“But.”Myface hurts.I have no fucking idea what’s happening to it.“You did leave.”
“I didn’t see any other choice.”
A hundred punches land on the inside of my ribs, cracking all the hurt open and getting it everywhere.I’ve explained it to myself for years.Iknewwhy she left, and whose fault it was.That answer doesn’t seem like enough.
“Did you leave because of me?Did I make things too hard?”
Bristol makes a soft sound next to me, and my mom’s hands go to her chest.I’m so fucking glad I didn’t insist on having this conversation by the receptionist’s desk.
“Will—no.That’s not why.”
“Then why did you pick Sin?”I know it didn’t work out.I know he came back.I still want to know why.
“I wanted to take all three of you, but I couldn’t—” Mom closes her eyes and swallows.She’s trying not to cry.I don’t have any memories of her to compare her expression to.I still know.“All the jobs I could find didn’t pay enough to feed three kids.I hoped I’d be able to work my way up to one of those, but—”
“We both know you didn’t.”My voice shakes.“You still made a choice.You could have taken any of us.”
“Because…” Something seems to occur to her.She flips back the top of her purse and reaches in, coming up with a cheap plastic photo album.It’s the kind you can buy for a dollar.Folds in half.Only holds two photos.My mom offers it, still closed.“That’s why.”
I open it.
My eyes land on the left side first.
It’s a photo of me and Emerson.An old one, from before she left.It would have had to be.Once she left, nobody took pictures.
She must have taken this one, and it’s—
Bristol puts her hand on my arm.That’s about when I realize I’ve stopped breathing.
Emerson must be about three and a half, with white-blond hair that’s still so fine that it curls at the ends and that little-kid combination of round, pudgy cheeks and baby-fat arms and legs that are starting to get lanky.He’s wearing blue overalls over a T-shirt with yellow stripes.
And I’m one and a half, with his same hair and his same eyes, only I’m trending hard towardbaby.Everything about me is round and soft.I feel a pang of worry for a kid that soft.
Except in the picture, we’re sitting on a set of wooden steps in the sun, hugging each other.
His arms are wrapped around my shoulders, his baby-round hands squeezing, and I’ve got mine around his waist.He’s laughing, and I’m either laughing or shouting or both, and we’re happy.It radiates out of the picture.We might be squeezing each other to death, but we’re going to die happy.
“It would have been cruel to separate the two of you.I’ve never seen anyone so excited for a baby brother as Emerson was.And you thought the sun rose and set with him from the time you figured out he was there.You were my earliest baby to walk, and I think it’s because you wanted to be able to follow him around so badly.I just couldn’t—” She takes in a quick breath.“I couldn’t take that from you.”
The other photo is of all three of us.It must’ve been taken around the same time.We’re at a picnic table, all in a row.I have my arms around Emerson’s neck, and Sin has his arm around Emerson’s shoulders.Giant grins show off baby teeth for me and Emerson, and Sinclair’s missing front tooth.We look like we’re all going to be okay.
I look her in the eyes again.She’s crying, the tears slipping down her face without a sound.
“It wasn’t because of me.”
Her hand comes up to her heart again.“I swear, Will.And I felt awful for taking that guy along.”
The boxer.I find him in my hand.“That’s okay.I actually—” A laugh interrupts me.“I kept something of yours, too.”
“What was it?”
I can feel Bristol wondering the same thing.Heat runs down one of my cheeks.It aches in my throat.
“I kept your watch.That’s probably why it took you so long to come back.You just lost track of time.”