When Rachel, the middle girl, was fifteen, her father died. Every morning in the soft, cold heart of October, she ate cereal in the kitchen. Bells tolled on the campus of Washington University. Dust on the piano turned to morning dew as the sun rose. Crows hopped across the tarps that covered her mother’s garden, leaving tracks through the frost. She was always happy and always alone; her parents and her sisters stayed in bed until seven at least. But on that morning, standing in her wool socks at the bottom of the stairs, Rachel heard eggs spitting in the kitchen.
“Dad’s gone,” her mother said. “Daddy died.” Fully dressed, she leaned over the stove and raked a frying pan with a spatula.
She hung her head and gripped the oven door handle and said, “I knew it. I always knew he’d die”—as if death were something you chose and not something that claimed you.
It took a while for grief to come for Rachel. Because the lonely white figure in her parents’ bed looked nothing like her dad, because he was a quiet man, given to long working hours and long walks alone. On into the school year she felt him in the world, but by the summer he was truly gone. He would not grill potatoes on the back porch, or leap up to catch a tree branch and hang there, stretching his shoulders. She dreamed he was alone in a snowbound cabin, just after dark. She dreamed his death was a lie, a trick to teach all his women some sort of lesson. She felt his irreversible, irredeemable loss in the salt and pepper shakers she bought him at the Museum of Westward Expansion, with her allowance when she was six; she felt it in objects he’d never touched and places he’d never been, like the dresser drawer where she kept her jewelry and her CD collection, or the room in the church basement where she took dance lessons.
When her mom was at work, her older sister out with a boy and her younger one dead to the world in an afternoon nap, Rachel slipped into her parents’ bedroom, searching for keepsakes, stealing memories of her father. Yet it was a manila envelope full of letters addressed to her mom—to Shannon, a children’s music teacher, a woman with no husband and no daughters—that brought Rachel joy again, and bound her father’s ghost, and moved her forward into high school.
Dear Shannon, I think you should marry him. Why not?
Dear Shannon, I wasted a lot of years trying to figure out what the point was.
Dear Shannon, Today I’m watching the rain and waiting for songs on the radio to move me like they used to.
Dear Shannon, Aren’t we our best selves when we’re in love?
Rachel never married, but she did love. She turned eighteen, and she loved Washington University too much to go away. In college she found a boyfriend and then a girlfriend. She found boyfriends and girlfriends even as she grew older, even as she reached and passed the age where she’d once thought people did not have boyfriends or girlfriends anymore. She loved St. Louis, and she loved her mother, who urged her to see the world but whose company kept her close.
Shannon crawled free of sadness, year by year. She played occasional tennis, volunteered at an art gallery, and gave piano concerts at the rest home.
Then the youngest sister, wild and angry, drowned herself in the Mississippi.
Rachel’s mother stopped cleaning and stopped leaving the house. Her garden choked with weeds and vanished under molehills; her piano fell grossly out of tune. She ate mostly packaged foods and got no exercise, yet her body remained perversely alive into her ninetieth year.
As her city declined, Rachel drifted into the surrounding countryside, settling on a hobby farm with assorted dogs and poultry. She visited her mother often, bringing fresh eggs and frozen casseroles, drinking tea spiked with scotch and soliciting old pictures and stories. “You were lovely, Momma,” she said, pausing on a photo of her parents in the rain.
“Oh. No. I was sick. I was having your sister, but I didn’t know it yet. And he was just there all the time.”
But she missed him terribly. Her memory wore down all the bad parts, like a river polishing its stones. You forget your body, she said. You forget sleeping on the broken down couch after a fight. You remember only red sky and fish on the neighbor’s grill. You remember it all as if inside you there had been nothing but waves on white sand.
Shortly after the young sister died, the older one moved to Chicago and worked in an office, where she kept a blog about how there was nothing to do in the office but read other people’s blogs.
These seasons of sorrow, following one on another like little ducks after their mother. But Rachel spent her mornings cleaning and walking, grooming and feeding. She ate well-earned sandwiches in front of the television, and one afternoon when she was old she watched a news program about a St. Louis boy who died of cancer. His last wish had been for every boy and every girl in the country to write him a letter. They came by the hundreds, bearing stories of cruel fathers and teachers who would not listen. Dogs died, and friends fought. Winter came, and children began to suspect that each year was like every other. God had not blessed them, and time would not spare them. The camera panned a vacant hospital room, a city of stacked letters, and Rachel feared she was the only happy person left alive.
Carrie Grinstead works as a hospital librarian and lives in Los Angeles with her partner, Daniel, and Pickle, their rat terrier. Her stories have appeared in St. Ann’s Review, Foliate Oak, Bone Bouquet, the Adirondack Review, and Marathon Literary Review.