“Do you often drive at home, Bram?” Sam sat beside him in the car. They were driving the rental car back into town to drop it off at the business. Sam reluctantly kept it one more day, so they wouldn’t have had to make the hour-long drive back to town so soon. It had only been one day since Bram and his father had arrived at the farmhouse, but the rental car was costing them daily. His father followed behind them, with Justyce in his passenger seat. Sam wanted to have this drive with Bram. He was just waiting to hear what exactly it was she needed to get from him. Bram thought Justyce knew he had been a peeping Tom, and maybe Sam would confront him. His stomach tied in knots, and the sickness he had developed prevailed. Forcing his breakfast up shortly after he had eaten it this morning when Sam said she would let Bram drive.
“No, not really,” Bram began but then realized that change. With his grandmother gone, he may have to be the main driver now. The car his mother owned was a bucket of bolts, threatening to fall apart any day, but it would be the only transport to get groceries.
“That’s too bad,” Sam replied, still with a kind smile painted on. “If you lived here, I would let you drive all the time.”
“My father wouldn’t.”
“I’m sure he would.”
“He didn’t let me drive at all on the way here.”
“Oh.” This made her smile fade a bit. Her hair French braided straight from her forehead down her shoulder. It did nothing to hide the change in facial emotions. It appeared she had even put a dusting of makeup on today for their shopping trip into town. His father had raved about a new clothing store he wanted to take Bram to. Secretly Bram was shocked his father was keeping up his end of the bargain.
“Does your mother still drive?”
“No, she stopped years ago,” Bram began, surprised his father hadn’t told Sam this story. Knowing it wasn’t his story to say either, he was hesitant to continue. Lack of radio service led to divulge too much information. The silent pauses were too awkward to maintain.
“Why’s that?” Bram wished she hadn’t asked.
“She’s too traumatized to drive. For instance, when she was driving me to school one day.” Bram still smelt the fresh spring air of the morning. He had been six years old. Bram recalled all the doctors and nurses telling him that the boy was too young for how big he spoke. He could never help it, and maturity seemed more a choice to make than something that came from experience. He just naturally chose it.
“They said later it was a cat she had hit.” Never too good at storytelling, Bram was bouncing around on the main points of the story but couldn’t match it in his mind. The emotions, colours and scents from the day were scattered. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Sam’s face peeled on him now. Her symmetrical features are glowing in anticipation of the tale. He shook his head to throw away the smells which were overwhelming him. The scent of the metallic needles as his mother got poked at the hospital and the smell of acidic drugs, even the scent of flowery shampoo as she ripped chunks of her hair. She couldn’t calm down. He stood at the entrance watching the downward spiral she was caught in. He was almost positive that was the first time he realized his mother needed help, and there was no help he could offer.
“It was sunny that morning. We had both the visors down in the car, and she had her new fancy pink sunglasses on as well. The sun still blinded her.” He sharply inhaled as he recalled the sound of the thump.
“She slammed on the brakes so hard, and the steering wheel brought blood from her lip.” Bram licked his lips as if tasting his mother’s blood as if he could have stopped that breakdown by pulling Obscura over her. He wasn’t as in control at the time. It more likely controlled him than him it.
“You don’t need to tell me,” Sam spoke suddenly as if she had just felt the weight of the story.
“She got out of the car, and she was dazed. Probably gave herself a concussion, stupid woman.” Anger bubbled up. Maybe if his mother hadn’t hit the brakes so hard, his life would have been better.
“There was a helmet sitting in the middle of the street, a child’s bicycle just to the right of the helmet. I saw her kneel. When she stood, there was blood on her hands. That’s when she started screaming. Neighbours ran out, someone called 9-1-1, and an ambulance arrived shortly after. There was no child on the road. Only blood and a helmet, but she never recovered. She didn’t believe people when they told her she didn’t hurt anyone. Her hair fell out from stress, or she ripped it all out. She didn’t leave the house for months after that day. My father came back numerous times. Trying to tell her it was a cat. She never believed him. She did not hit a child.”
Sam’s eyes welled over with tears, and they spilled unsheathed down her cheeks. They were dropping onto the soft white blouse she wore. Bram doubted, she shed many tears, and her life was too perfect. His mother, however, would cry when the milk spoiled.
“The boy, they say, had dropped his bike and helmet into the street before running in the house for breakfast. Like the little asshole he was, he left his stuff right in the middle of the street. But it ruined my mother, the blood from the stupid cat she hit. She thought she had killed a boy and when people said why there nobody was? She would turn away and say, Death only takes. He doesn’t trade.”
Sam sobbed out loud this time, wiping her nose on her bare arm. The snot left a trail of emotion. She clicked open the glove box and pulled out the fast-food napkins to clean herself. She was bawling like a child as if it had been a child in front of the car. She was bawling as if she were sad for Bram, growing with a mentally traumatized mother, from what? Hitting a cat?
“I never understood the comment,” Bram spoke out loud now. “Death only takes. He doesn’t trade.” Bram wasn’t sure why he repeated this out loud. He had never put more thought into it before today, but suddenly it came back to him, like a smack of realization, the head of the cat ramming into his frontal lobe, telling him the answer. Obscura never offered these sightings to him. It always took. Nought wasn’t Death; since he did offer trades. A trade of a vision for an emotion. To strip him away of love, compassion, caring and leave him with anxiety, depression and low confidence.
Bram could see Sam’s lips moving now, but he was no longer listening. He was thinking of trades. What he could offer for transactions in Obscura, what could Obscura provide for his life? He realized there was something he needed to do. He needed to see something, but first, he had to get through this trivial shopping trip to town. He had to be alone, tonight he would be alone, and he could investigate this, saying his mother had chanted too many times. Death only takes. He doesn’t trade. But Nought trades.
The clothing store was nothing spectacular, but Bram wouldn’t dare tell his father. He seemed overly proud of himself for being able to find these clothes. Thomas spent too much money on him. Justyce sat by, picking at her nails while Bram tried on outfit after outfit. Sam stood silently, watching as well. Her eyes held sadness now for Bram. Secretly he regretted telling her, and her empathy was so high it hurt her soul to hear of the mental anguish his mother went through. She no longer had kind eyes and smiling lips, and she now looked sad to the core.
“Great Thomas, okay.” He was getting perturbed about how his father kept coming with more outfits.
“Look at this jacket.” Thomas’ face lit in excitement. Bram threw it down on the chair.
“I don’t like the colour.”
“Dad, maybe he needs a break. He’s not a Ken doll, you know.” Justyce surprisingly came to the rescue.
“Oh, yeah. I know.” He dropped the other t-shirts he was currently holding.
“I’m going to take him now. You and Mom can shop.” Justyce sprang up and grabbed Bram by the fancy new collared shirt. Button up and checkered, it was something Bram would never choose by himself.
“Sure, honey,” Bram’s father replied, and all too quickly lifted the dropped shirts for himself to try on.
“Great.” Justyce stood and dragged Bram with her.
“Wait.” He struggled to pull his new hoodie over the all too fancy shirt. “Did Thomas give you money?” He wanted to offer to pay to be the man.
“No, but it’s my treat.”
“Oh, no. I want to pay.”
“Jesus, kid, we’re not even there yet.” She rolled her eyes. Her thick lashes were so perfectly curled. She was 18 years old and had a model body, and she even swung her hips seductively. The natural beauty and appears not to be intentional. She was stunning on her own accord. Bram felt guilty for spying on her, and he wanted to pay her back even if she didn’t know it.
“Yeah, but still.”
“Whatever,” she huffed from the back of her throat and led the way to a coffee shop three doors down from the clothing store.
“Don’t go too far, kids!” Sam yelled behind them. Justyce waved an acknowledgement back to her mother, but Bram had the feeling she wanted to flip her mom off.
Pushing the door open to the coffee shop was like entering another world altogether. As if they had stepped through a portal into the ’70s. The music was guitar twangy, no words but melodies layered heavenly. One lady stood behind the counter, and she had long wavy blonde hair and a flower garland made from peonies. The bright pinks and purples of the flowers reflecting the angelic glow of her skin and waving her hips under a laden skirt, as if dancing with the invisible man.
A second story to the coffee shop with a set of stairs led to a balcony shelved in with books. From floor to ceiling, walls of books encircled the coffee shop.
“Hey ya, Justyce.” The dancing woman never opened her eyes. Swaying as if told by the cosmos. “Who’s the strapping lad?” She motioned towards Bram, who blushed twice in two days. He wished he had better control of this response.
“It’s my brother, Bram.”
“What a rad name.” The woman opened her eyes and donned an apron. Transforming herself into a barista and offering them some coffee.
“You want a body high little brother?” Bram was still in shock Justyce even referred to him as ‘brother.’ He had never called her his sister, and now she claimed him even in front of this beautiful woman. He stuttered for a moment and then denied the body high, he had tried marijuana, and it did not jive too well with him.
“Suit yourself, one plain jane cappuccino,” Justyce instructed the woman. She burst back into dance. The way she moved her arms to ready the coffee pot, the steam billowing up past her face in tune to the guitar twang. Bram watched in astonishment, and the music broke down into several layers in his ears. Songbirds, waves crashing, a triangle entwining the musician perfectly. Justyce scooped up both mugs placed in front of them and turned towards the staircase.
The second floor of the coffee shop held to what Bram expected. It was another world altogether. Bean bag chairs, shag rugs, and bookshelves turned into hidden compartments welcomed them.
“What is this place?” Bram was in awe. He might live in a larger city than Justyce, but he had never seen a coffee shop like this.
“It’s a legal smoke shop.”
“Oh, I don’t smoke, though,” Bram replied and took a spot on the bean bag chair.
“I know, and as long as you don’t mind, I’m going to sip my Cannabis tea and drift off somewhere else.” Justyce took the bean bag chair next to him, and they sat facing the wall of books.
“As if you need to escape from anything.” Sipping his coffee, he found it had hints of caramel and chocolate.
“I do! It’s not easy living with your father.” She mocked him but realized quickly after the comment it had been too much. “I mean. I look at him as a dad too, but he is a workaholic.”
“I know,” Bram laughed, trying to let the pointed comment slide. He didn’t come here to fight with his stepsister. She sipped her tea and stuck out her tongue from the heat, or to further mock him.
They laughed together this time, and the conversation smoothed out easier. Justyce sat perfectly in the bean bag chair as if her body was made to fit in any space. She spoke about school and how much she missed it. Work-life is more demanding, and no one wants to hire her since she has no real experience. They engage you for a pretty face then take advantage of your naivety.
“You’re perfect. What do you mean?” The comment came out quicker than Bram expected, but it was the truth. Everything about her was perfect. Bram had admired that about her for years. How easily she made friends, how everyone loved her, how beautiful and funny she was.
“Once you’re out of school, it all means nothing.”
“Naw…” Bram began but stopped himself when he saw her eyes sink to the floor.
“You have no clue how hard it is. When someone puts you on a pedestal. To stay there, to continue pretending you are perfect when you never were. To pretend you know what you’re doing with your life. I’m out of school, I have no job, no money and no real skills. All the years of Ms. Popularity in high school means shit all when you apply for a job.” Her rant may have been slightly drug-induced, but it seemed sincere, and Bram felt sorry for her.
“What kind of job do you want?” He asked, trying to steer the conversation to stay light-hearted.
“I would love to be a banker.” Her face lit. “Play with money all day, pretend you’re rich!” She mimicked flicking the bills as if it were raining money.
“Did you try at the bank?” Stupid question, but it had to be asked.
“Yeah, you need a secondary education just to be a bank teller.” She sunk back again into the bean bag chair.
“Why don’t you then?”
“Why don’t I what?” She tipped back the last drops of her tea and licked the inside clean. Her hair fell back around the circular portion of the bean bag chair. It was encasing her whole backside with a perfect fan of blonde gold.
“Go to college?”
“That costs money, and mom and dad don’t have a whole lot. I might as well suck it up and just work at the mall. All the other ‘pretty and popular’ girls from high school do. That seems to be all we are suitable for. To look at and smile courteously.” The sarcasm was apparent, but Bram could also hear the truth of adulthood pained Justyce. She hadn’t been specifically trained for anything. Even when offering Justyce to help work on cars, Bram’s father would tell her to stand out of the way if she got her dress dirty. She had always wanted to get dirty and support, but he wanted her to stand back and look pretty.
To hear her think she would only ever amount to the makeup model for The Bay perfume counter was cumbersome. He had thought her to have a college fund.
“They certainly put a lot of money into the house.” Thinking of the exquisite bathroom. Tiled walk-in shower, ceramic footed bathtub next to the low flush toilet. It all seemed expensive and unnecessary.
“Yeah, because the house keeps breaking! Shit falls apart around them.” Justyce spat.
“Oh? I didn’t realize it.”
“All they seem to care about is the stupid house. This is the first time they’ve taken me out in a year! Maybe you should come by more often, little brother,” Justyce stood and ruffled his hair, “then I’ll get more shopping out of them.” She winked at him and turned to pluck a book off the shelf. Bram followed her back downstairs and watched as she signed out the book.
“Bye, mystery, man.” The barista winked at Bram as he walked out. At least she added to his weakened confidence. He needed that—the real conversation with his stepsister. The raw emotion behind her words was refreshing. Better than sitting in front of the television and talking fluff like he did with his father. He had always thought Justyce was just as fluffy as Sam and his father were. Never one to talk about anything real, still running for hard emotions and locking them down deep, or in another city, like his mother.
The picture of his father sitting up straight at the table, catering to his new family, who sat with beautiful blonde heads at dinner. The glow of admiration around the room, the honour he had in his stepchild while his natural-born son was left in the dust. His previous wife left to wither in the cold, damp corners. This picture in his mind crumbled. His father’s new image is wearing a crinoline embellished apron meant for a pretty girl and washing dishes to appease his newly acquired wife. He was leaving only the stepdaughter to fend for herself.
Maybe he only looked out for himself. Just picking up and throwing people away as he went. Any show of emotion and Thomas would turn a blind eye to you. As if blocking you on social media so that it couldn’t affect his too-perfect life. Bram didn’t feel angry at his father. He felt sad he acted that way. That he had gone through one beautiful wife and a new wife, now had an adopted beautiful daughter, and still, he couldn’t seem to learn to treat them right. To accept them for real emotional beasts as they were. Treat them like queens rather than pawns in his life.
They left the building together, seemingly entering the real world as one. The thick cloud of abstraction is left behind in the marijuana-laced book store. Justyce had an aura of gentle humour to her now, and she floated along with no weights holding her back. Bram felt slightly jealous of the ambitiousness’s demeanour she had, yet he preferred the unclouded judgement of a sober person.
The street seemed scarily vacant, as it would appear if someone two lanes over had just sounded the disaster alarm and the whole town evacuated. Just striding partway down the street, they found Bram’s father and Justyce’s mother. They were walking hand in hand, backs to the two teenagers. Sam would laugh suddenly and throw a jokingly slap towards her love. Her head would jolt backwards with laughter, and she would lean her body into his but never miss a stride in their step. Bram’s father seemed to have a knack at keeping her entertained, having her laugh and smile and her hair thrown back in enjoyment. Bram had always secretly wished his father back to his mother, but he never recalled her laughing, such as this.
He couldn’t say all his memories were terrible, but they indeed were not as good as this. The way Sam would lean in as she walked to be closer to him. The way he would hold his body healthy as he strolled to be in his air. Even watching the two walk together made a smile grow on Bram’s face. He suddenly felt sorry for leaving his mother. He was all she had left in this world. Promising himself to call her this evening, he fell into pace, walking with his stepsister. A calm came over him, accepting that his father now belonged somewhere else and Bram belonged with his Mother.