It was January and we pretended we had all the time in the world. We walked out past the naked elm tree, over ground that was cold and hard, and looked up at the stars. I asked my sister what she had seen. What it had felt like. “I don’t remember,” Lizzie said.
“Were you afraid?”
She touched my arm. “You don’t have to be afraid, Nora.”
For the next few months we spent hours talking each night, and each morning I slept through my alarm and had to drag myself to school. In the evenings after dinner we all sat in the living room. I knew I spoke too quickly with them, and laughed too loudly, but I couldn’t help it. My dad was the opposite. I learned to ignore it whenever he got quiet and stared at my mom and sister. He was the one who had seen their corpses.
Lizzie said she had always wanted to garden, which was news to me. When it got warmer, she ordered seeds and gloves and dug up a corner of the yard.
It was possible sometimes to forget. But on other occasions, when I walked by the hallway closet, I would catch a sudden whiff of decay, like the compost for Lizzie’s garden but stronger, and think about the shriveled leather amulet in the shoebox on the top shelf.
Once, when my sister snapped at me, I retorted, “I’m glad about what happened!” I stormed into my room and slammed the door. The surge of self-disgust I felt was so strong and immediate that my legs folded and I sank down onto my haunches.
Shoots appeared in Lizzie’s garden and started to bud. We did a celebratory dance in the grass. Then one morning we went out to find that deer had nibbled the plants down to the stalks.
Sometimes I stood outside the hallway door, wrinkling my nose, thinking about the shoebox on the other side. Wondering what would happen if I hid it so that dad couldn’t bring it back. Wondering if I could make them stay.
Summer came with baking days and humid nights and we grew conscious of every hour as it passed.
“Twelve months,” dad had told us that first morning, back in December when he’d come home with the amulet. Mom and Lizzie had already been in the living room when I’d woken up that day, healthy and whole. Dad never told us where he got the amulet or what he paid. I knew he used the insurance benefit and tapped into his retirement account, but I also know that whatever the price was, it was more than money.
Now that I had a few months out of school I had more time to spend with mom and Lizzie, and maybe because of that our conversations turned awkward. I realized I had begun to avoid saying anything about the future. When we were home all day, it was hard not to think about the things I was missing. Swimming, and soccer, and Sienna’s camping trip. A party at Jake’s house. The tightness I kept feeling in my stomach was resentment. I was getting restless waiting for the rest of my life to start, and feeling ashamed about the restlessness, and Lizzie and my mom could tell and tried to convince me to go out more, which only made it worse.
Which didn’t mean I always stayed in. One morning, before I climbed into the car, I brushed my fingers along the Corolla’s front bumper. In the photos after the crash the whole side of the car had been crushed inward and my mom and sister’s broken bodies had been visible through the shattered windshield. The new car’s metal was improbably smooth and bright.
That fall Lizzie decided that her next project was going to be a fence to keep out the deer. It would have to be eight feet tall to serve its purpose. As she sketched it out, her concept evolved from a fence to a greenhouse, and then she settled on a chicken wire cage. Dad and I brought home the wire and treated two by fours.
The days started getting shorter and colder again. Was Lizzie expecting me to plant something next spring? I didn’t ask her.
Every Thanksgiving for years, mom had roasted three turkeys, and anyone who had to work that day—paramedics, cops, firefighters—would stop by. This last time our meal was just for the four of us. I was relieved. I wanted my family to myself.
When the last night finally came, I forced myself to stay awake in the darkness until everyone else was asleep. Then I crept through the hallway, slowly opened the closet door, and took down the box.
I’d made a plan. I would bury the amulet in Lizzie’s garden. But now that the moment was here, I couldn’t imagine what would come next. What would happen to dad if he unwittingly returned an empty box? I clutched the shoebox for almost forty minutes, breathing deeply and biting my lip while my feet ached from standing, before I replaced it on the shelf with a sigh. No matter how much power you held, there were always limits. There was always an ending.
In the morning, dad went out on his own. He had made the deal, and he would see it through. I walked him out to the car because I knew how hard it was for him.
When I reentered the house, mom and Lizzie were already gone. I didn’t get to say goodbye.
No, I thought, this whole year was our goodbye.
I walked out to the backyard and looked at Lizzie’s empty cage until dad came home.
Aaron Emmel Aaron’s stories have appeared in Jitter, sub-Q Magazine, Broadswords and Blasters, and other publications. He is also the author of dozens of essays, an historical fiction graphic novel, and the science fiction game book series Midnight Legion. Find him online atwww.aaronemmel.com.