Taking a deep breath, she turned the page to the last photograph. In that last picture she posed proudly on the front steps. She was wearing her police uniform. It was her first morning on the job, and the last photo her grandmother ever took. A small sigh escaped her and she touched the picture lightly, remembering the crisp feel of the uniform and the almost bursting-with-happiness feeling she’d had. A week later someone had pushed her grandmother down and stolen her purse. When she fell, she’d broken her hip and died not long after from what the doctors called “complications.”
Brianna knew all about complications. Her whole life was one complication after another and it didn’t seem like things were going to change.
When Jack got back it was late. Brianna had sandwiches on the coffee table. She’d left the albums out, and Jack took a sandwich and poured over the photos, making her tell everyone’s stories.
But there was one more album. A folder, more like it, with just some newspaper clippings in it. Brianna had hesitated for a long time before getting this one out. Finally, when Jack had exhausted all the stories about her grandmother and her camera, she slid the folder from beneath the bottom album and pushed it across the coffee table toward him.
He took it and opened it on his lap. Then he looked up at her, his expression unreadable.
Brianna crumpled her napkin in her hands. “I know you say you have some holes in your memory. I thought perhaps this would help.”
He fingered the clippings, then nodded, and held them up to study. “My parents didn’t come to my funeral because they’re dead. But I recognize my aunts and uncles, my grandparents even. That’s my cousin Joey and his twin, Melanie.” He closed his eyes. “It’s like standing in the surf. The waves come at me, and I can’t stop them.”
“No, it’s all right.” He ran his finger over the newspaper.
“Do you want to call anyone? Your cousins?”
He gave a laugh, but it sounded more like a sob. “No. They were at my funeral. They won’t believe me, or they’ll be horrified … like you were.”
Brianna was going to tell him she hadn’t been horror-struck, but she couldn’t. She’d been so frightened she’d peed her pants. She’d never been as shocked as that moment, when Jack had said his name and turned around. If she’d had a weak heart, she’d be dead right now. As it was, she had somehow accepted that Jack was back, but he wasn’t the same Jack she’d known. She didn’t feel the same way about him. There was a difference. She’d only known him for about a month. What would it be like for his family, who had known and loved him all his life? “They deserve to know though,” she said.
“I’ll be a monster to them,” said Jack. He smoothed the newspaper clipping over his knee and a faint smile tugged his lips. “There was a nice crowd there that day. And there you are, right next to Joey.”
“I didn’t know it was your cousin.”
“You look pretty in black.”
“Oh stop it!” Brianna stood up. “I looked like hell because I felt like hell. I had the worst upset stomach of my life. My throat was so sore from screaming, then giving the deposition, and I couldn’t talk anymore. I don’t remember how I got to the cemetery, or even how I got back home. I can’t believe you can look at pictures of your family and not want to see them. Mine are all dead. Every person in that album except me is dead. Look at that crowd. You have a huge family! Don’t you want to see anyone?”
“Brianna.” He stood up and took her in his arms. He had to struggle with her for a minute, because she didn’t feel like standing still, she felt like punching someone, for some reason. But maybe it was just sadness, the kind of sadness that makes you feel like your body is a bottomless well. “I’m glad you showed me the newspaper clippings. They make me feel stronger, somehow. They remind me that there are still people who think of me and who loved me. Hopefully they still think about me. But I’m not really ‘me’ anymore, am I?” he asked gently.
Brianna felt her knees giving away and a whole bunch of stupid tears surging up from that well of sorrow. “I didn’t mean to hurt you,” she said.
“You didn’t.” He helped her sit on the couch and handed her a napkin. “You went to my funeral. You kept the clippings. You thought I might like to see them, but you weren’t sure what my reaction would be. It’s not the same as you looking at your own albums, and that scared you. Because you realized I’m not human anymore. I’m sorry.” He got up and said, “I’ll do the dishes.” And he carried the plates back to the kitchen.
Brianna wiped her face off and sat, her shoulders hunched, the wet napkin in her hands. There was a strange taste in her mouth, like ashes. Reaching out, she stacked the albums up and put the folder on the top. She put them back in the closet, and then went to find Jack.
“You’re not a monster,” she told him.
“How do you know?”
“Monsters don’t offer to clean up.” She managed a crooked grin, and helped him put the dishes away.