It started when a friend of mine came over, which led to us speaking at length about our childhood homes. He grew up in a different province where things seemed so much different than the way it was for me. I began the first few years of my own life growing up on different army bases until the day my parents quit to pursue careers that wouldn’t have them moving around so much.
My friend, Joshua, grew up in the city where he and most of his neighbours lived in apartment complexes. We spent the better part of an hour comparing how things were. Very soon into the discussion, I’d managed to tap into a sense of nostalgia stemming from the pleasant memories of one house in particular. It was the house we lived in just before moving to a less remote location.
“You know what, man? I even remember our old phone number,” I said as I gazed almost longingly at a photo I’d pulled up on my phone. A scanned photograph of the old place filled the small screen as I tilted the device toward him to give him a good look.
Joshua gave a small snicker, “Funny, you remember your old number but you can’t remember other things like today’s date.” I playfully elbowed him in the ribs and pressed the home button on my phone.
He shoved me back while saying “Have you ever tried calling it?”
I reached for my cigarettes and lit one with the flick of my lighter, “No, it’s probably not even in service. It’s been years.” I took a long drag and exhaled as Joshua shrugged, cracking open a window to let the smoke escape.
Soon, I was back on my phone, swiping through the hundreds of photos I had on there in some album containing only scanned photographs I’d uploaded to the cloud. After about four or five old Halloween photos, I paused, having seen a picture of my younger brother.
“How did that get on there?” I murmured, feeling muted as I normally did when seeing or hearing anything about him.
Joshua peered over and shook his head, “Uh, no. I get that those memories are important but aren’t you depressed seeing a photo of him?” he asked.
“I must’ve overlooked it when I was putting this album together,” I said as I hit delete on the touch screen.
“Thank god,” sighed Joshua, “It’s already weird enough having gone to your place and seeing how your folks were still so fucked up over him. ’Course, I probably sound like an asshole talking like this.” He cut himself off, finally noticing that his big mouth might be offending someone. Though he’s got an obnoxious way of bringing up unmentionable topics, he didn’t piss me off. We’d smoked a couple of joints earlier, I never was one for expecting people to have a perfect way of relating information verbally, so I knew he’d be burnt out and sloppy with his responses to pretty much anything.
“Don’t worry about it,” I said while stubbing out my cigarette into the overflowing ashtray and freed some space in my living room by clearing out used glasses.
Joshua got a text from someone and jumped to his feet, “Oh shit. I forgot I have dinner with my folks tonight,” and reached for his jacket.
I laughed while still in the kitchen, hearing him clumsily throw on his sweater and slip on his boots. By the time I got back to the room, he was ready to leave.
“We’re going to have to pick up where we left off,” he said, with a nod towards the television. The Lord of the Rings DVD had been paused earlier in our gloriously geeky marathon, just after we’d begun talking about old houses and numbers and all of that.
“Sure. Shoot me a text when you figure out your schedule,” I said, shutting off the television and holding the door open for him as he walked out into the hallway. He seemed self-conscious about whether I’d take offence to his leaving so quickly. I didn’t mind. I shut the door and sat back down on the couch, dumping the cigarette butts and ashes into the trash can.
I thought about the old number, 786-0154. I knew he was right about how there was only a slim chance that the number would still exist, it had probably been changed at least a half a dozen times. Maybe it just wasn’t in service at all, anymore. That seemed pretty likely. Over the years, my family must’ve had about five different numbers and almost none were attached to any concrete memories, not for the most part, maybe that was why I could remember this one so clearly. I’m not saying that my memory is perfect, but there was a core group of select details I could remember about those days, even though I was maybe ten at the time.
During the years we had that number, things were pretty great… for most of it, anyway. Those were the memories I’d chosen to hang onto. However, during the last year or so of our living there, we were in and out of the hospital with my younger brother. Those events were the ones I’ve tried to avoid thinking about altogether, choosing instead to pretend like it never happened. My folks never really got over his death because of how sudden, and horrifying it was for them both. Nobody really knew what was wrong with him and the doctors they’d brought him to see weren’t the least bit helpful. The times Joshua’s seen my family were unfortunately really close to the morbid anniversary of his death, in the middle of the summer, nearer to the fall. Around that time of year, my mother just goes completely silent, jumping and startled at every little shadow.
My father buries himself in his work, refusing to say much more than the typical small talk. They used to keep a photo of my sibling, Art, on a shelf by the fireplace, and I think Joshua once made a who’s that little dork kind of comment, thinking the kid in the photo was me, and mom just lost it. She was inconsolable for two hours and anyone who tried to comfort her by rubbing her back or attempting to hug her was met with a sharp gasp of what we had assumed was hysterical fear. She tried to busy herself with dusting or some other thing that was frantically done but was supposed to make her just seem preoccupied. That’s why he was so nervous about offending me. He always forgets I’m more detached from the whole situation, especially as the years continue onward.
My little brother, Art, had an illness that was eating away at his bones and sapping strength from his body, it also brought an amount of pain that couldn’t be eased by any combination of pills or shots. One of the only things I remember with absolute clarity was hearing his shrill, ugly cries late into the night as the springs in his mattress squeaked under his writhing form. No matter what anyone did, he would keep on until sunrise and, as he closed in on the end of his life, no amount of drugs could take away even a fraction of the agony he was in.
The photograph Joshua had seen on my phone was pretty ghastly, it was taken one day after Art had been given sedatives to quell his anxiety. He was seven in that photo, the same age he was when he died. It was just past the time when his body had started wasting. He was tucked into bed, with his stick-like arms over the blanket and his head tilted slightly to the side. The gauntness in his cheeks was unlike anything that should be present in the appearance of a seven-year-old. He looked waxy and as much as I hated remembering him so horribly, he almost looked comical, like some bug-eyed husk.
No childlike whimsy twinkled in his eye, only a blank stare that was captivated by nothing as it bored into every person or thing that encountered him. The skin on his hands looked like it was stretched over his bones and tendons like wet paper, the only sign of life within him was the occasional incoherent black rage that could only be discerned by looking at the tension held in his jaw as shadows flitted across his pupils. Luckily, this wasn’t properly captured in the photo, but it’s still one of the only things I remember more clearly than technology could’ve ever captured.