I jump a little in my seat. Nora grins at me from the open pub door, waving her hat above her head like a banner, oblivious to the startled stares from other pub patrons. I barely have time to stand up before two hundred well-swaddled pounds of unbridled enthusiasm wrap me in a tight embrace.
“Nice to see you, too,” I gasp into her coat, the breath squeezed out of my lungs and my face crushed against the rough canvas of her jacket. Color rises to my cheeks and I find myself wishing she’d just sit down; everyone in the restaurant must be staring at us by now. “Er – shall we have a seat?”
“Man, it’s been too long.” My sister releases me, still grinning. “About time you visited.”
“Yeah, well, I can’t stay stuck at home in Chicago forever, you know?” I shrug one shoulder, feigning nonchalance. “I’ve only got so much time off work.” Guilt squirms inside me. If only you knew what I’m here to tell you.
Nora doesn’t seem to notice my preoccupation. She throws her hat carelessly onto the table and sits down across from me, still beaming. She runs a hand through her close-cropped military haircut and glances around the little pub, from the beer-bottle chandelier overhead to the chipped mirror hanging behind the bar. Outside the front window, snow comes down in gusts, whirling bucketfuls of flakes blanketing the branches of trees already hung with Christmas lights. The Ellerton Pub wasn’t my first pick for dinner – there were a few Asian restaurants on the main road which caught my eye – but it’s Nora’s kind of place, which is the whole point, after all. I ordered the clam chowder when I arrived.
“I’ve been meaning to visit Ellerton again for a while,” Nora says. “I haven’t been here since Gran and I were checking out the base. I’m glad you gave me an excuse to come back.”
She and our grandmother had visited the summer I started working full-time. I’d wanted to go with them, of course – it’d been so long since we’d had a nice family outing like that – but I couldn’t afford to miss work.
Nora gestures to the chowder as I sample a spoonful. “Good pick. They’ve got amazing chowder here. Gran said it was the best she’d ever tasted.”
My stomach leaps into my throat, and I almost choke. The chowder’s briny taste stings the back of my mouth, the creamy texture turning to slime on my tongue. I force myself to swallow, appetite vanishing like steam in the air. “Sure, sure,” I cough, eyes watering. Gran ate this. I look down, wishing I’d ordered anything else.
Nora leans forward on her elbows. She eyes the beverage menu sitting on the table and then my glass of water. “Still not drinking, huh?”
“No, of course not.” I feel a ripple of apprehension. “You remember what happened after the crash. I can’t risk going back to that.”
Her smile fades a little. The ripple becomes a wave. “That was years ago, Rowan,” she says. “Sure, it was bad, but it’s over now. You’re gonna have to move on at some point.”
I grit my teeth inside my mouth, fingers curling into a vice around my spoon. We’d had this conversation before, many times, and she never understood. “What, and look on the bright side?” I say, more bitterly than I’d intended. “That’s not how it works.”
She shrugs, oblivious to my frustration. “It’s worked all right for me. Stop being such a sourpuss.” She picks up the menu. “It’s like you don’t even try sometimes.”
I bite back my response and seethe in silence as the waiter comes to take her order. Nora hadn’t been there in the car that night, but she was always quick to say how little it mattered, always ready with her arsenal of empty little sayings and saccharine sunny-side attitudes. When I woke screaming in the night, when I lay drunk and desolate on the couch, when I couldn’t step outside for fear of what lay beyond, I needed my sister. Instead all I got was her meaningless platitudes and grating enthusiasm.
She means well, I remind myself. I press two fingers against my forehead and practice breathing evenly.
Nora breaks through my thoughts as the waiter hands her a beer. “Well,” she says, with a distinct air of haughtiness, “I think this vacation will help take your mind off things. There’s lots to do around Ellerton –”
“I didn’t come here on vacation,” I snap. The outburst surprises us both. Nora leans back in her seat, beer in hand, her smile gone and her expression suddenly wary. “What do you mean?” she says. “I thought this was a holiday trip.”
“No.” I look down into my chowder feeling steam rise and buffet my face from below, ashamed of my outburst. “I came to tell you something.”
She takes a slow sip of beer, eyeing me. My resolve stutters. I stir the bowl of chowder without thinking, trying to calm my jittering fingers. Stop stalling, I tell myself.
“It’s Gran.” I glance up. Nora’s brow furrows; she taps her pint glass against her bottom lip, apprehension growing on her face. We sit there in silence for a long moment, the soft murmur of easy chatter from nearby tables pressing in.
“Out with it, Rowan.”
The words hang over the table, heavy and immutable. I push the chowder away. Something hard and heavy settles in the back of my throat.
Nora gives a sudden, stuttering laugh. I stare at her, dread welling in the pit of my stomach. Her face is ashen. “No, no, no.” She stiffens and rocks back and forth, shaking her head rapidly from side to side. “Ro, that’s not funny. Why would you say something like that?” She laughs again and it’s like needles scraping up and down my spine. The hard thing in my throat swells painfully. I wonder briefly if I’m about to cry. I haven’t cried in years.
“I know it’s not funny,” I say, aware of the quaver in my voice. I look away from Nora’s rigid smile, stretched thin as cellophane across her features. “She fell in the shower. Hit her head on the faucet.” They’d called me from the emergency room to explain what had happened, and then again, four hours later, to tell me the news. By the time the ringing had reached voicemail my flight across the country was already taxiing down the tarmac.
Nora’s eyes are hollow and glassy. Her smile falls dead from her face. Her lips part, as if about to say something, but no words come.
“Nora?” I whisper.
The pint glass falls from her fingers onto the table with a clatter. Beer sloshes onto the polished wood. Nora is rising; she’s on her feet. Panic seizes my chest in icy fingers.
She turns her blank face towards me. I see the muscles working under her cheekbones, their color drained, and I falter. Then she’s gone, a flash across the bar, the door banging in the mirror, a gust of cold air across the restaurant, and I’m alone again. The door swings to a standstill behind her as I watch. The cold, familiar coil of resentment snakes through me, pinning me to my seat. Nora’s voice drifts out to me from the past. Stop being such a downer, Rowan, honestly. She tosses her head. It’s not that hard.
My eyes fall on the empty booth seat across from me, looming like a ghost in my sister’s absence, and the coil crumbles. Her hat is still on the bench, her snow-speckled jacket still on the peg. With a sigh I rise and, gathering her things into my arms, head for the door, leaving Nora’s spilt beer and my cold chowder behind.
I escape across the street and through Ellerton town square, the frigid winter air like a raw burn to my aching lungs. My breath comes in ragged gasps. Above the water’s edge I catch myself against a nearby tree, spots dancing through my vision. She’s dead, Rowan repeats in my mind. I left them behind in the warm restaurant, but their words follow me. She’s dead.
“Not true,” I gasp aloud. My voice turns to steam in the chill. I lean heavily against the tree, trying to ground myself. Waves lap against the breakwater below. Behind me, the square sits dark and desolate below the gaze of the huge metal mobile dominating the main courtyard. Gran knew all about that mobile. Depth, it’s called, she told me, when we visited Ellerton three years ago. One of those new modern art installations. Like the Bean. We’d laughed. Nothing could be further from the Chicago Bean – or uglier, in my grandmother’s opinion. She’s dead, Rowan whispers in my mind.
“I wish it weren’t true.”
I whirl around, fingers scrabbling against the tree. Rowan stands in the snow, hunched inside their jacket. The stark glow from a nearby streetlight throws their face into sharp contrast, eyes shadowed beneath their brow, cheeks flat and pale. They shift uncomfortably under my stare. “I – er.” Rowan clears their throat. “I brought your coat. It’s chilly tonight, you know?”
My breath catches in my throat as they hold it out. Gran’s jacket. She’d given it to me the Christmas before I started basic training: heavy, rough canvas, near impervious to the cold, its camo colors only slightly faded. A jacket that’s built to last. Matches you, Nora, Gran said, as she draped its weight across my shoulders. You gotta be built to last, or you’ll tumble right on down. She bestowed it to me as our little secret. I wore it on the plane the day I left Chicago. I wore it when Gran visited two months ago. I wore it to dinner tonight.
“Stop. Stop.” I take a step back and stumble awkwardly, spine pressed against the tree trunk. “Rowan, you –” My voice sounds high-pitched and strangled. “That jacket – that jacket isn’t yours.”
“Of course it isn’t. It’s yours.” Rowan shakes their head, bewilderment written across their features. “Please, Nora, take it and put it on. It’s freezing out here.”
They step forward, pale light playing across their bald head. People used to say we looked like each other, back before Rowan shaved their hair. Gran threw a fit when she saw. She and Rowan didn’t speak for weeks. She doesn’t get me, Rowan told me. She doesn’t want to get me. I was taken aback by the anger simmering in their voice. Rowan was in a bad place, then – drunk four out of five days, absent the fifth, blocking out the world. Rowan likes to tumble, Gran confided to me. They’re determined to. I believed her. She made things easy; she gave me someone to look up to and someone to look down on. My eyes find the jacket in my sibling’s grasp and can’t bring myself to take it.
Something wet and warm trickles down my cheeks. I scrape a sleeve across my face and find myself wishing Rowan and the jacket alike would fade into the dark distance and be gone.
“Nora.” Rowan shifts uncomfortably and thrusts it forcefully out towards me; I recoil. “Put it on.”
“NO!” I shout. I seize the jacket from their hand and fling it out over the water. Rowan starts, as if to try and catch it, but it’s too late. The wind snags it like a sail, and in its flight I see my grandmother’s arm waving, waving through the coat, as it flips through the blackened sky and falls with the faintest splash into the ink-black bay.
My knees betray me. I slump to the ground. Snow seeps into the fabric of my jeans, wet denim clinging to my skin. Suddenly I’m cold, unbearably cold, as if everything inside me has sunk into the icy waters of Ellerton Bay with Gran’s jacket. Tears scald my cheeks.
Above me, Rowan sighs. Something soft and thick drapes itself around my shoulders as they unzip one side of their coat and kneel into the snow close beside me, wrapping us both in its warmth.
We sit like that in silence for a while. Waves murmur against the rocks below. The clouds hang dark and heavy with the promise of snow, but for now, all is calm.
My breath comes in quiet hiccups. “Gran…”
“Gran’s dead.” Rowan’s voice is impassive.
“It was hers.”
“It was Gran’s jacket. Not mine.” I pinch the bridge of my nose between two fingers. “She gave it to me. After – after –”
“After I tumbled, as she would say.”
“Yes.” I swallow. Another long, silent moment passes. I can feel Rowan thinking.
“It doesn’t matter how well you’re built,” they say at last. “Sometimes you tumble anyway.” They squeeze my shoulder with one hand, pulling me close. “The impressive part,” they continue, “is being strong enough to get up again.”
They stand and pull me gently back to my feet, snow dripping off the soggy fabric of our pants. One hand still on my arm, Rowan turns to leave. I steal a glance over my shoulder at the dark bay. Black waves rise and fall. I take a moment to imagine Gran’s jacket sinking, pulled down by its tough canvas weight, then turn and follow Rowan across the square, feeling lighter with each step.