April started stealing ashes during her brother’s first week at the crematorium, where she had to pick him up every day and drive him home. His car had been impounded and his license revoked. The urns were just there, waiting to be picked up: a whole person, in a decorative piece of crockery. Soon they’d be on pillars, surrounded by wreaths and weeping relatives, and then set on somebody’s mantle or scattered at sea. Her brother had been in the back office, gathering his stuff-he always carried a backpack full of crumpled papers, spare socks, underwear, the occasional book-leaving her alone with the urns. She’d eaten a cup-o-noodles in the car and brought the cup and spoon inside to throw away. She opened one of the urns-a blue one-and shoveled out a tablespoon of the deceased. She dumped it into the cup and wedged it into her purse, zipping it shut just in time for her brother to emerge.
“It’s a freakin’ weird place to work,â€ he said, following her out to her Hyundai. “But I like it.â€
He said other things on the drive home-about his coworkers, the process of cremation-but she only half listened. She’d propped her purse in the backseat and every time she rounded a corner, she worried the ashes might spill. When she got them home, in her bedroom with the door locked, they were still sitting in the noodle cup, slightly moistened from the broth. She searched for something to put them in-the best thing she had was her old Pippi Longstocking lunchbox-and the spoon squeaked against the Styrofoam as she scraped the cup. When she threw the cup and spoon away, part of the deceased went in the trash with them. April didn’t stop to think about which parts might be mingling with her apple cores and kitty litter. She tucked the lunchbox under her bed.
At dinner, her brother asked if everything was okay.
“Of course,â€ she said, sawing her meat. They were using new orange plates and new pink cups. She’d forgotten to buy steak knives, so they were using the new butter knives, which proved problematic.
“You’re so quiet,â€ her brother said. He had already eaten most of his dinner and sat with his fists on the table, knife and fork pointing toward the ceiling. There was a wisp of hair on his forehead that made her want to reach across and pat his head.
He’d always been a good brother, if not a good citizen. She felt that now more than ever. She didn’t see the scar where someone had ripped out his eyebrow ring during a fight; she saw a face with character. She didn’t see the tattoo on his hand as it clutched his butter knife; she saw the dimples in his knuckles that meant he was artistic. In fact, he looked a little like Benny. She looked down at her brand-new orange plate.
“I’ve got nothing to say,â€ April said to her mashed potatoes. She’d been talking for weeks-to her brother, to her mother, to her shrink, to her walls-and it hadn’t brought Benny back. It never would. Her shrink had wanted her to keep talking, for months or years if she needed to. These things couldn’t be rushed, she said. People had to grieve. But April didn’t want to draw it out. The best thing was to move on. New plates, new forks, new clothes. New pictures on the living room walls. New soap in the bathroom. Colors Benny never liked, styles he never would have chosen.
Her brother jabbed at his meat with his butter knife. He stabbed it with his fork and brought it to his mouth, ripping a hunk of flesh with his teeth. His braces-straight teeth, his well-brushed gums.
April knew he was trying to make her laugh, so she forced a smile. But where the laugh should have been, there was only an ache in her stomach.
“We’ll get good knives tomorrow,â€ he said. He reached across the table and touched her chin. She was almost glad he’d lost his old job, his old apartment. That she could give him someplace to stay. She was almost glad he’d driven home from the bar after too many shots of tequila, driven up on the curb, into the lamppost. He’d been a little scuffed up but he hadn’t hurt anybody.
No, she wasn’t glad he had driven drunk-that would be bad karma. She was glad he was here. She was glad to drive him to work and to pick him up in the evenings. Especially since her boss had given her leave. As if it were better to grieve in an empty apartment than to burden the office with sadness.
April excused herself from the table. Her brother said he’d do the dishes. She went to the living room but watched through the door as he wrapped her meat in cling and spooned her mashed potatoes back into the bowl. He turned and caught her eye; she skittered back toward her bedroom.
The next day she took two scoops from a burgundy urn with gold leaf embellishments. She brought her old retainer case for the occasion-she’d never managed to throw it away, and what else was it good for? This time the ashes slid easily into the lunchbox-no broth to cling to, no evidence in the garbage can. This time, she let herself wonder what parts she’d brought home. One nostril and two earlobes, she decided.
Her brother wanted to go to the mall after work for steak knives, spatulas, and a more comfortable pillow. He said he’d pay but she knew how much he earned at the crematorium. Besides, she was currently being paid to do nothing. She wasn’t sure, but she thought her boss had fudged the papers; she might technically be on maternity leave.
When they got to the mall, her brother steered her into the bath and body store. “Because you should have something nice,â€ he said. The store smelled of so many perfumes at once that April found it hard to breathe.
She grabbed his elbow and squeezed, not sure what she meant by it. A reassurance, an apology. An acceptance of his gesture.
He shoved a few dollars in her palm and told her to buy anything she wanted. He’d be waiting outside. She wanted to give the money back-partially because it wasn’t enough to buy anything but a miniature tube of lip gloss-but he was already across the hall, loitering outside a girls’ accessory shop.
She stood in the center of the store, trying to breathe as shallowly as possible. She’d never bought these types of frou-frou toiletries before. She used to use Benny’s Pert Plus, but she had thrown that away and started using her brother’s Head and Shoulders. A salesgirl bustled over to her and started describing all the sales she could participate in: two for one on lotions, ten percent off fifty dollars, dollar-off discounts on candles. April asked to be pointed toward shampoos and the salesgirl obliged, chattering about different hair textures and scents and conditioner combinations.
“You can wash with apple and condition with pear, and your hair will smell like an orchard.â€
April didn’t know if she wanted her hair to smell like an orchard. Or a fruit salad. Or a garden. She stared at the shelves full of bottles, most of which cost five times what she usually paid for shampoo. The salesgirl kept showing her options, making sure she knew all the possibilities.
“What does your husband like?â€ the salesgirl asked. She nodded toward April’s left hand, which rested on one of the shelves.
April felt the ache rise up from her stomach and into her throat. She moved her left hand quickly, grasping it with her right. She tugged at the ring-not even a wedding ring, but an engagement ring-but it didn’t want to come off her finger. She felt her eyes filling with water, her cheeks beginning to warm.
“I’m sorry,â€ the salesgirl said. She was fuzzy now, behind April’s tears, but she looked concerned.
April wanted to run out of the store, out of the mall, out of the country. But she held it back. She purchased a bottle of shampoo and a bottle of conditioner without noticing which aromas she chose.
Her brother was still outside the accessories store, chatting with a girl who must have been fifteen. She wore an armful of bracelets and a polyester flower in her hair, which seemed to be intentionally matted. She laughed as April’s brother leaned toward her, one hand on the wall, one hand shoved into his jeans pocket. His jeans were too tight, April noticed, and he wore them too low. She would buy him new ones, and a belt to go along with them.
She stood in the middle of the mall, waiting for her brother to notice. A group of women with babies strapped to their backs engulfed her, bags rustling, and then they were gone, leaving the smell of plastic and babies’ heads.
April closed her eyes and counted to three. Their mother had always done that when they misbehaved, except she had done it aloud. April wondered what her mother was doing now. She was in Canada with her new husband, who did some sort of engineering, though April wasn’t sure what kind. She guessed he built bridges and highways and such because he was always well dressed and had a dimpled chin. She couldn’t imagine him writing computer code or hunkering down with a soldering gun, and she couldn’t imagine her mother marrying that type. They were probably out lunching (the new husband said that, lunching, and April liked the way it sounded) someplace that served quiche and raspberry tarts. They were probably making arrangements to send more flowers; they had sent three bouquets since Benny’s death.
April opened her eyes and her brother was walking toward her. The teenager was in the accessories store, browsing a display of plastic beads.
Her brother waved a scrap of paper in front of her: a bubble gum wrapper with a phone number in purple ink.
“You don’t need pedophilia added to your rap sheet,â€ April said, snatching the paper from his hand. She crumpled it and dropped it in her shopping bag.
“I didn’t ask for it. She just gave it to me.â€
April felt the ache in her stomach, moving toward a knot in her chest. Her eyes felt sticky under her eyelids.
“Let’s go,â€ her brother said. She grabbed his hand, lacing her fingers into his. His hand remained limp, and so she pulled away, shoving her hands into her pockets.
“Gross,â€ he said, wiping his hand on his jeans. She couldn’t tell if he was kidding or not. Sometimes she forgot how young he was.
They went to a store that sold kitchenware and bought the most expensive knives they could find. They forgot the spatulas and the pillow until they were already home, removing price tags. They used the knives without washing them first, slicing through onions and peppers.
After dinner, April checked her ashes. They were still there, where she’d left them. She opened the lid of the lunchbox and tried not to breathe too deeply. Then she closed the lid, latched it, and slid the box under the bed.
She didn’t want to know anything about the people whose ashes she took. She took them in small portions, choosing based on availability and the color of the urn. There were days when her brother never left her alone in the crematorium, when he kept his backpack behind the front counter or when his boss, a surprisingly chipper woman named Shirley, came out to keep her company while her brother finished his duties. It was Shirley who first started letting her in on the details: this one had been in a car wreck, nearly unidentifiable; this one had been a butcher who died of a stroke; this one, a young ballerina who-you know.
April didn’t know. Shirley looked all around, to make sure no one was listening. “Suicide,â€ she whispered.
On the way home, April asked her brother what exactly he did there.
“Stuff,â€ he said. “You know-cremation stuff.â€
She imagined him inside a giant furnace, sweeping, like a wayward child in a fairy tale.
She imagined him handling dead bodies, removing rings and gold teeth.
She imagined him opening boxes, removing the bubble wrap from new shipments of urns so they could be put out for display.
“Does this wig you out?â€ he asked. “Going there every day? Because I can get a bus pass.â€
She shook her head. It was beginning to drizzle, so she turned on the windshield wipers. She thought the brake lights looked pretty in the rain.
A little red car darted in front of April’s Hyundai and she punched the horn. Her brother flinched. She felt him looking at her.
“I will get over Benny,â€ she said.
“But all those–â€
“I will get over Benny.â€ She forced the words out as her throat tied itself in a knot.
She wondered what Shirley did in her spare time, if she’d like to have a cup of coffee. If she had some magic words she told the survivors when they came to claim the deceased.
Until Benny got this job, April had never been to a crematorium or a funeral home or a church. On the day of Benny’s death, she had gone to the beach. She hadn’t been immobile, like she expected to be, alone in a room under a comforter with a tub of Ben and Jerry’s. She had gone to the grocery store, bought pickles and pastrami, and eaten them in the sand. One moment, she’d been at the hospital, hearing words she’d only heard on daytime TV, one in particular: aneurysm. The next she’d been in a parking lot, in her car, in the deli aisle. A few grains of sand blew into her sandwich and she threw most of it away.
On the day of Benny’s funeral, she drove to the neighborhood where the service would be held, but when she should have turned right, she kept going straight. She imagined Benny waiting for her at Frank’s, the diner where they liked to meet for burgers on days Benny worked late. He would be sitting in a booth, reading a paperback, with the pages folded back in the way that put creases in the spine. He would be wearing a blue shirt and the scarf she’d crocheted him last Christmas, even though the stitching was terrible.
She drove to Frank’s and parked the car. Her cell phone rang but she didn’t answer it. She moved to the backseat and fell asleep. When she woke, Benny’s ashes had been scattered off the end of the pier and she had four voicemails, asking where she was. Benny’s father had been willing to postpone the service until April arrived; Benny’s mother had not.
The rain was getting heavier now. April turned on her headlights and leaned toward the windshield. Her brother was still looking at her, his forehead drawn up in three dark lines. She shook her head, told him she wasn’t used to this kind of rain.
She thought about the bag of ashes in her purse. The retainer case was starting to seem too small, and one day it jostled and spread gray film over her keys, credit cards, lipstick. She’d started wearing red lipstick, which Benny would have hated. She had to throw away a brand new tube.
So today, she brought the baggie. She filled it from three different urns-well, two urns and one plastic box, which was apparently what you got for cheap. Benny would have been in one of those, she thought as she sealed the baggie and shoved it in her purse, just in time for Shirley to come out of the bathroom and her brother to come out of the office. She’d been getting reckless lately, taking too much. She knew someone might notice, one of these days, that their urn wasn’t quite full, that there were specks of gray on the carpet.
She drove home carefully, trying to ignore her brother’s stare. She wondered if he could tell what she was thinking, if he’d seen something at the crematorium that he wasn’t supposed to.
She told him she was thinking of asking Shirley to brunch. He didn’t say anything for a minute, and then, “That sounds nice.â€
She looked at his face, with its collection of scars and eyes that were practically her own. She wondered if he missed Benny, too. But then, he had barely known him.
She turned back to the road. Out of the corner of her eye, he could almost be Benny-something about his height and the color of his hair. Sometimes, when they puttered around the house-him doing the dishes, her making the grocery list-she would forget that he was her brother. But he was too scrawny to be Benny, and Benny hadn’t had tattoos. The cheekbones were all wrong and her brother’s eyes were more vacant, but sometimes she would let her eyes fall out of focus and let herself believe, for a few seconds, that it was Benny scraping the pasta sauce off the dishes, Benny using too many paper towels to clean up a spill.
Sometimes, when her brother was at work, she’d talk to Benny. Usually, she’d be in the kitchen and she’d shout things toward the bathroom or the bedroom down the hall.
“Don’t let me forget to buy toothpaste,â€ she’d say. Or: “If I’m getting fat, don’t tell me-I’m adding ice cream to the grocery list.â€
She never told him how much she missed him, or asked what it was like to be away from her. She knew he wouldn’t have answers. Sometimes she told him about the weather.
Now, in the car with the rain slipping down the windshield, she said, “We never saw rain like this, did we?â€
Her brother reminded her of a time when they were little, when the lightning had split open the neighbor’s tree.
“Right,â€ April said. But she saw Benny smiling in her mind, one of his eyelids a little lazier than the other. She felt her insides hollow out, the ache in her gut spreading into her chest, her pelvis, her limbs before retracting, folding into her center, knocking the wind out of her.
“Whoa,â€ her brother said, tapping her knee. She stepped on the brakes and everything jolted. The front tires were up on the curb, but they hadn’t hit anything. They were fine.
He said he’d take the bus tomorrow. She said that wouldn’t be necessary. He said she might consider seeing the shrink again. She said she’d take Shirley out for lunch.
“Shirley’s a salesperson, not a doctor,â€ he said.
“Look at you being all politically correct.â€
He raised an eyebrow. She remembered when he taught himself how to do that. He’d wanted to play the villain in the high school play, and he figured he needed a dastardly expression. He’d spent maybe a half hour a day in front of the mirror, holding his left eyebrow in place while lifting the right.
Except he’d just lifted his left eyebrow. Maybe that was Benny who could only lift his right. Was it Benny who was in the high school play? No-Benny had played tennis; her brother had been the actor.
She drove him to work the next day and wandered around the mall until it was time for Shirley’s lunch break. She bought a knit hat and some Halloween socks, on clearance. She’d never owned Halloween socks before. When she got back to the crematorium, Shirley was standing at the side of the building, smoking a cigarette and talking on her cell phone. April went in the front door. Her brother was talking to a droopy looking brunette, middle-aged, who had her hand on one of the urns April had dipped into yesterday. The woman looked like her heart might fall out of her body.
April’s brother walked the woman to the door and April tried to sink into the wall, to stay out of the way. Shirley came in at the same time, smiling. She had lipstick on her teeth-she always reapplied it after a cigarette, whether she had a mirror with her or not. Today’s shade was an obnoxious pink, one that April would not have imagined as appropriate for dealing with the bereaved.
“Poor woman,â€ Shirley said once the door was closed. “Lost her husband.â€ And then she whispered, “Cancer.â€
April felt marbles in her throat. She was certain she had scooped out that man’s tumor, that it was mixed in with the rest of her ashes where no one could pick it out.
“I’m glad you’re here, honey,â€ Shirley said, brightening again. “How do you feel about Chinese for lunch?â€
They went to a buffet where the booths were red and the sodas cost three bucks. She told Shirley she would pay and Shirley didn’t argue.
“Do you ever wonder what happens to people after they die?â€ April asked once they had loaded their plates and returned to their booth. Shirley had filled one half of her plate with sweet and sour chicken, the other half with something that looked like donuts. The sweet and sour sauce bled over onto the donut side, but that didn’t seem to bother her.
Shirley snorted and held her hand to her face. When she had composed herself, she said, “If they come to me, they get torched. If they’re lucky, they get a pretty vase and I get a paycheck.â€
April forced a smile. She knew it was a ridiculous question, and she wasn’t really in the mood for a bunch of talk about the god inside all of us or the possibility that Benny might have already come back as a squirrel, maybe the one that lived in the tree outside her apartment building. Though she did think that if Benny could come back and had any say in the matter, a squirrel wouldn’t be too ridiculous a choice. He would have liked to run around in the trees, to jump and chatter. But most likely he would have come back as another human, maybe one with a brighter future this time. A longer one, anyway.
April waited until Shirley wasn’t taking a drink before she said, “Do you ever wonder what pieces of people get left behind?â€ Shirley smiled and tilted her head. “I don’t mean metaphysically-I mean, do you ever wonder how much of them gets left inside the oven? Or accidentally swept onto the floor? How many pieces of people have you accidentally inhaled, just by being near them? Stuff like that.â€
Shirley tilted her head and took a bite of chicken. She chewed slowly, like she was chewing on the question, parceling out its answer with her molars.
“I guess I have,â€ she said, once she’d swallowed. “But you couldn’t accidentally inhale someone’s heart or their liver. I mean, what’s in that jar is mostly bones.â€
April nodded, hoping to look thoughtful, but what she felt was panic. She felt as if Shirley had exposed her somehow, like she had lifted her dust ruffle and found the lunchbox under the bed. She hadn’t, of course. But when she imagined what bits might be in that lunchbox, she always imagined fleshy things-jowls and earlobes and insteps.
She looked down at her plate. She hadn’t eaten much of her broccoli beef. She’d never liked it, but she couldn’t bring herself to eat anything Benny loved, and he loved almost everything you’d find at a Chinese buffet. But she had to eat something. She took one of the donuts off Shirley’s plate and soaked it in the brown sauce, then attempted to shove the whole thing in her mouth. She only managed half.
“Are you okay, sweetie?â€
April nodded vigorously and gave a thumbs-up. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d given a thumbs-up. Maybe the last time she went to the dentist. She swallowed before she’d chewed thoroughly enough and the donut went down like a rock.
“Then what happens to the rest of them?â€ she asked, once her mouth was empty. “You know-the non-bone part.â€
“It evaporates, I guess.â€
Shirley finished what was on her plate and excused herself for another round at the buffet. When she came back, she had extra donuts, which she dropped onto April’s plate. They ate quietly for a while and the waitress brought fresh sodas. April wanted to ask the other question she had in mind-what words of comfort Shirley gave to survivors when they picked up their urns-but she felt an invisible gag in her mouth. They talked a little about how her brother was doing at his job, and how it was having him around the house. It sounded like he was a model employee, though April still wasn’t sure what he did, and at this point didn’t care to know.
When they got back to the crematorium, he was out front, talking to a girl. She didn’t have an urn in her arms, so April imagined this was a social visit. At least this one looked to be over eighteen. As long as it was legal, she guessed it wasn’t her business what he did.
But that night, on the couch, she asked him about it. They were watching some horrible action movie-her brother’s choice-and she was having a hard time focusing.
“It’s nothing,â€ he said. “Just some girl I’m seeing.â€
She tried not to raise her eyebrows at this. She would have thought he’d tell her about some girl he was seeing. They’d been spending a good chunk of the day together every day since he lost his apartment. It had been weeks, if not months-without work to guide her sense of the calendar, April got lost. They’d discussed the best brands of spatulas and baseball teams’ prospects and the pros and cons of unwaxed dental floss. She’d told him about Benny. She’d told him more than he deserved to know. She would have told the sofa if it had been the only one listening. But she supposed that wasn’t fair. Because Benny was gone and the girl was still breathing.
She asked him to define “seeing.â€
He said they’d been dating for a week.
She asked him if he knew that ashes were only bones.
He said he didn’t care, as long as he had a job.
But Benny would have thought it was fascinating. Benny would have looked it up on the internet, found research and video, essays on the subject. He would have segued from there into ritual cremation, and then to burial ceremonies in general, and he would have discovered that some animals have funerals by gathering around the dead, bowing their heads in respect. He would have found pictures of animals he’d never heard of before, and they would have imagined together what it would be like to have a gnu for a pet. They would have gone to the library and checked out a documentary, one without too many lions chasing zebras, one about monkeys who liked to groom each other or birds that did dances. She would have leaned into his chest as they watched it-not on this couch, this leather monstrosity, but the cozy blue one she’d donated to Goodwill-and he would have played with the hairs on the back of her neck, curling and uncurling them around his fingers.
They would not have watched action movies, that was for sure. She watched a man hurl himself over the ledge of a building, shooting a gun that never seemed to run out of bullets. Her head felt heavy, wilting onto the arm of the couch. She put her feet in her brother’s lap, but he pushed them away, pretending disgust. Or maybe he wasn’t pretending. But Benny had never said her feet smelled. He’d never said they didn’t smell, either. But sometimes, when she’d had a particularly bad day, he massaged them. And she’d massaged his, too.
Her brother seemed to be asleep, his elbow propped on the arm of the couch, his cheek propped on his fist. His eyes weren’t all the way closed-waning moons of white showed beneath his eyelashes-but his mouth hung open, just slightly, and his breathing was slow. She wedged a pillow under his neck and eased his head onto it, nudging him into a more comfortable position. He murmured in his sleep, but if he woke up he didn’t let on. He had done that so much when they were little, pretending sleep so that their father would carry him in from the car. She had liked to rearrange him like a doll, folding his hands across his chest, pointing his toes. She would nestle her teddy bear into his arms and he still wouldn’t wake, even though he thought bears were for babies. He might really have been sleeping the whole time.
When her brother seemed comfortable, April settled against him, her cheek resting on his ribs. She could hear the squish of his heart and the faint wheeze of his lungs. She felt like a puppy cuddling a clock, as if the ticking were its mother’s heartbeat. The simulation was convincing, and it lulled April to sleep.
She dreamed of Benny’s feet, with the toenails that she’d always nagged him to trim and the cracks on his heels. She dreamed of his ankles-she could remember them perfectly-and his calves with their soft puff of hair. She dreamed of his knees. He had a scar on the right one, from a rollerblading accident when he was eleven and rollerblading was cool for a while but wearing kneepads wasn’t.
And then she was with Benny on the couch, farther away from him than she liked. She moved closer, pushing her chin into his neck. She felt his pulse against her nose, as steady as it had ever been. He smelled so familiar. She touched her tongue to his skin, touched his flesh with her teeth, just to make sure he was real.
And then someone bellowed and jolted. April was pushed to the floor. Her arm ached-it seemed to have hit the coffee table. Her brother stood above her, his hand on his neck, breathing heavily. He looked to be part gargoyle, his face knotted in horror.
April watched him grab his jacket and leave the apartment, muttering things she couldn’t understand. She stayed on the floor for a while. The pain in her arm subsided. She turned off the action movie and went to her room. She got down on her knees and slid the lunchbox out from under the bed.
She felt like crying, in some ways. She wanted to go back to sleep.
She opened the lunchbox and placed her fingertips in the ashes. They felt like nothing she’d ever touched before. She’d expected them to feel like the remains of a campfire, like dirt or sand. She didn’t know why they were here, why she’d wanted them in the first place. She might as well have collected marbles or ceramic figurines.
She tried to remember something her mother had once said about practicality. That it was the most important part of life, maybe, or that it was overrated. Either one sounded like something her mother would say. April wondered how she was doing, if the engineer was treating her well. If she would hear about this from her brother. April felt as though she might get in trouble, be sent to bed without supper or something like that.
April took the lunchbox to her car and set it on the passenger’s seat. At first she thought to go to the crematorium, but it was late and she had no idea what she’d do once she got there. It wasn’t Shirley who would miss the ashes. No one seemed to miss them at all. The woman whose husband died of cancer didn’t know April had his tumor in her lunchbox. She hadn’t heard about relatives complaining of missing jowls and elbows and pinky toes. They had enough to sprinkle in meaningful places, to fill their urns and boxes with powdered coffin and bones. And they could have been Benny. Chemically, they were nearly identical. If anything, April deserved them. She had worked for them. Not many of the bereaved could say that.
But she had to get rid of them. She knew that, even if she didn’t know why.
April drove without thinking, the lunchbox sliding on the seat as she rounded corners. She pulled into the parking lot at Frank’s, guided more by her stomach than anything. She’d ordered pineapple pizza for dinner because pineapple made Benny gag. Unfortunately, it made her gag, too.
There were people in their regular booth by the window. They drank sodas. They looked happy.
April took the lunchbox out of the car and walked around the diner a few times, clutching it to her chest. She smiled at a pair of teenagers going for a late bite. They looked her up and down as they passed and she wondered if they could smell the ashes-she certainly could. Or maybe that was the soil. It had been raining.
She knelt by the bushes at the edge of the lot. The ground was damp and loosened easily when she dug her fingers into it. She dug deep between two shrubs, till she started to uncover their roots, then poured the ashes in, holding her breath until the dust settled. She patted the moist earth on top of it, leaving a small mound, and stuck a twig in as a sort of marker. She walked into the restaurant to wash her hands, leaving the lunchbox behind.
She wondered if her brother would come home tonight, or if he would stay with his one-week girlfriend. She imagined him telling her about being sexually assaulted by his crazy sister. He’d say how his whole family was crazy, including him, and if she was anything like the other girls, she would think crazy was sexy. He would go back to being the kid with the DUI on his record and a scar from where his eyebrow ring had been pulled out during a fight. He’d stop brushing and flossing regularly.
Once her hands were clean, she stood for a moment by the bathroom door, smelling the grease in the air. Her stomach growled, loud enough to startle her. She watched the couple in her and Benny’s booth, drinking soda and laughing. The waitress came and brought them a plate of onion rings, but they didn’t eat right away. They talked and laughed and sipped their sodas, squirted ketchup onto the plate. She couldn’t tell if they were friends or lovers, siblings or cousins or coworkers.
“April!â€ Someone called from behind the counter. April couldn’t remember her name, but she’d worked at Frank’s long before she and Benny started eating there and liked to chat with the customers. April smiled and said hello.
The woman came around the counter and caught April in a hug. April’s neck tightened, but the woman didn’t want to console her; she didn’t seem to know Benny was dead. She just chattered about how she was always sad when regulars stopped coming in-she knew it was silly, but she liked to think they were friends. April felt a bit sheepish as she said all this, and snuck a peek at her nametag. Mary. She couldn’t believe she hadn’t remembered.
“Bacon burger and a patty melt?â€ Mary asked when April said she’d like to place an order to go. April agreed without thinking. How Mary could remember their usual after all this time, she didn’t know, but when she brought the boxes she’d even etched the right names into the Styrofoam. April didn’t want to wait to start eating, but she’d ordered to go so she signed the credit card slip and left, leaving Mary a substantial tip. As soon as she was in the car, she tore into the food. She’d eat Benny’s bacon burger now and bring the patty melt home for her brother, in case he decided to come back.