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Chapter Ten

My brother died in 1991.

Travis was tall. He was rugged, he was handsome, and he was cool. He had my dad's bright blue eyes and a tattoo on his shoulder. He was in the army and he wore combat boots and camoflague pants and he'd had a bright future in the service, a Major had told my father when we'd gone to see him graduate from basic. Travis was so much older than me, more than twice my age, and I thought the world of him.

Back before Emma was there to protect me, I was protected by Travis. I didn't have friends as a kid, but I didn't need them because Travis let me hang out with him. I spent time hanging out at the mall and going bowling with him and his friends. It never mattered to anyone that I was liteerally half their ages, as long as I didn't tell on them when they smoked cigarettes or drank beer. Travis drove a motorcycle and sometimes he'd strap a helmet on me and take me for rides out on dirt roads and we'd crow and laugh and feel the wind rushing all over us like we were in the suction of a vacuum cleaner.

The first time I got beat up at school, I called Travis, who was in Texas, where he lived when he was on duty, and I told him what happened an he said he was sorry and that next time he was home he would teach me how to fight.

Travis didn't come home a next time, though, because he was shipped off to Iraq during the first war there, Desert Storm. But he wrote me letters. He wrote all kinds of letters telling me all about Iraq and the people he was meeting there and the culture and stuff. He left out things like people were trying to shoot him down and things like how many guys in his troop had been killed. He left out things like how many guys he'd killed, too.

He promised he'd be home for my birthday and on the eve of it, I stayed up all night sitting on the living room floor playing solitare on the coffee table, my legs wrapped in a Ninja Turtles napsack, waiting for him to come through the door. I pictured the jingling of his dog tags, the thump of his combat boots on the stairs.

But those things never came.

Instead, what did come was the heavy hand of another solidier. The one who came to tell my mother and my father that Travis had been killed after a suicide bomber walked into a little grocery store and blew himself up.

My father, knowing how close I was to Travis, had given me the dog tags that the soldier had brought home for them. Those tags, the proof that Travis was dead, had felt heavy in my hand as my father dropped them into my palm.

Those tags, I thought, were Travis's final way of saying good-bye.

It was those tags that had made me suggest the idea to Emma that we have something that we would leave for the other person as our tokens of farewell. "But that only works if the people around us are aware of the tokens," Em had pointed out, "It's not like I'm ever going to be in a situation where I know I'm dying so I take it off and leave it for you somewhere."

It'd taken some convincing, some conversing, but eventually Em had agreed and designated her token as the spoon handle ring that I'd made her. The one that had turned her finger pale from having worn it for so long. "I'd never just take it off for no reason," Emma had said, "So if you ever find it somewhere besides my fingers then I must be dead 'cos that's what it would take to get it off my hand." She'd smiled, beautiful and bright.

And now here it was, the ring, laying in the otherwise empty safe.

I couldn't remember what else had been in there. A couple thousand dollars, maybe. Emma liked hoarding cash as well as depositing it into the bank. There was probably some giftcards left over from Christmas, maybe a couple pieces of jewelry. My grandfather's watch. But it was all gone now.

Gone, like Em herself.

I stumbled backward to the bed, my knees almost giving out on me, my heart slamming in my chest. My fist was closed around the ring, my heart racing. I doubled forward, my head between my knees, my air coming back low, long and shaking. I closed my eyes.

That's when I heard it. The creaking.

I looked up.

The closet door was open a little. But it hadn't been before.

My stomach clenched as I stared at the door.

I stood up slowly, my heart pounding out a rhythm to make pop music proud, and I debated whether to investigate the closet or to retreat. My fist closed tightly around the ring, and I inched closer, afraid.

I was just starting to raise my hand to pull open the door when it swung forward on its own accord and a man with a gun leaped out, took aim, and fired. Luckily, he had poor aim and the bullet ripped through the headboard of the bed.

"Oh shit, shit!" I cried, doubling back. I rushed through the bedroom door in the hall just as a bullet blasted off the wood of the door frame behind me. I ran into the wall, recouperated quickly and shot down the hall as fast as a fat guy can run. I snatched the straps to the duffle bags as I passed them by the door, and pulled the door shut behind me going into the main hall of the brownstone. I hit the stairs at a run and more fell down them than anything. I heard his foot falls thundering a flight above me. I stumbed into the banister on the second level and he spotted me. I heard the gun shoot and I ducked forward, the bullet blasted the banister where I'd just been.

"Ohhh shit," I groaned. I could barely breathe as I launched myself into the street, down onto the curb. I looked both ways, knowing I only had seconds, and I darted to the left and down into an alley that cut across a city block. I ducked low and skid past the fire escape to our apartment. It was dropped to the ground and there was blood on the wall of the outside of the brownstone. Someone must've climbed down the escape. Evidently with Emma.

But I didn't have time to analyze it because I heard my assailant coming down the alley behind me. I redoubled my efforts to run, my heart felt like it was somewhere in my face and my head ached from the running. If I could just get my feet to move just a little faster... A bullet pinged off the dumpster to my right, ringing, echoing in the alley. I pushed every bit of energy into my legs. I careened around the corner onto the far sidewalk. It was crowded, people everywhere.

I rushed across the street, dodging cars, horns blaring at me as I moved. I made it without getting hit somehow, and rushed up the stairs of a museum. My hands shaking, I tugged open the front doors. I ran for the mens room to the right of the doors and pushed through the door, nearly bowling over a janitor in the process, threw myself into the handicap stall, the only one wide enough for me and the four duffle bags which I threw onto the floor, as I slammed the door shut. I sat on the closed toilet lid, gasping for air.

I was dizzy. I felt cross eyed, almost. I bent forward again, staring down at my sneakers.

I opened my palm. Em's ring sat on my taut skin, the edge of the spoon handle rested in the groove of my lifeline. I stared at it, stared at the detail in the spoon, at the floral pattern and smooth spanse, at the way it had shaped to her finger, no longer a perfect circle if it had ever been one but now grooved along where her fingers rubbed against it everyday.

My hand went to my neck where Travis' dogtags hung. I pulled the tags off and unclipped the chain they hung from. I slid Emma's ring onto the chain and tightened my fist around the tags and the ring simultaneously.

I closed my eyes and listened to my heart beating in my ears.

Any minute now, I thought, any minute now and you'll hear it breaking.

Here it comes.