January third

Parking garage
Mike Wilson photo

He is late. I stare out the window, watching as rain trickles down the glass, making the city lights outside an indistinct blur. The restaurant is almost empty. Although I’ve lived in Oakland for close to a decade, I’d never heard of this Chinese diner until Chris suggested we meet here. But now it’s getting late. He’s not coming.

The server comes over, handing me my bill and a fortune cookie wrapped in cellophane. I pay for my spring rolls and leave. I wish it wasn’t raining; it always rains on January third. Pulling my jacket over my head, I dash across the street to the underground garage where I left my car. I have to use the stairwell because the elevator is broken. My cellphone rings.

“Amie. It’s me.” The reception isn’t good, and his voice sounds crackly.

“I waited for an hour – where the hell are you?” I feel a pang of guilt. I haven’t talked to my brother in eight years, and now I’m yelling at him.

“I’m sorry,” I say, exhaling slowly to steady my voice. “It’s just…”

“I know. I shouldn’t have picked today.” His voice sounds strange.

“Where are you?”

“In the parking garage.”

I peer around uneasily. The garage is small, with a low ceiling, flickering florescent lights and an $11-dollar flat rate. “Like the one across the street from the Chinese place?”

I hear gravel skittering across the pavement and turn quickly. The man coming towards me is no longer a meager eighteen-year-old kid with straggly blond facial hair. Now he’s over six-foot-five. And jacked.

But I am still angry at the pale-faced boy with the new uniform and crew cut who never said goodbye.

“What happened?”

He is shaking, and I can see beads of sweat on his forehead. “I find it easier in a place like this. All those bright lights – the people. My psychiatrist says it’s the adjustment – coming back from over there.”

“You have a psychiatrist?”

“There’s a lot of things you don’t know about me, little sister.”

“I’m not your little sister,” I snap. I am four years older.

Chris steps closer, towering over me. “No?”

“What do you want? You think you can disappear for so long and then just show up? On the anniversary of mom’s death?” My throat is so tight it’s hard to form the words. “I’ve lived through this day every year for eight years. Alone. And now you come back?”

“I wish I wrote to you when I was overseas,” Chris says. “Then maybe you’d understand what I’ve been through.” His voice is hard.

“I’m leaving.” I turn blindly away, not quite sure where my car is.

“I think you dropped something.” Chris holds a fortune cookie in his hand.

I shake my head. “It’s not mine.”

He tosses the cookie at me, and I catch it without thinking. “It might be bad luck not to open it,” he says.

I break the cookie, glancing impatiently at the paper in my hand. Your mom didn’t die alone.

What the…? I start trembling all over. Chris watches me, his eyes glittering in the darkness. I back away, my heart pounding in my ears.

I try not to be irrational, but I cannot help the rush of panic inside of me. Mom died in a skiing accident when Chris was seventeen. She’d gone over a drop and when he found her, it had been too late. At least…

It’s just a fortune cookie.

But in the bluish light, anything seems possible. Everything – the scared little boy who escaped to the army – it all suddenly seems different. There is a buzzing somewhere. I cannot tell if it is coming from the garage or from inside my head.

“You left without saying goodbye. You didn’t even go to mom’s funeral.”

That day tore us apart. My hand closes into a fist and I realize I’ve just crushed the cookie. I let the powdery crumbs fall on the asphalt.

“I just needed to get away from there,” Chris runs his hand over his eyes.

“You could have moved. I moved.”

“It wasn’t enough. Mom was everywhere – I could see her, feel her.”

“You were the only one with her when she died.”

He just looks at me.

“You weren’t too late, were you?”

Suddenly, I am yelling. Sobbing and shouting at the same time. “You were there! Why would you lied to me?”

“What are you accusing me of?” His voice is calm, so deadly calm.

I remember where I am. Alone in a parking garage with an estranged brother who could kill me with his bare hands. But I don’t care anymore. I cannot stand hating him forever.

“Why did you tell me you weren’t with her?”

“So it takes a fortune cookie for you to accept the truth.” Chris laughs bitterly.

I find it hard to breathe. How could he know?

“I tried to tell you before,” his voice cracks. “But you didn’t want to hear it back then. You said you wouldn’t forgive me if I was there when she died. So I just…said I wasn’t.”

“What happened?” My voice comes out cold and flat, even to my own ears.

“I was there with mom. I watched her die,” Chris says unevenly. “I even saw someone ski by above us, but I was so freaked out I didn’t call for help. I just froze. I didn’t know what to do. I –”

My whole body is shaking, desperate to know more. “Was she conscious?” My words sound like a moan. “Did she say anything?”

He is crying now, like a child. The words are sucked out of me, so I just stand there. I remember feeling numb for months after mom died. But I don’t remember shutting him out.

“Did you really try to tell me?”

“Yes.”

He sounds so broken I cannot help believing him, and I reach for the only tangible thing I can think of. “The fortune cookie – that was you?”

“I couldn’t lie anymore,” he says. “I just couldn’t.”

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