knew that she would cry long nights because of that look.
But not now. Now, she looked at him, and she smiled a sad smile, and she could almost feel that Sam was standing beside her, his hand on her shoulder, and she knew what to say.
"I promise, Daddy. I promise."
But she was thinking of a sailor.
And a storm, and something else often implied by that word: