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Summer Kitchen

Funny how the moments you want to forget are the ones you remember most. Even when the memory cuts, like a piece of glass you hadn't realized was sharp until too late, and you end up begging yourself not to think of it again. Now, much later, I remember thinking, it should have been raining that day. Isn't that how it usually goes? The tragedy always hits harder than the raindrops, but either way, all you feel is the cold.

That September had been what folks call an "Indian summer," though I don't know where the term came from or how exactly it relates. Every day we expected the rain, knowing that the parched grass and wilting plants needed it, but dreading it all the same. The hot air, pregnant with the smell of over-ripe blackberries, was the first thing that usually woke me up. That or the stupid birds; blue jays shrilling loudly to each other from the tree by my window. Only the sound of the phone ringing seemed out of place, pecking at the edge of my consciousness at seven in the morning.

I rolled over in defiance, brain and limbs still too slack from sleep to be of any use. Only solicitors called so early, and the small part of me that was functioning wasn't feeling very charitable. The ringing continued, an insistent pleading sound, like a child desperate for attention. With a click, the answering machine silenced it, and our recorded message began a singsong reply. I heard the droning murmur of human speech and buried my head between two pillows.

And then the sun was too bright, its rays a garish wake-up call. The birds were shrieking from their tree. I stumbled out of bed grudgingly and slumped downstairs to the answering machine, rubbing the crust from my eyes. Then I pressed the button; half expecting to hear my manager, begging me to come into work early.

Instead, a familiar voice spoke up distantly, "Hi Bella, are you there? It's Kylie. Uh...My mom and Jordan were in an accident this morning... Mom's dead." My best friend spoke the words as if she were someone else, someone telling me that they had just changed the oil in their car or that they'd forgotten the milk at the grocery store. She held them away from her, sheltering herself, allowing them to make as little impact as possible.

"They said she died instantly. I'm at the hospital now, Jordan's in critical condition. We're all here, so just call me when you can."The eerie calm in her voice frightened me more than the words themselves. Somehow it made it more real, more shocking. The calm sliced through my brain, angrily summoning memories that twitched in denial.

Like the first time I saw their kitchen. In contrast to my mother's own perfectly structured domain, Kylie's mother had ruled her home with unabashed, unapologetic clutter. Spider webs clung in delicate wisps to the wide beams overhead (once, when I marveled at the peaked high ceiling, Kylie had told me that their kitchen used to be an old barn), and pizza boxes, Pepsi cans, and various other empty cartons occupied each nook and cranny as if they belonged there. The cupboards all had loose handles and the oven never worked, so they would always end up ordering out for dinner. Come to think of it, Charlotte Segall didn't apologize for a lot of things about her life. Her smoking, her bad habit of cola for breakfast, the way she swore at other drivers, hissing lowly, lips clamped tightly around a cigarette. Her trademark scent, an odd combination of cigarette smoke and lavender, that lingered long after she had left the room. Kylie both loved and hated her with moody fierceness only teenagers can embody, but I could tell right away that they were almost exactly alike.

The summer I turned eighteen, I stayed with them for a week. Of all of the rooms in that drooping relic of a house, the kitchen held the most vivid memories for me. I remember sitting at the table doodling on scraps of paper, playing games of MASH, making up ridiculous songs, and laughing until the walls echoed with it. Kevin and Jordan were still just boys back then, and I hardly took notice of them. I should have though, I thought with choking hindsight. I would've been nicer if I'd have known...

The memory withered on my branch of thought, and I looked blindly around me. The message had ended; the disconnected voice was gone. I picked up the phone without really knowing what to do with it. Staring down with unfocused eyes, I read the numbers and letters on each button, but they seemed to me symbols that belonged to another world, a different girl. I dialed Kylie's cell phone number slowly, hoping with some childlike logic, that if she didn't answer, it meant that the whole thing was some mistake. Or better yet, that I was still asleep. But she did answer, and when the tears came, they were mine, not hers. She told me that Jordan was in a coma, that the doctors weren't telling them much, but their grim faces were answer enough.

Through my own gasping sobs, I listened. Waiting for her to break down, to scream at the wrongness of it all, to do anything other than give me emotionless monotones. What I heard was silence and that was the most terrible of all. And with a grave sort of rationalism, she supplied, "I know I'm in shock. But I have to deal with the doctors and funeral arrangements before I can cry. You know this about me." She was right; I did know that about her. Nursing school had hardened her, taught her a clinical detachment that would become necessary when she began giving patients their meds, changing their bedpans, counting down the days they had left.

After I hung up the phone, I was still for a very long time. I never knew the world could change in a matter of minutes. Until then, I had been a virgin to death and disappointment; a girl who knew only what it was like to be young, flirting with college life and the budding thrill of playing the adult. I felt that summer gliding away from me, the safety and comfort of a hundred smiles and jokes far from the reach of my grasping mind. I returned to the solace of my bed, too stunned to cry anymore. And when I dreamt, the cruelty of my imagination promised me that it had never happened, that when I woke up, I'd be that naive girl again.

Now I sit down at that kitchen table once more, knowing a month has passed even if I haven't felt it slip by. The house is unnaturally quiet, as if sensing the loss of something without really knowing what. It waits, like the rest of us, for Charlotte and Jordan to come home. The clutter I've always associated with this room is still here, but it's not bright and eccentric like I remember it. Instead, it's a scar; evidence of two children who've lost half of their family and are now wildly trying to fend for themselves.

Four minus two equals two. A family of four minus two members doesn't leave such a clean cut. It's cold and drizzling in upstate New York. We've got our rain at last, and the cliche is complete. Kylie sits with me, we two twin shadows in black. And this time, the walls are silent.