Lost: An Excerpt from The Letter Four

the letter four cover

Whenever she had bad news to tell, my mother would bake a cake.

It was supposed to be a symbolic gesture, representing the sweet slices of life. My siblings and I would gather around the table with our parents, shoving forkfuls of sugar into our mouths (or fistfuls, in my brother Dakota’s case, since he was just a baby) while our mother explained the death of our distant relative or the unexpected trip our new puppy took to the “magic puppy farm.” 

“But it’s okay,” our father would say, “I know it must be very disappointing, but hey, we can still get through it! Life’s a piece of cake! Right, honey?”

He’d look at my mother with gooey chocolate eyes, and my mother would laugh like it was the happiest time of her life, even though it was supposed to be sad. 

“Of course, darling,” she'd say.

After finishing off the entire cake, we’d play hide-and-seek until we all crashed from the sugar-high. Then, our father would tuck us into bed “tight like a tootsie-roll” while our mother sang nursery rhymes and turned out the lights. I’d fall asleep to the sound of her voice echoing through the halls, and the smell of sugar lingering in the air. 

But then my father died, and my mother lost her mind. 

“You’re not thinking about Mom again, are you?” Delilah, my older sister, asks.

I sit up a little straighter in the passenger seat of her luxury mini-van. She’s only two years older than me, but has taken on the role of mother far longer than our mother had been able to. It appears not all bad news could be sweetened with cake, and our mother had taken the unexpected death of our father especially hard. Our grandmother had taken us in after our mother was sent to a psychiatric hospital, but she was much to old to raise three children. Therefore most of the responsibility was left to Delilah, and when our grandmother passed away six months after my sixteenth birthday, Delilah, then eighteen, officially became my legal guardian.

I’d say she has taken the whole motherhood role very well, though. Shortly after she single-handedly planned my grandmother’s funeral and took over the household, she met Phillip, the desperate but wealthy man twenty years her senior. Despite the stereotype, the two fell madly in love with each other, and Delilah was able to have the wedding of her dreams a year later. She has a life worth envying: the perfectly doting husband, the sprawling mansion with the four-luxury-car garage, and three loving, obedient children, all before the legal drinking age. Sure, only one of the children is actually hers, but that’s hardly an unfair deal.

“Des,” Delilah sighs, shaking her head in a way that makes her long, silky brown hair shimmer in the sunlight, “you’re graduating high school. You’re just two weeks away from putting twelve ugly years of school behind you as you embark on the amazing journey that is your future. You should be ecstatic right now. Not dwelling on the lunatic from our past.”

“She wasn’t always crazy,” I remind her, and she sighs, shooting me a quick, sympathetic gaze before turning her eyes back on the road.

“I know, Des. I know.” She takes a deep breath in, and then slowly lets it out. “But she is now, and she has been for a long, long time, and you need to accept that. She may always be the woman who gave birth to us, but she’s no longer our mother. She hasn’t been in years, Des. It’s time to move on.”

We pull up to my school then. Just one more week left of school. Then another week preparing for graduation. Then total freedom. But will I really be free? I’m not sure. I already feel lost in my present. I can’t imagine how lost I’m going to be as I try to navigate my future on my own.

“Hey,” Delilah stops me as I start to get out of the car, “remember what I said, okay? Everything will be fine. You’ll always have me, you know. I promise I won’t go crazy on you.”

I think about reminding her that she shouldn’t make promises she doesn’t know she can keep. The future has a way of changing things. After all, none of us expected my father to be a hero during his trip to New York City that fateful day in September. I remember I had circled the date of his expected return, September fifteenth, with a fat pink marker and written “Dad promiss ice cream” in the little, square box of my Hello Kitty calendar. The first promise ever broken, but not the last. I know better than to say this to Delilah, though, so I just smile and thank her for the ride, waving as I watch her drive away.

“Destiny! There you are!” My best friend, Avery, greets.

She does a cartwheel, and lands right in front of me, a big grin on her face. It’s her standard greeting for me every morning, despite the fact she has to wear a skirt every day. Which is precisely why there is always a cluster of guys standing in front of the steps, in perfect position to catch a glimpse of her underwear underneath her uniform-plaid skirt. Though, I’ve tried to warn her about her unintentional fan-base, Avery remains oblivious to all the attention.

“It’s not for them,” she always tells me.

And I know it’s not. Avery has been in gymnastics for as long as she’s been alive. I’m pretty sure she learned to do a handstand before she learned to walk. Both her parents are practically famous for training gold-medal olympians, and own the gym my grandmother’s law firm used to represent. After realizing the four hour gymnastics classes would take us off her hands five days a week, my grandmother signed Delilah and I up for classes in exchange for a deduction in the legal fees. Delilah quit when she took up cheerleading in high school, but I stuck with it, and became best friends with Avery in the process.
“You missed practice this morning,” Avery says, a worried frown scrunching up her flawless, tan face.
“I know. I had to babysit last night, and Peter refused to go to bed. There was no way I’d be able to perform well in practice today if I went,” I explain.

Peter is Delilah’s eighteen month old son who has given me fair warning into the “terrible twos” to come. He’s adorable when he’s sleep, but sleep is a rare event for him. The only thing rarer than Peter’s peaceful slumber is Delilah and Phillip being able to make the time to go on a much needed date night, so I really can’t complain about the babysitting duty. Especially now that Dakota is old enough to help out. For a thirteen year old boy who essentially grew up an orphan with two emotionally distraught sisters and a distant, workaholic grandmother, Dakota has turned out to be quite the excellent caretaker.

“You’re going to make it tomorrow, though, right?” Avery questions, puffing out her plump lower lip as she gazes at me with her pleading, green eyes.

“Of course. You don’t think I’d risk losing Nationals, do you?”

Avery grins, and jumps up and down excitedly before beginning to gush over how excited she is about the upcoming National gymnastics competition. At first, being chosen to compete in Nationals felt amazing, but now it just seems like another great thing in my life that my mother is going to miss due to her everlasting insanity.

“So, did you hear anything from Alaska, yet?” Avery asks me, breaking out of the conversation of Nationals.

It’s probably silly of me to want to attend college in Alaska, but Auburn University has a decent gymnastics program, and when I received the acceptance letter a couple of weeks ago, complete with my approval for the scholarship application I filled out, I realized that there probably won’t be another opportunity like this one. Sure, every other school I applied to gave me the same deal, but I want something different, something new. I want to break away from everything I’ve ever known, and escape to a place where nobody in my past could really get to me, and what better place to do that than Alaska?

“I got in,” I answer, and Avery squeals.

“Destiny! That’s great! That’s...that’s...that’s destiny!” She giggles at her own joke of my name. 
“What about you? Have you decided on anything yet?” I ask her, and she shrugs.

“You know me. I’m never able to make up my mind. I really don’t want to rush into four more years of school, though, you know? I think I just want to take a break for a few years. Maybe see the world.”

I want to tell her she’s insane, but since I know what insane really is thanks to my mother, I know that her ditching her chance at a future to “see the world” is completely normal. I mean, yes, it’s incredibly dangerous for her to travel to all these unknown countries where she won’t even speak the proper language, especially if she goes by herself (which I don’t doubt that she would do), but I don’t know if me moving all the way to Alaska is really all that different. She wants change, new experiences, and the thrill of doing something new, and that’s exactly what I want too. I just happen to decide to do it in a more conventional way.

“You know your dad isn’t a former CIA agent, right? So when you get kidnapped and turned into a sex slave, he’s not going to save your life,” I say, only half-kidding as I remind her of the movie Taken that we both saw in theaters the day it came out.

It’s not a movie we would normally go see, especially on the first day it came out, but Avery had just gotten into a relationship with a guy who was obsessed with scary, real-life topics that the movie was based on, so when he wanted to see it, Avery dragged me along with them. Thankfully, Avery eventually came to her senses. There’s only so much talk about the scary, brutal things that can happen to anyone at anytime that a girl can take.

“Okay, first of all, I’m not going to be like that dumb blonde and let anyone know where I’m staying, especially a complete stranger. It doesn’t matter how cute he is. Unless I know him completely, he’s not getting anywhere near me! So you really have nothing to worry about. Besides, I’m not even for sure going yet. It’s just something I want to do,” Avery assures me right as the bell rings. “I’ll see you at lunch!”

She does another cartwheel, nearly kicking me in the face, as she heads in the direction of her first class. I roll my eyes before walking in the opposite direction to my own class. I really don’t see the point in going to school this week. There’s nothing left to teach, so we’re all stuck going to classes just so we can play games or listen to our teachers talk about their boring lives. I mainly just stare off into space, and try to remember what my life was like before I lost everything. I try to remember if I was really happy, or if I was just a kid who didn’t know any better, who couldn’t see the world for what it really was. Sometimes, I also think about Judith and her husband and their son who was only a year older than me. Sometimes I wonder what their baby is like now that she isn’t confined to her mother’s bloated belly. I wonder if Judith told her about my family, about my father, about how she wouldn’t exist right now if he hadn’t saved her mother’s life. Sometimes, I even allow myself to wonder if their son is good-looking now. I wonder if maybe I would like him if we ever met, if I would fall in love with him, if I would be able to talk to him about my life without him running away screaming, claiming I have way too much emotional baggage to carry. I wonder if maybe he would understand because he would already know everything that I had lost, and that maybe he would even be grateful for what I had lost simply because he would have lost everything too if I hadn’t.

These are simply thoughts, though. Judith and her family disappeared years ago, about the time my mother lost her mind. Delilah tells me that Judith tried really hard to be there for our mother, but Judith’s presence only seemed to make our mother worse. I guess Judith eventually took the hint because nobody has heard from her in over ten years. I’m not sure if any of us really want to hear from her anyway. She’s from our devastating past, and partly the reason for that devastation. At least we like to blame her for it whether it’s really her fault or not. We don’t really know what my father would have done if she hadn’t been in that building, but a good guess would be that he still would have saved lives, not caring whether he lost his own in the process. I’m sure we would have blamed all those people too if they were to ever come forward like Judith did.

Because nobody ever wins when something is lost.

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