Fragments of the Lost – Megan Miranda

There’s no light in the narrow stairway to the third floor. There’s no handrail, either. Just wooden steps and plaster walls that were probably added in an attic renovation long ago. The door above remains shut, but there’s a sliver of light that escapes through the bottom, coming from inside. He must’ve left the window uncovered. The door looks darker than the walls of the stairway, but it’s hard to tell from this angle, without light, that it’s blue. We painted it during the summer from a half-empty can he’d found in the garage, a color called Rustic Sea. “A complicated color for a complicated door,” he joked. But it turned out to look more like denim than anything else. He stepped back after applying the first stroke, wrinkled his nose, wiped the back of his hand against his forehead. “My feelings on this color are also very complicated.” There was a smudge of Rustic Sea over his left eye. “I love it,” I said. I reach for the door now, and I can almost smell the fresh paint, feel the summer breeze coming in from the open window to help air it out. We painted it all the way around—front and back and sides—and sometimes, the door still sticks when you pull it open.

Like the paint dried too thick, too slowly. There’s a speck of paint on the silver doorknob that I’ve never noticed before, and it makes me pause. I run my thumb over the roughness of the spot, wondering how I missed this. I take a slow breath, trying to remember the room before I see it, to prepare. It’s got four walls, a closet, slanting ceilings before they meet at a flat strip overtop. There’s a fan hanging from the middle of that strip, the kind that rattles when it’s set to the highest speed. Shelves built into the walls on both sides, giving way to a sliding closet door on my left. A single window, on the far wall. There’s a bed, with a green comforter. A desk to my right, with a computer monitor on the surface, the tower hidden below.

The walls are gray and the carpet is…the carpet is brown. I think. I’m no longer sure. The color blurs and shifts in my mind. It’s just a room. Any room. Four walls and a ceiling and a fan. This is what I tell myself before I step inside. This is the whisper I hear in my head as I stand with my hand on the knob, waiting on the top step. For a moment, I think I hear his footsteps on the other side of the door, but I know this isn’t possible.

I picture us sitting across from each other on the floor. My legs, angled between his. He leans closer. He’s smiling. Then I remember: the carpet is beige. The door will squeak as I push it open. The air will be hotter or colder than the rest of the house, depending on the time of year. All these things I know by heart. None of this prepares me. His mother asked me to do this, because she said it wasn’t something a mother should ever have to do.

I don’t think it’s really something an ex-girlfriend should have to do either, but mother trumps ex any day of the week. “The room is full of you, Jessa,” she explained, by which she means the pictures. They’re taped around the room, directly to the gray slanting walls, and in all of them I have my arms looped around his neck, or his arms draped over my shoulders from behind me. I can’t even look directly at the photos, but his mother is right. I’m everywhere. Sometimes I wonder if his mother knows about the ex part. If he told her, if she overheard, if she could tell all on her own. Though something about the way she stands at the base of the stairway watching me linger at the entrance to the attic room, something about the way she asked me to do this in the first place, makes me think that she does. There’s a chill up here, but I know it’s nothing more than the poor insulation of a converted attic, heat escaping through the cracks of the window frame, the November air seeping in from the outside. His clothes are still on the floor, however they fell when he last kicked them off, on that rainy day in mid-September.

His bed is unmade. His computer monitor sits black on the desk, my distorted reflection looking back. His desk is stuffed full with ticket stubs and old homework, and more, I know, and so is the closet. Caleb wouldn’t want his mother doing this, either. Under the bed, between the mattresses, there are things a mother shouldn’t see. My stomach rebels, but I can feel her still watching, so I step inside. I don’t know where to start. I don’t know how to start. If Caleb were here, he’d say, Just start. I hated that, the way he’d brush aside everything else, forcing the point, or the issue, or this moment.

Just forget about it— Just leave it— Just say it— Just pick up the shirt at the foot of the bed, the one he wore the last time you touched him. Just start. The shirt still smells of him. Dove soap. The cologne that always let me know when he was behind me, a smile starting even before he’d place his hand on my waist, his lips on my cheek. I don’t bring it to my face. I don’t dare bring it any closer. I throw it into the corner—the beginning of a pile. See, Caleb? I’m starting. I’ve started.

Underneath the shirt, there’s also the jeans. Knees worn thin, hem slightly fraying, soft and familiar. I’m holding my breath by the time I get to the pockets, except I already know what’s there, so it should prepare me. But it doesn’t. The chain crackles, cold on my fingers. And then I feel something else: the memory of his warm skin as I placed it into his open palm. I said: Please hold this for me. I said: Please be careful. He put it in his pocket, no big thing. He did it like that because of everyone watching.

To show me he didn’t have to be careful anymore. Not with me. The clasp of the necklace in my hand is broken, had already broken when I gave it to him, but the gold chain is now kinked and knotted too, from sitting buried in his pocket. I wore it every race, even though we weren’t supposed to, taping the dragonfly charm to the inside of my jersey to keep it in place while I ran. I wore it because it was good luck, because it was a ritual, because I had a hard time doing things any other way than how I’d always done them. It broke on the starting line as I raised my hands over my head in a stretch. The pop against my skin, sickening. My body already wound tight, waiting for the gun. I scanned the crowd, and there he was—familiar. It didn’t occur to me right then that he had no reason to be there anymore.

It didn’t even register. There was no mystery, just the momentary panic of a broken necklace and a race about to start. Wait, I begged, leaving my place on the field. I jogged over to him, standing near the starting line, as everyone else took their places. Please hold this for me. Please be careful. He frowned at the dragonfly in the crease of his palm, closed his fist, slid his hand into the right front pocket of his favorite jeans. Shrugged. I wish I had known that this would be it—the last time I saw him. I would’ve made sure the last image I had of him was not like this: this apathy; his blue eyes skimming over me, settling to the side; and then the breeze, blowing his light brown hair across his eyes, shuttering everything.

The image I see constantly, now burned into memory. He left before the race was over, probably remembering he didn’t have to be there for me anymore. Or maybe it was something else. The rain. A word spoken. A thing remembered. Either way, he left. Came back home. Tossed his jeans on the floor of his room, my necklace still inside. Left them there.

Changed. Changed everything. Caleb. Be careful. — The attic is too quiet without him, and the angled walls too narrowed, and I want to be out of this room, but then I hear his mother arguing below. She’s arguing with someone very particular. She’s arguing with Max. Sometimes his voice reminds me of Caleb’s. Sometimes, when I hear him, it takes me a second to remember Caleb’s gone. “She shouldn’t be here,” he’s saying.

“I told you I’d do it.” “She will do it,” his mother says. And this is how I’m sure that this is my penance. I slide the necklace into my pocket, leaving his jeans on the floor—the outline of his ghost. I look over at the pile of flattened boxes leaning against the wall just inside the door, left there by his mother. His baseball cap hangs from the doorknob, wedged between the boxes and the open door. The room is untouched otherwise, frozen at the exact moment Caleb last left the room. I can picture it so clearly, see it happening as if I were in this room that afternoon, beside him. The rain pelting the single window, the whir of the ceiling fan overhead. He throws his clothes on the floor as he changes.

He must’ve been in a rush, because the clothes are just lying here, and he was usually pretty good about getting his laundry the three steps from his bed to the hamper in his closet. And then: he leaves. He braces his hands against the narrow walls on the sides of the stairs as he catapults himself two, three steps down at a time. There was this feeling, with Caleb, that he was always late for something. I imagine this room would’ve stayed like this forever—the door shut, everything frozen in time, his mother sealing off the entrance, preventing anyone from touching it. Except they’re leaving. Leaving this town, leaving it all behind. It’s been one month since the memorial service, one and a half months since the flood, nearly two months since we broke up. But as I stand in his room, all that time disappears, and I have to remind myself he’s not about to walk in and ask what I’m doing here. I swing the door slightly closed to prop open the first box, and his broken-in baseball cap sways faintly side to side.

It’s solid blue with a white swoosh symbol, the brim arched, the edges worn and off-color, bleached from the summers of salt and sun. And suddenly I can see him turning his face to me on the beach, as he did that first time, the summer before last. Hailey and I sitting on our towels, side by side, sipping the last of our cold sodas from the cooler, all the ice melted, the afternoon sun baking my exposed skin. Sophie Bartow’s shadow falling over Hailey—they’d been in some class together the year before, but I didn’t know her well—staking out a spot beside her, calling back to someone over her shoulder. I saw Max first, who I’d heard had started seeing Sophie earlier that summer. He was weaving around towels with Caleb beside him, midconversation, when Max looked up to where Sophie waited, caught my eye, and waved. I waved back. Caleb tilted his head to the side, said something to Max. To hear Caleb tell it, it was the first time he saw me. He asked Max who I was.

And Max said, “Her? That’s Jessa Whitworth. Julian’s sister.” I’d known Max for years, a permanent fixture from the years of Julian’s Little League teams. He knew me as the younger sister of their star player, scorekeeper, stat recorder, occasional Gatorade provider, until I was old enough to grow sick of it all. “Hey, Jessa,” Max said as he took up his spot beside Sophie. But Caleb stopped in front of me, his shadow blocking the heat of the sun for a moment. “Hi, I’m Caleb,” he said. I knew who Caleb was, knew vaguely in the way that you know most people in your year and above, in the way that hearing the stories and rumors about them made you feel like you already knew them. And how the years below kind of faded into the background—like I did for Caleb. He sat beside me on my beach towel, like he’d known me forever, and took a sip of my soda.

I was kind of horrified and said, “I’m not that kind of girl, you know.” Which made him laugh. “We need to be friends first, don’t we?” he said. I nodded. He leaned close and whispered, “I can’t stand Max’s new girlfriend.” I pulled back, shaken. “What are you doing?” “I just told you something I haven’t even told my best friend. And I’m trusting you not to tell. Friends, right?” I rolled my eyes. “You really, really want my soda, don’t you?” “Oh God, you have no idea.

Please. I’m dying here.” I squinted against the glare. “I’ll trade you for some sunscreen. My nose is burning. I can feel it.” “Not a fan of the sun?” he asked. “On the contrary. I love the sun. But in a cruel twist of fate, the sun and I can’t be in contact for more than thirty minutes at a time without SPF 50.

And I’m all out.” He laughed, and the sound caught me by surprise. He took the hat from his head, lowered it over my own, readjusted the brim, and tapped it once, as I tucked my shoulder-length hair behind my ears. He reached his fingers for a wisp of blond hair that blew across my face, brushing it aside. “Better?” he asked. I peered up at him from under the brim, his hair moving with the breeze, the side of his mouth turned up in a grin as he watched me back. Caleb looked like he and the sun were made for each other. His light brown hair streaked nearly blond in sections, his tan golden. I took a long sip before handing the soda to him, and there it was: we were friends. Our circles blending together—Hailey to Sophie, Sophie to Max, Max to Caleb.

A month of hanging out that summer before we got together, but he had me right then. He had me with his ease, hooked me with the secret. Max’s voice breaks me from the memory. “Jessa?” It’s a whisper-yell, like he’s not supposed to do it. He must be standing at the bottom of the steps, his voice funneling up the narrow halls and crooked stairs, spanning the distance between us. I hear water running through the pipes and imagine Caleb’s mother is in the bathroom or rinsing the dishes. “You doing okay?” he whisper-yells. Okay? Whatever it is I’m doing, it’s not okay on any level. My hand is on the ball cap, scared to move it from its spot on the door, as if I am the great disturbance of this room. The air changes.

The room changes. The meaning behind Max’s words changes. “Tell her I need some tape,” I call. This is the only thing I can think of to say. I can picture Caleb on his bed, trying not to smile. The way he thought it was cute when I said the wrong thing. I prop open the first box, scoop up the clothes, the ball cap, all of these things that Caleb once loved, and I pile them into the bottom of the box with a knot in my throat. I look around the room, expecting that something will have changed, but everything remains the same. We’re here. Caleb’s gone.

I hear Max talking low downstairs again, Caleb’s mother’s voice in response, and he’s the one who brings the tape. I hear his slow steps on the wooden stairs, the creak that Caleb used to leap over on the way down. Max shuffles his sneakers against the rug at the entrance, and I can almost hear the zing that would always come after, when Caleb touched the light switch—how he always seemed to accidentally charge himself on the rug, shocking himself on the way in. But Max doesn’t touch the light switch. He doesn’t move any closer. “I told her I’d do it,” he says. He doesn’t look at me when he says it. Max and Caleb aren’t related, but they told me they once had the whole sixth grade convinced they were. They don’t even look that much alike—Max is tall and thin, with pitch-dark hair, where Caleb was more broad-shouldered, his light brown hair even lighter in the summer. But there’s a similar cadence to the way they speak, a lilt, like a script they both tend to follow.

A habit of people who’ve known each other for years, who’ve spent so much time together. I ignore him, emptying an entire drawer into a new box in one fell swoop. A summer wardrobe. An entire season. Months and months of a life. Just gone. He leans against the wall behind me. I see his sneakers, notice him rock back on his heels, like he isn’t sure whether to stay or go. “We missed you at the meet,” he says. That’s when I notice his hair is still wet from a shower, his school track pants and jacket still on.

He must have come straight from the meet. Today was the last race of the season. I’ve missed this one, and every one, since September. And for a moment, I can hear the cheers of an early Saturday-morning race, smell the dew on the grass, feel the adrenaline surging to my toes. I reach for the necklace at my collar on instinct, then remember it’s no longer there. I finally have it back in my possession, but I know I’ll never wear it again. Like everything else in this room, the necklace belongs to another time. Even the weather has turned. Caleb’s summer wardrobe will never be needed again. “Jessa—” Max says, reaching for the box.

“Here, let me help.” “She wants me to do it,” I snap, folding over the top of the box, holding out my hand for the tape. I position the box between my legs and peel the tape across it, the noise cutting through the room. I slice it off, stick another strip across in the opposite direction, a crooked X. I pick up the box and thrust it at Max. “Here. So tell her. Tell her I’m doing it.” I push him with the box, and he backs away, and he keeps going, as if he cannot stop the momentum. I hold tight to the feeling, and I keep moving.

— I’m doing the clothes. I’ve done the hard part, the ones on the floor, the ones I can picture him still in. These will all be donated, I assume, belonging to someone else soon enough. I do this every year, cleaning out my closet, making room for the next size, or the next style, or finding the ones that had accidentally been shrunken in the dryer by my dad. The emptiness of the closet only temporary, a gap that would ultimately be filled. A sign of change—with the seasons and me. The clothes in the drawers are the easy part, indistinguishable in their current form, folded into tight squares. They smell like laundry detergent and dryer sheets, the pine scent from the inside of the dresser. I leave them folded and try not to look too closely. The drawers are mostly jeans, khaki shorts, gym shorts.

The T-shirts with band names and brand names. Socks and undershirts and boxers. I don’t differentiate. I don’t care. She said pack, and I’m packing. It all goes into the same place, before it can register. I’m taping boxes, I’m stacking them on the floor, on to the next, and the next, and the next. At some point I hear the back door open and close, and I know that Max has left. I know because I go to the window and watch as he walks across the backyard, his head tucked down—how he pushes the latch at the back of the fence and looks up once before slipping to the other side, where he lives. I duck myself behind the window curtain, but it’s too late.

And then I see her reflection in the window, filling up the doorway. I spin around, my back pressed to the wall beside Caleb’s bed. Her eyes are red-rimmed and she’s staring at the boxes, and then she’s staring at me, standing beside the window. I think she’s going to tell me it’s okay, that I should go home, because she always had a soft spot for me—inviting me to stay for dinner, asking about my plans—but instead I see she has a black Sharpie in her hand. “You need to label them,” she says, her voice cool and flat. And what can I do except take the marker from her hand and nod? His clock on the wall above me keeps ticking. A cruel, even tempo. On and on, a tally of moments in which Caleb remains further and further behind. I want to tell her that I haven’t had lunch yet; that my brother is home from college this weekend; that I’m sorry. “I’m almost done with the clothes,” I say, because she’s still standing there, and I don’t really know what to say to her, this woman I believe secretly blames me for the death of her son.

It’s not until I turn to the closet that I hear her footsteps retreating on the stairs.

.

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