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When I'm Gone; Chapter 1
Chapter 1-July 26, 2001 (Claire)
Smiling, I pushed a lock of my cinnamon colored hair behind my ear. I slid the key into the door and unlocked it. Pushing it open, I let out a happy sigh. The hallway led to a large, open living room and kitchen. I rolled the rest of my boxes in and set them in the living room. I placed my hands on my hips and surveyed the room.
The walls were bare and waiting to be painted on. The apartment came with the necessary furniture, such as a sofa, an armchair, and a coffee table. Each bedroom had a bed, side table, and a dresser. I couldn’t wait to start decorating.
“This is so cool,” a voice exclaimed behind me. I jumped and rolled my eyes. I still couldn’t get used to the idea of my brother living with me. I turned towards him and smiled. His dark brown-almost black-hair was getting longer; it hung below his brow, almost into his eyes. I made a mental note to get his hair cut before school started. His green eyes were brightened and his smile lit up the room.
“Isn’t it?” I laughed and spun in a quick circle. “It’s hard to believe that we are actually here. That I actually have a well-paying job.”
“You were always a hard worker, sis,” he said softly. I grinned at him and for once, saw my face in his.
People always asked how we could be brother and sister. Alex had dark hair, green eyes, and olive skin while I had cinnamon hair, grey eyes, and tanned skin. Alex was the quiet one, while I was more outgoing. Sometimes, I would find myself wondering if he was switched with another baby at the hospital. But the blood work proved that he was my brother and I would never feel differently about him.
“Thanks, bud,” I laughed and tousled his hair. “Now we need to get to work. School starts in a few weeks and I would like to be settled in by that time.”
“Okay, let’s do it,” he stated and started hauling boxes into one of the bedrooms. I followed suit and soon every box was separated into the room in went with. We started in Alex’s room and got most of the boxes unpacked.
“You have a lot of junk,” I breathed as I fell onto his bed. He did the same and took in a breath.
“I know. But, I can’t seem to get rid of any of it,” he muttered. Laughing, I sat up and glanced around the room. Drawings were scattered all over the floor along with clothes, shoes, and his art supplies.
“It does look like a boy’s room,” I commented. Alex chuckled and gave me a shove. I shoved him back.
“Now, let’s do your room,” he said quickly and pulled me to my feet. I followed him into my bedroom and walked over to one of the boxes marked “High School Memories.” Opening it, I coughed as dust flew into my nose. I could hear Alex rummaging in a box across the room. I picked up the yearbooks and slid them onto the bookshelf I had bought for my room. Soon, the shelves were filling up with the books from my teenage and college years. As I was setting a picture of Natalie and me on one of the shelves, I heard Alex gasp. At first I ignored it, but then I heard him trying to smother his laughter.
“Um, Claire?” he called out. I turned around and saw him holding up a ragged-looking bear by the arm. “What is this?”
I hopped up and reached out for it. Alex held it away from me, laughing.
“Is this ‘Beary’?” he asked. I winced as I heard the bear’s name. I kept trying to pry it out of Alex’s hands.
“Yes, now give it to me,” I shot back.
“Why do you still have him?”
“I’m very sentimental,” I replied and got a hold of the bear’s leg. I got it out of Alex’s grip and cuddled it against my face. The rough fur scratched my cheek but I didn’t care.
“Weirdo,” coughed Alex. I shoot him a look, but he just laughs.
“Thank you Alex, for making fun of my childhood,” I said sarcastically. “This was the only thing that I could hold after dad......after he hit me.”
Alex got silent as I held my bear. When I looked up at him, his body had gone rigid and he was clenching and unclenching his fists. He was breathing low and hard, the gusts of air ending at a sharp note.
“Alex,” I said softly. When he didn’t answer, my voice became urgent. “Alexander.”
“I can’t believe he did that to us,” he said through clenched teeth. I walked over to him and placed a comforting hand on his shoulder.
A memory came to me in a flash. Alex had knocked on the door of my old apartment, with day old scratches on his arms and face and a swollen eye. At first, I was shocked to see this boy at my door step and then when I figured out it was Alex, I cried. I was ecstatic to see him, but I couldn’t believe what our dad had done to him. I had taken him in immediately and let him live with me. It wasn’t until a few months ago that I had gotten the idea of getting a larger apartment for both of us to live in.
“Alex, it’s okay. We are away from him. He can’t find us,” I soothed and rubbed my hand against his back. Silent shudders rippled through his body, but he wasn’t crying. I had never seen my brother cry once.
“I just hate that he is getting away with it.” Alex’s body went rigid again and he turned towards me. I could see fire glinting in his green eyes. He was still angry.
“Well, we can’t do anything about it, unless you want to get sent away,” I warned him. He nodded in agreement and then shrugged out of my touch.
“Let’s finish your room,” he whispered and started unpacking boxes again. I set my bear on my bed and went to finish putting up pictures. I could feel that bear watching me; just as I was watching Alex, waiting for him to crack. We made it through my room and he never did. Even though I knew he never cried, I was still surprised that he made it for a few hours with breaking down.
When we left my room, my dresser was filled with my clothes, my bookshelf was complete, my bed had sheets, and my closet was close to being full. Only one box was left and I was hesitating to open it, just as I was hesitating to open it a few years ago when she sent it to me. As I turned off the light and closed the door, I could still see the words on the box. They were branded in my mind, even though I didn’t want them there. Throughout the time we were unpacking boxes in the living room and kitchen, I couldn’t shake those words. I winced every time I thought about them. The words, “Family pictures-with mom.”
“Let’s go out to dinner,” Alex announced suddenly, sitting up on the couch. Smirking, I looked up at him from my position on the arm chair. His green eyes bored into my grey ones and we sat like that for a few minutes. I was the one who broke the stare.
“Let’s do it,” I agreed and leaped out of the chair. I slipped on my Chucks and took a look in the hallway mirror.
My hair looked as if it was windblown and my eyeliner was smudged, giving it a dark, sexy look. I straightened my vintage tee and grabbed my purse from the kitchen counter. My brother was waiting by the door and when I saw him, I struggled to keep the laughter from bursting out of my lips.
Alex was wearing a white wife beater and jeans. You could distinctly see the blue and green dragon encircling his upper arm. His hair was styled with gel to make it look like a casual arrangement. He smiled at me with a question in his eyes.
“What’s wrong?” he asked innocently. I let out a laugh and pushed him back towards his room.
“Go put on an actual shirt,” I commanded. He shot me a glare over his shoulder.
“The ladies like a tattooed man,” he answered quickly. I giggled again and leaned against the front door. He returned with a light blue button down over his wife beater. The short sleeves gave some imaginations to the little sliver of color seen on his arm.
“Ladies also like a mystery.” I wrapped my arms around him in a hug and he chuckled. We finally made it outside and I locked the door behind us. We stumbled down the stairs, pushing each other around. When we reached the sidewalk, I turned towards my brother, a half grin on my face.
“Where do you want to go?” I inquired. Alex put on his thoughtful face with a smirk gracing his lips. I gasped. “Not…KFC?”
“Nice one sis,” he teased. “I wouldn’t put you or me through that. I work there enough throughout the week. I was thinking more of Brick Oven.”
“Brick Oven? What is that?” I was actually surprised that he knew of a place that I didn’t.
“A guy at work told me they had some of the best pizza you have ever tasted,” Alex said. He waved down a taxi and opened the door for me. I smiled and slid into the cab, cringing as the sticky seats touched my jeans.
“Brick Oven, please,” Alex told the driver. The guy nodded and drove off. I smiled; tonight was going to be great.
“That was amazing,” I moaned as we got into a cab. Darkness had fallen upon the city and the buildings lit up around us.
“Told you so,” Alex said and passed the leftover box to me. The pizza aroma rose to my nose and I took in a deep breath. The smell alone made my mouth water. Alex laughed at my expression and gave the taxi driver our address.
“I can’t believe they cooked our pizza right in front of us. That was so cool,” I grinned again.
“The only complaint I have is about the size of the place. It was no bigger than a closet,” Alex burst out. I looked over at him. He was smiling, but his eyes told me he was annoyed.
“It was still good,” I reminded him. He nodded and we were both silent for a few minutes. I watched the cars pass by and found myself missing Atlanta. I shook the thought out of my head and grimaced.
“Do you hear that?” Alex asked suddenly. We were quiet again and I could faintly hear the sounds of a siren. “It sounds like a firetruck.”
Right after he said that, the rancid smell of smoke reached my nose and I coughed.
“Roll up your window Alex,” I commanded. He did as he was told and I turned to my left, where bright lights were flashing.
The building was consumed in flames. Windows were shattering and the flames leapt out like giant flags. Smoke poured from every opening; thick, dark smoke. Faintly, I could hear screaming and crying. Frowning, I watched as a dozen firefighters or so ran from the firetruck, holding a large hose. Water shot out from the end and attempted at putting out the fire. My gaze focused on a tall man slipping on a helmet. The back of his firefighter’s coat was emblazoned with a large 38. The man ran inside after hooking on a bulky oxygen tank.
“Save that little child,” I found myself whispering as we passed by and the fire faded from sight.