The missing poster flapped with the gentle breeze from a late September day. The edges of the poster were worn and stained from the summer sun and heavy rains, but his eyes remained unchanged. His green iris seemed to jump off the paper like laser beams at a light show. His sandy brown hair hung long past his shoulders, a person passing by unable to tell its true length in the 2D world my brother was trapped in.
The top of the poster read “STILL MISSING”. My brother smiled under its bold letters, but our family had not cracked a smile in the eight months since he vanished from our lives. My own teeth were tucked away behind sealed lips each time I saw Jackson’s face when I left the local market. A full bag of groceries slung over my shoulder for a family that no longer had an appetite. Grief finds more than one way to destroy a family.
I remember someone covered Jackson’s missing poster in early August with an advertisement for a Back to School Sale. His 2D eyes were buried under waxy paper. It was hard for me not to think about what his 3D eyes might be buried under. I’m sure it was an honest mistake, the covering of a missing boy's face with marketing propaganda to sell more shoes. Regardless, it hurt me. How easily our town could forget the young boy that they played little league with, that sat next to them at Sherman High, the Cashier that neatly stacked their groceries into paper bags all throughout his teens. He was STILL MISSING.
My brother had become a ghost to this town but his words haunted me everywhere I went. When I couldn’t see my brother in my mind, our town continued to remind me that I was the Senior in High school that went from volleyball protege to the girl with the missing, then dead brother. I’m not quite convinced he is dead though, despite the nightmares that haunt me. My brother knew things he shouldn’t have about our quiet little town. Secrets people have kept for decades. The last thing he said to me before leaving was, “Molly, don’t trust these people. Not even mom and dad.” Then he was gone.
10 MONTHS PRIOR
It was the 5th period, 45 minutes under harsh fluorescent lights. My cell phone burned in my pocket as I tried to stay focused. I was in the middle of my Senior year and senioritis was already in full effect. Mathematical equations hardly seemed important under the mounting pressure of college admissions and imminent social events.
My final season as a setter on the Varsity volleyball team had come to a close. The Fall semester had been packed with away games and multiple attempts at getting college scouts to recruit me. The University of Washington was my top school, only a few hours' drive from home. I was memorized by the Hogwarts-like library and state-of-the-art facilities when I toured campus during my Junior year. My backup schools were mostly in California. It seems like beachfront living breeds talented volleyball players.
My brother Jackson had started at UW around the same time I took my first tour. He’d always been the smartest sibling in our family. Since there were only two of us, I supposed that made me the dumbest. It was no surprise to anyone when he was accepted into the College of Engineering, early admission. Jackson had been top of his class at Sherman High. Most infuriating to me and his peers was that he held that status with minimal effort. Jackson has been smart for as long as I can remember. I don’t just mean older brother smart. He’s understood the world in a way that others couldn’t.
He always seem to know things before they were going to happen. I never understood it but I always benefited from it. Besides his unintentional ability to outshine his peers and me, Jackson was an ideal older brother. Unlike like my friends’ brothers who would shoot at us with BB guns in the backyard, Jackson was protective.
I remember one summer he had warned me to not go swimming in one of the quarries just outside of town. The spot had become a local hangout for high school students during the day and more questionable characters at night. The Quarry had been an active site until the 1970s when workers hit a natural water source that began rapidly filling the quarry with water. Rumor has it that it happened so fast that most of the equipment on site still sits underwater to this day. On a rare sunny day, you can look down through the clear water and see shadows of the past through rippled textures.
That particular day I ignored his protests, as the youngest child often does. I paid the unexpected consequence of watching two young children drown. A rope swing trick gone wrong. I had been too far away to save them but close enough to see the panic on their faces before knocking each other unconscious as they fell into the water. Their faces would haunt my dreams for months after.
There had always been rumors about my brother. Ones I never gave much thought to until that day. Kids called him The Grim Reaper throughout our childhood. A cruel and isolating title for a young boy to carry, but it wasn’t of his own doing. Not at first. You see, we grew up in a funeral home. A family business that had been managed by generations of Howells before us. And a detail I’ve tried hiding from my entire life. It’s hard to get other kids to attend your birthday parties when they know there are dead people in your basement and caskets don’t make for inviting decor.
While I ran from any association of our parent’s business, my brother had always embraced it. Helping out where he could when he wasn’t at school or working at the store. He seemed to use it as a way to explore a part of life that so many of us feared, death. Just like our parents, Jackson accepted death openly as an inevitable chapter of life. Where others would cry and crumble, my family simply stayed stoic as if they were walking past a park bench rather than a dead body. To them, both were just a part of the beautiful scenery.
I was unlike my family in that way. The first time my brother and I snuck into the morgue, I was ten and he was twelve. There had been a murder off highway 10. A young girl not much older than I was had been brutally beaten and left for dead in the woods. It was a highly publicized case, one that was never solved. The family of the victim insisted on having an open casket, despite the extensive damage done to the body. I think it was a tactic to motivate the public to take action or at least that’s what Jackson thought.
My parents are some of the best in the state at what they do. Naturally, the body was sent to them with the task of making a young girl look both at peace and wounded. The whole thing was odd to me, but people handle death in all sorts of odd ways. When the body first arrived, my brother wanted to investigate. I had caught him leaving his room in the middle of the night and naturally I wanted to join him, not knowing what I was getting myself into.
My brother had begged me not to come but with his window of opportunity closing, he finally gave in. In footie pajamas and rain boots, we snuck down the stairs and outside to the business side of our home. The rain helped to hide the sounds of our movements throughout the house. Jackson’s intelligence was partially fueled by the fact that he was always watching. He knew where our parents hid the keys to the morgue despite their best efforts to keep a secret.
At the top of the basement stairs, Jackson unlocked the old wooden door with a loud pop and then a slow creek as the door swung open. I remember standing there looking down the dark staircase afraid of what I might see. I would have probably chickened out at that point if I hadn’t wanted my brother to think of me as more adult. We were in that phase where our two-year age gap seemed wider as he navigated his way through middle school and I stayed back in elementary school. I didn’t want to lose my best friend as he matured.
So I took a deep breath and started to march into the dark and down the stairs. Jackson grabbed me by the shoulder to stop me.
“You don’t have to come with me if you don’t want to. Death can be scary and you have nothing to prove to me.” he said as if reading my mind.
“I’m just as brave as you are.” I whispered back through squinted eyes.
He sighed, “Ok. Well if you change your mind, you can turn back around at any time.”
Down into the basement we went.
The tick of black and white analog clock on the wall of the classroom seemed to echo as I watched the red secondhand jolt forward as if some invisible force was flicking it. I was suddenly hyper-aware of the humming of the heater as my mind returned to the classroom. Mr. Peterson droned on about antiquated formulas I’d never use as my cell phone continued to burn hot in my pocket. I was waiting for a text. A very important text from my brother.