“Midnight Clear” by Marybeth Richards

Still through the cloven skies they come

with peaceful wings unfurled,

and still their heavenly music floats

o’er all the weary world;

above its sad and lowly plains,

they bend on hovering wing,

and ever o’er its Babel sounds

the blessed angels sing.

-Edmund H. Sears

   It was Christmas time. Michael could tell by the strand of silver bells that lined the doorframe between the foyer and the living room of his childhood home. The electrical strand was softly tinkering the melody of “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” a feat those bells had not done since the Christmas of 1994. Whenever he went to visit his parents during the holidays he never understood why his mother insisted on displaying the bells because they were broken. The familiar tunes they once played now seemed to skip notes and sounded haunted. Now they sounded light, airy, and joyous. Putting thoughts of the bells aside, Michael let his gaze scan the contents of the living room. He noticed that his childhood dog Dakota’s bedding was not snugly nestled between the fireplace and the front wall of the house. That explained the bells incessant jolly ringing. Dakota had chewed through the electrical wiring during the Christmas of ‘94. He had only been a few weeks old.

   Driven by curiosity, Michael stepped out of the doorway and into the living area. His old boyhood home was not as it existed in the present time. Instead of the chic modern ceramic tile in the foyer and contemporary paint colors in the living room, Michael found the original 1970s burnt orange shag carpet that was original to the construction of the house. The soft red and green glow the Christmas tree lights emitted danced off the wood paneling on the walls creating the ambience of so many great Christmases of his past. The floor was littered with presents of all different shapes and sizes. Santa had been well trained through the years learning how to organize, plan, and adjust the blueprint of the floor plan with the addition of each new child. There were five this year. The room had always reminded Michael of an ant colony. There were trails that divided each child’s loot. In the middle of the room a sort of island of carpet was kept empty. It was the place where mom and dad could judiciously sit and lend an extra hand as the kids tore through their gifts.

   The scene laid out before him told Michael it was Christmas Eve…obviously before December 4th, 2009. Even in his sleep, the grief of losing his brother haunted him and now the universe was conspiring to invade his happy memories and fracture those as well. Since the accident, Michael had never been pulled through the sands of time more than a year. His dreams normally replayed the week leading up to that fateful phone call and the anguish of the days that followed. These feelings of heartache that he felt himself being overcome by now collided with those feelings he had about this boyhood memory. He could only sum them up as love and safety. They conflicted with each other, and it felt as if he were a magnet with ends that were repelling each other. The memory felt cruel. Not merely a staircase away slept four brothers, himself included, and their baby sister. Michael willed his feet to move. He wanted to wake up his family and warn them of the tragedy that would befall them, as if the realization could somehow make the remaining years that they had together as a whole more precious…but his feet would not obey.

   The bleak, black chasm inside of Michael widened, crippling him. Somewhere in this illusion Michael knew that no one was asleep upstairs. He knew that if this dream would allow him to move, he would wake himself up and the feelings he longed to have again would be gone with it. He loved to hate his childhood now that his brother was gone. To Michael, the memories felt like a deep wound that was constantly festering. As soon as he thought it was beginning to heal, his brother’s face would surface in his mind and the scab would be flayed off violently leaving him bleeding and defenseless. A part of him did not want to let himself heal. His little brother was dead, lying in the ground somewhere. Cold and unfeeling. There was no healing from that. To heal would be to betray his brother’s memory. To heal would be to forget. Every time his brother’s voice echoed in Michael’s mind, every time he summoned a Christmas, a birthday, or any reflection of the boy in the cowboy boots, Michael allowed himself to unravel a little more.

   Michael reached down and traced the smooth contours of a gift in Jonathan’s pile and instantly knew beyond the shadow of a doubt that it was 1994. His brother had been four years old. His uncle from Arizona had mailed the package overnight. It had been crafted by the Hopi Indians. The leather was dyed a brick red and it had black stitching keeping the brim secured to its base. A pheasant feather jutted out the side for aesthetic effect. Michael found himself sinking to his knees, tears spilling out of his eyes. He allowed himself to remember how much Jonathan had loved this hat. Somewhere in this pile was a pair of cowboy boots as well. Jonathan’s first pair. Some things in this world were just made to go together. This Christmas had sparked a trend that would span the next sixteen years. Not a Christmas passed from this year on that Jonathan did not receive a pair of cowboy boots.

   Michael was jostled out of his nostalgia by the silence that suddenly filled the room. When he looked at the silver bells to see why they had quieted, a figure stood in the doorway. “Richards Residence. You kill ‘em, we chill ‘em!”

   Only one person ever answered the phone with that awful greeting. The irony of the saying wasn’t lost on Michael. The figure’s nasally twang ripped through the stillness. It could only belong to one person.

   “Jonathan.” Michael choked out.

   Jonathan stepped across the threshold, leaving the foyer and entering the living room. In the countless dreams that Michael had had since Jonathan’s death, none of them let him actually interact with his brother. Michael found that he was always overlooking the scene, watching from a place that allowed no one to see, hear, or recognize him. But now his brother was regarding him, clearly seeing him with his warm, hazel eyes. Jonathan extended his burly arms toward Michael, waiting to embrace him. This time Michael’s feet moved when he willed them. The two brothers hugged with such gusto that the air whooshed out of Michael’s lungs when Jonathan hugged him.

   Michael studied his youngest brother, trying to memorize every detail. He noticed that Jonathan’s skin was not cold and dead as he had imagined it earlier. It was the same recognizable bronze color just as it had been in life. Now it seemed almost as if it had captured some of the sun and he was radiating it through his pores. Gone were the few remnants of adolescence that Michael remembered when he last saw him. His face held all the sharp angles and plains of a young man. The pockets of baby fat around his cheeks had vanished. The same went for his hands. While Jonathan had always been the shortest of the brothers, he had always had a strange asynchroncity. His hands had always been huge. Now Michael noticed that not only were they sledgehammers, but they fit the rest of Jonathan’s young adult body perfectly. Jonathan was standing before him, whole. Two years of anger, guilt, denial, and resentments toward whatever God had allowed this to happen bled into the background with Jonathan an arm’s length away.

   “Ya’ look like hell brother,” Jonathan said, his devilish grin never faltering. “This was a great Christmas huh?” Gingerly, Jonathan used his arms in a grandiose gesture that seemed to sweep the width of the room. “This ain’t even the year I get my four-wheeler!”

   “How are you here?” Michael managed to ask still awestruck.

   Jonathan chuckled and bent down to retrieve the red cowboy hat Michael had dropped, gracefully trying to put it on his own head. “It’s a little small now, ain’t it? Man I loved this hat. I’m here because ya’ needed me to be. I’m here to tell ya’ll that I’m okay.”

   Emotions slammed into Michael like a baseball bat connecting with a ball. It’s okay? He was okay? Immediately, all the moronic acronyms people spewed to comfort their family after Jonathan had passed flooded Michael’s brain. He’s in a better place now. God has a reason. It was just his time. Time will heal. These sayings didn’t bring comfort. Or they were said to try to somehow make up for the horrible, terrible car accident that ripped his family apart. As if these words somehow mattered or somehow made the gaping hole in his heart a tiny remote of a fraction better! They didn’t…and to see his brother standing before him radiating happiness and contentment infuriated him.

   “That’s it? You came to tell me that you are okay? That you enjoy being…gone? That it’s somehow water under the bridge?”

   Jonathan took a seat sprawled out on the living room couch and letting his black leather boots dangle over the arm. He laced his fingers together, cracked his knuckles, and then raised them over his head, looking up at Michael with amusement.

   “Would ya’ rather me be caught in the great in-between? Spend my existence in limbo? Do ya’ want me to tell ya’ that I felt every second of the accident? That I was confused when I realized I could see myself separated from my body? Do ya’ want to hear that I haunt the places that I love? ‘Cause I don’t.”

   Michael ran his hands thought his curly blonde hair trying to process what his brother had just said. All the unsaid conversations that he’d mentally had with his brother. He had a list of things he wished he had said. Things he wanted to say if he ever had one last chance. They evaded him. He could not remember a single one. Defeated he took a seat on the loveseat adjacent to the couch Jonathan was on.

   “I guess I want to hear that you miss us as much as we miss you. Don’t you feel every bit of the longing to have us back as we do?”

   Jonathan reached into his Levi jeans’ pocket and pulled out a can of chew. A Styrofoam spit cup appeared out of thin air with a flick of his wrist. “I love every last one of you’s. I love ya’ll more deeply than ya’ll can possibly imagine. But bud, I don’t have any regrets. I didn’t in life and I sure as hell don’t now. The accident was just a transition for me. I mean look at me!” He extended his arms heavenward. “I’m the freakin’ best Richards. I could take you, Mark, and Matthew all at one time now!”

   It seemed that the genes responsible for his, Mark, and Mathew’s height had passed over Jonathan. In order to make up for the difference, it was a regular occurrence that Jonathan, without warning, would grapple one of his older brothers to the ground in what turned into a wrestling showdown. Usually, Jonathan was left pinned on the ground. Sometimes, even their dad was challenged. Although Mark and Mathew saw this as fun—as their little brother trying to get a rise out of them—Michael saw it as a little boy trying to establish himself from the shadows of giants. Like David and Goliath.

   “You don’t miss us? Michael asked in bewilderment. “You wouldn’t undo this if you could?”

   “Michael,” Jonathan began, his tone turning serious. “I don’t miss ya’ because I never left ya’. I still see yous. I saw Aislynn go through her first day of school. I saw ya’ll take Joshua back to Ride-Markerz on vacation and build him a mini-Chevy truck in my name. And I gotta tell ya’, Serafina is a hoot! That little girl is after my own heart. She’s an ornery little bugger just like her uncle was at her age. I was right there next to ya’ in the funeral home parking lot when it started to snow. I had ya’ in my arms brother.”

   The tears came again at the realization that Jonathan was talking about events that had transpired concerning his children and himself after his brother’s death. “I just want to know why. I want to know why this had to happen to us? To our family? To you? Why did this have to happen?”

   “Why not us? Would ya’ll rather see this happen to someone else so ya’ll wouldn’t have to feel it? Best to leave the pain on someone else’s shoulders to bear? See, ya’ll are asking the wrong questions! In fact, ya’ll shouldn’t be askin’ any questions. The answers wouldn’t change what happened to me. My rodeo was over. I had a good life. I knew love. I mean, come on! Just look around this room…there is love here. There is family here.”

   “I want my baby brother back,” Michael choked through clenched teeth. “I want my kids to know their redneck uncle. I don’t want to feel like one is missing and that time will fill the hole. I just want you back.”

   Jonathan spit into the plastic cup, mulling over his brother’s words.

   “What kind of life is that for you then? Ya’ll didn’t cross over with me, which means ya’ll still have more to learn on your soul’s journey. Michael, ya’ got three little kids depending on you to be their daddy. You’re a great father. Maybe that’s why your number didn’t get called when you wrapped that jeep around that tree. I don’t know, but ya’ gotta start livin’ and know that I am alright. I wouldn’t come back given the choice. I like it here ya’ know? Retired at twenty, they got every kind of Chevy truck known to man both past and ones that haven’t even come out yet!”

   “How am I supposed to move past this?” Michael laughed bitterly.

   “Maybe ya’ aren’t supposed to move past it. Quit being all dark and stormy all the time, that’s Mark’s job. Maybe ya’ll are supposed to live with it. You’ve always been so in touch with your feelings—the sensitive brother. So maybe ya’ should let yourself actually feel ‘em instead of building a wall around them and callin’ it love for me. Honor your grief.”

   “You’re not alone? You seriously wouldn’t come back?” Michael asked, his voice questioning as acceptance of his brother’s death crept around the corners of his consciousness.

   Jonathan reached into his mouth, pulled the dip out from his lip, and spit one last time into the cup before answering.

   “Not lonely…your damn dog is still a pain in the ass out here. Come to think of it, so is Pap Action…and Crystal is here. You know how she likes to talk.” He reached out and set the can of chew on the coffee table. He took off his Fox baseball cap to reveal his familiar mop of unruly brown curls. “I don’t want to come back. Imagine knowing every answer to every question you’ve ever asked? I’m literally in heaven!”

   “You always did think you knew everything you cocky S.O.B.” Michael chided his brother.

   “That’s the spirit! No pun intended,” Jonathan said, fluently maneuvering from the couch to his feet in one fluid motion.

   “You’re leaving again aren’t you?” Michael asked joining his brother in the center of their childhood living room.

   Jonathan reached out and put a beefy hand on his big brother’s shoulder. “Serafina is about to start having a party in her crib. You’re a good dad. Ya’ remind me of our dad.”

   Michael swallowed hard, emotion sitting heavy in his throat. He knew his brother was about to disappear again. “I miss you Bubba.”

   Jonathan started to blur around the edges, but his crooked little grin was still plastered on his face.

   “I love ya’ Michael. Tell everyone I love ‘em. I’m still around. I got a thing for balloons, watch out for ‘em! That’s how ya’ll will know I’m around.” He gave Michael a wink, and then vanished just as suddenly as he had appeared.

   Whether it was minutes or hours before Michael woke up, he didn’t know. What he did know was just like Jonathan had said—his one-year-old daughter was indeed awake and cooing happily in her crib. When Michael went to check on her, he couldn’t help but notice the smiley face balloon in the opposite corner of the bedroom which was tied to the post of his oldest daughter’s bed. The bright yellow balloon smirked at him in the darkness, reminding him that he was not alone.

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