The front step of Erin’s parent’s home was adorned with pumpkins and fake turkey décor, and a string of letters underneath the overhang read “Welcome back Matt!” in garishly bright, reflective yellows and greens. Erin stood on the porch, twisting her graduation ring around her finger. A ray of sunlight bounced off the letter ‘M’ and lanced into her eyes.
Lisa, her mother, opened the door and whisked her past the mauve living room crowded with relatives. “Go freshen up — your dad’s picking Matt up from rehab, and they’ll be here any minute.”
“Mom — ”
“Quickly now! There’s no need to look like you came straight from work.” Lisa pulled off Erin’s work badge and straightened the collar of her blazer before propelling her towards the stairs.
Her mouth set in a thin line, Erin ascended the steps. Throbbing pain began to build up behind her forehead. The chaotic cluster of relatives, a bundle of noise and vaguely familiar faces, only exacerbated the growing headache.
She closed the bathroom door with a sigh. After Matt went to rehab, her parents cleaned everything stronger than a children’s Advil out of the house. Erin resigned herself to the grape-flavoured tablets. She massaged her brow and pulled the bottle out of the cupboard, twisting open the lid and dumping the contents into her palm.
Instead of Advil, Tylenol 3s spilled out of the bottle. Step one on Matt’s stairway to successful addiction.
The headache hiding behind Erin’s forehead swelled, making its presence acutely known with every heartbeat.
Erin glanced at the garbage can. She could all but hear her mother in the back of her head: Erin, could you give your brother a hand, a support, a meal, a moment or two or three —
She could hear the front door open and close. The noise level spiked, and Erin jumped, the pills slipping between her fingers and skittering across the ivory-tiled floor. Footsteps pounded up the stairs. Erin scrambled for the white wheels still rolling across the tile, reaching to shove the bottle of children’s Advil back into the cupboard at the same time.
She hadn’t locked the door.
A flush rose to her cheeks as she shoved the pills into her pocket — just as a young relative, a six-year-old blonde in a shirt that said “Mommy’s Little Girl”, pushed open the door and ran to the toilet.
Her mother, Erin’s cousin, apologized profusely.
Erin didn’t register a single word. She only nodded mutely, her heart thumping against her chest and her hand entrenched in her pocket along with half a dozen codeine pills.
Matt ambushed her as soon as she set foot on the beige carpet downstairs. “Happy Thanksgiving!” He wrapped one arm around her shoulders. Erin ducked out from under his half-embrace, her heart still skipping beats.
“It’s been too long — what, since April?” Matt fidgeted with the hem of one sleeve. His dark hair, long and tangled, fell in front of his eyes. He’d put on weight since Erin had last seen him, but he was still swimming in one of their father’s old Metallica shirts.
Erin tucked her own hair behind her ear. “Something like that.”
“I’m so glad everything’s back to normal.”
“Is normal going to stick around this time?” She raised an eyebrow.
He laughed, a quick, stuttering cadence. “Third time’s the charm, right?”
Erin clutched the pills in her pocket and smiled back tightly. The sunlight cascading through the floor-to-ceiling windows dimmed as a cloud drifted across the blue expanse outside.
An elderly aunt in a floral dress and a wide-brimmed straw hat tapped her on the shoulder with a frail, wrinkled hand. “We’re so proud of your brother and you.”
Erin set her jaw, her own praise ignored next to her younger brother’s — always first and foremost in her mind. As Matt engaged their aunt, Erin slipped away and scanned the room, looking for a cousin who had attended her convocation. He was nowhere to be seen amidst the plethora of relatives and the pristine cream-coloured sofas against the wall.
Erin hesitated as she walked past the wicker garbage basket next to the old piano. She could throw out the pills now, while no one was paying attention.
It wasn’t her responsibility, really. Her parents should have found them months ago.
As Erin walked past the kitchen, her mother swooped down like a hawk and latched on to her elbow.
“It’s nearly dinner time!”
“Food’s not ready yet?” Erin asked, removing herself from her mother’s grip. The kitchen smelled strongly of turkey and onions. Erin’s eyes watered, blurring the fractaled wallpaper and scratched granite countertop.
“No.” Lisa sighed sharply, running a hand through already-mussed blonde curls. A smudge of mascara decorated the bags under one eye. “Sweetie, I know you have work, but couldn’t you have gotten here any earlier?” She handed Erin a pot. “The peas are still in the freezer.”
Erin thumped the pot down on the counter.
Lisa glanced out the doorway as she thanked Erin. “The house was so quiet yesterday. But it’s good for all of us to be here.” She stifled a yawn.
“I might have to leave early.”
“What? Honey, your father and I — ”
“Mom?” Matt poked his head around the corner.
“Matt!” Lisa embraced him, a wide grin across her face.
Matt hugged her back, leaning down to bury his face in her shoulder. His next words were too muffled for Erin to hear.
She opened the freezer, letting the cold air wash over her. The peas were nestled underneath the ice cube tray.
“You don’t have to be in here — we’ll get all the food done. You go enjoy yourself,” Lisa said.
“No, I want to help.” He rubbed the back of his neck, his gaze on the floor. “I really do.”
Erin slammed the freezer door. Matt jumped.
Their mother patted him on the shoulder. “Alright. Could you grab some plates?”
“Of course.” His face lit up, his smile crinkling the corners of his eyes and the hollows of his cheeks. As Erin poured peas into the pot, he reached over her head.
“Hey, I’m still here.” She frowned and ducked out of the way.
“Sorry, big sis.” Matt looked down at her, his grin fading to a hesitant quirk of his mouth. His free hand hovered above her shoulder.
Silently, Erin dared him to make contact, dared him to pretend they were close.
He let his hand fall back to his side.
“We missed you so much, didn’t we?” Lisa said.
Erin said nothing. She hadn’t been home for six months either.
Her mother cleared her throat.
“Sure.” Erin weighed her voice carefully, dragging out the word half a second longer than necessary.
Matt’s eyes darted between his sister and mother. “Maybe I’ll go join the others.”
“No, you should stick around this time.” The throbbing in Erin’s temples increased. A pointed barb balanced on the verge of her lips.
One glance at her mother’s narrowed eyes silenced her. She clenched her hand around the drugs in her pocket. The garbage can under the sink was mute.
“So you’re working at…” Matt paused, his brow creased, “a bank?”
“It’s an insurance company.” Erin slid the peas onto the stove and cranked on a burner, watching the blue flames spring to life against the stained underside of the pot. “I’m going to go find Dad.”
“Erin, sweetie.” Her mother reached out with one manicured hand. Erin slipped past her outstretched fingers and out of the kitchen.
She pushed through the throng in the living room, the heat inside rising higher than October warranted. She didn’t even know most of these people, aside from their names on the casserole dishes from six months ago that her mother had yet to return. Matt’s name drifted through the noise, sliding from one conversation into the next.
Erin gritted her teeth. The pills settled into her pocket and the heat in her chest grew with the heat in the room.
Her father’s New Orleans accent carried across the heads of aunts and uncles gushing over bald babies and precocious cousins. Erin made her way to the side of the room.
“Dad!” she called.
Her father’s face lit up. “My favourite graduate!”
Erin let out a peal of laughter. “Great to see you too.” She hugged him, her shoulders finally relaxing.
“How’s the job comin’?” His salt and pepper moustache, in dire need of trimming, hung over his upper lip and combed the words he exhaled.
“I’m enjoying it; everyone treats me well.”
Her father clapped her on the back, still smiling widely. “Wonderful. You know where Matt’s at? He forgot his wallet.” He waved the battered leather trifold in the air.
The rest of the conversation faded.
“In the kitchen.”
Erin didn’t move as her father headed towards the kitchen. She stared at the frosted window next to the front door.
Everything came back to Matt, even the little things. Always the little things.
The past six months played themselves over in Erin’s head. If Matt was so worth the attention, he could handle his own problems. He could open up that children’s Advil and stare down his hamartia, if he was everything everyone said he was.
Her blood again burning hot, Erin spurred herself to move. She took the stairs two at a time. Her hand coiled around the pills in her pocket. She could put them back and no one would ever know until Matt showed his true colours, until he crashed and burned again while Erin flourished.
Just as she set foot on the top stair, she heard her name.
She whirled around, her hand a fist in her pocket and her heart a fist in her ribcage. “What do you want, Matt?”
Her brother took the stairs slowly. “It is good to see you.”
“Sure. Don’t you have some new best-friend-cousin to chat up with tales of your latest home away from home?”
Erin looked away, inhaling sharply. Her head spun with the quick movement. She never did take any Advil.
Matt stopped a few steps below her, interlocking his fingers together, then apart, then together again. “Honestly, I — I just wanted to say thanks. For being here, right? And for supporting me — I know you’ve had school, and now a job. I’m glad you’re here.” His gaze was locked on the carpet and his old shirt hung off his bony shoulders.
All the heat pumping through Erin’s veins slowed, the pounding in her ears settling into cold whispers. The smell of turkey and potatoes suddenly turned her stomach. She leaned against the railing, her knuckles white. “I’m glad to be here.”
Matt locked eyes with her. His face was pale and hollow, had been pale and hollow for years, and Erin knew with damning certainty that his demons lay in her pocket.
Despite the constant chatter, the silence between them grew and grew.
“Come on.” Erin walked rigidly past him, lightly touching his shoulder. “I’ll be right back.”
Her breath heavy in her lungs, she skirted the living room and ducked out a side door. The tree next to the garage was bedecked with in red and orange. The October air stung the inside of Erin’s mouth, bearing with it the promise of early winter.
Erin examined the pills, white moons in her palm. They were inconspicuous without the context of a thousand tears and fights and frantic phone calls, without years of heartache. Ice settled into Erin’s bones, dragging her mind to a universe where Matt found the pills, a universe where he spiralled back down the rabbit hole and where history repeated and repeated.
She cracked open the lid of the battered garbage can and tilted her hand until the pills fell in, slipping between turkey bones and yesterday’s newspaper until they vanished from sight.