Nathan’s Box

By: Angela B

Disclaimer: Not mine and never will be

Thanks to NT for improving my story with her great betaing abilities.

It was one of those rare times for Nathan, when he really felt like crying. He was ashamed of the feeling; as an eighteen-year-old, he considered himself too old to cry, making him feel even worse. Staring out the bedroom window, feeling lost. He had the door open. He knew who it would be. Trying his best to put on a suitable expression Nathan turned to his brother. He knew he had failed when he saw the fourteen-year-old had that deer-in-the headlights look frozen on his face. Ezra finally regained his composure and stepped further into the room hesitantly.

“Are you okay?’ Ezra asked, knowing it was a stupid question, but holding his breath and hoping his brother said ‘yes’ anyway. Dealing with emotions was uncomfortable for him, to say the least.

Nathan could have grabbed his brother and hugged him if he didn’t know it would send Ezra into an apoplectic fit. Just having Ezra attempting to be a listener for him showed how far the younger one had come in the time he’d been with them. Knowing how much Ezra tried to avoid anything emotional, Nathan shook his head. “Yeah. Just one of those days, you know?” the senior said, trying to look nonchalant.

Ezra nodded in complete understanding. “Then I’ll let you have your peace,” the brown-haired brother said, backing out of the room and shutting the door.

Nathan sighed and turned back towards the window. Leaning his forehead against the cool pane, he went back to wishing he were a little kid, when it was acceptable to cry.

Ezra was in a quandary about what to do for Nathan. On one hand, he knew how it felt to have his privacy invaded. On the other hand, he’d also learned sometimes it was a relief to have his privacy invaded by someone who cared enough to do the invading. He was still standing outside the door, wondering what to do, when Vin came down the hall. Vin stopped beside the older one and could see something was wrong. “What’s the matter?” he asked, not entirely sure Ezra would tell him.

Ezra was indecisive about telling what he knew. Staring at the carpet, he softly confided, “Something is wrong with Nathan. He looked really sad just now and I am unsure what to do.”

Vin was greatly surprised, both at the fact that Nathan, who always seemed so self-assured and confident, was upset, and the fact that Ezra had actually divulged that he was at a loss for what to do. Seeing how uncomfortable Ezra was becoming, Vin clapped a hand on his brother’s shoulder. “I’ll see what I can do. If all else fails, I’ll get Josiah,” Vin said more confidently than he felt.

Ezra nodded gratefully and Vin could feel some of the tension release from the shoulder he was clamping. Ezra turned to Vin with a questioning look and before he could say another word, Vin whispered, “I won’t tell a soul.”

Ezra breathed a sigh of relief, knowing Vin would never tell of his perceived failure as a brother. Vin knocked on the door softly and then entered. Ezra slid down the wall and sat down heavily. He wished he was better able to cope with problems, his as well as others, but he felt so inadequate at it. If he couldn’t be with Nathan physically, he could at least be with him in spirit. Drawing up his knees, Ezra wished Vin luck.

Vin moved across the room slowly, taking in his brother’s defeated posture. The scene unnerved the twelve-year-old. He’d never seen his older brother like this. Nathan was always the one coming to their rescue. Nathan was a great brother in the twelve-year old’s opinion. Vin began having second thoughts about his ability to help and began thinking he should go get one of the older ones.

Nathan, figuring Ezra had returned out of some kind of guilt, quietly said, “ I’m alright, Ezra. You don’t have to worry.” The senior never raised his head off the pane.

The voice sounded hollow and worn. Vin swallowed, more resolved than ever to offer an ear to his brother. “You don’t look like you’re alright,” he said.

Nathan jerked his head up and whirled around. Seeing Vin, he forced a smile that didn’t match what his sad-filled, brown eyes were saying. “Hey, Vin!” Nathan said, trying hard to cover his tracks so his little brother wouldn’t worry. “Everything’s fine,” he said unconvincingly.

“You’re an awful liar, Nathan,” Vin pointed out. Standing there, facing his older brother, Vin felt empathy for the senior. “I know I’m only twelve, but I can listen pretty good and I understand a lot more than most people think,” Vin said doggedly.

Nathan’s features softened at knowing what a good heart his little brother had. “I know you do, Vin,” he said, not wishing to burden the already life-wise boy.

“You listened to me,” Vin coached, a note of sadness touching his voice.

Vin saw his brother’s shoulders sag, a sure sign that Nathan had silently capitulated. Nathan turned back to the window and stared out. Vin crossed the room and sat down on Ezra’s bunk and waited. He knew sometimes words didn’t come out easily.

Nathan stared out the window seeing nothing. “It’s their anniversary today,” he said reverently. “It would have been twenty-three years.” Nathan paused to catch his pain-stolen breath. “ That’s how long they would have been married,” he finished.

Vin had to think for a minute before it dawned on him that Nathan was speaking of his first parents. Vin settled onto the bed firmer, intending to stay as long as necessary. Nathan had only mentioned his other family a few times during the whole time Vin had been in the family.

Nathan wiped away the lone tear that trickled down his cheek. Moving from the window, he walked to his chest of drawers, pulled open the bottom drawer and pulled out a small box, holding his memory box in the same manner one might handle nitro. Nathan turned back towards Vin and sat down on the floor. Vin slowly stood up and walked over to Nathan and sat down next to him. The two brothers sat in silence as Nathan opened the box to his past and his living nightmare. Nathan picked up an old picture. It had been taken before his mother’s death and the following consequences. He ran his fingers lightly over the faces that had made up his family. It seemed that time was a century ago at times. Looking at the smiles of his brothers and sisters, Nathan compared them to the ones he had now.

He had been born the third of five children. He had an older brother and sister and a younger sister and baby brother. The senior could remember playing in a dirt-covered backyard with his siblings, his youngest brother crying from his entrapment in his playpen. They had just moved out of the apartment, where he had lived all his life, into their first house. It needed a lot of work, but they were all excited about it. Nathan could faintly remember the family celebrating his father’s new promotion that had allowed them the possibility of getting the house.

Nathan put the picture back and picked up a worn wallet. Opening it up, he saw an old driver’s license. Lifting the wallet to his nose, Nathan inhaled a deep breath and swallowed hard, forcing the erupting feelings back down. “He always smelled of rich soil,” Nathan volunteered, the words sounding loud in the quiet room. “He worked for this man, Mr. Catching, who was the foreman of a landscaping company. Dad always worked real long hours,” the young man said. “But he always made us kids know he loved us,” Nathan whispered.

He vaguely remembered the times when his mom would take them places without their father because he was always at work, but on Sundays his dad would take them to the park, hiking or just out for the day after church. It didn’t matter what they did; just being together was the point. The senior took the I.D. from its place and stared hard at the picture. He remembered his father being a tall man, even though the license stated the man was only five-eleven. His father’d had a deep soothing voice and he used to make up stories at bedtime for them.

Obadiah, Ben to his friends and family, was a religious man and had made sure his family was in church every Sunday morning. Ben always told him, with God’s help, he could accomplish anything if he set his mind to it and persevered. Nathan had always held on to those words, even after his life had been turned upside down.

Replacing the picture in the wallet, he laid the wallet down and picked up an old small calendar, the kind that fit in one’s purse. Flipping through it, Nathan stopped on the current month and read the small religious saying printed on the bottom.

“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to
prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you a hope and a future.”
Jeremiah 29:11

Nathan chuckled mirthless. “Yeah, right,” he said sarcastically. “Won’t hurt me,” he reread angrily. “What did he think it did to me when my life went to…” the senior cut himself off. It wasn’t fair to Vin to spill his anger out at the youngster.

Vin knew what that anger was like. He had felt it many times before coming here. “Maybe, he meant he knew what was going to happen, but all he could do was look after you once it was all over,” Vin offered in a child’s point of view. “After all, you did wind up here with us. I know it’s not what you wanted, but it’s better than where you could have landed,” the younger brother tried to rationalize.

Nathan appreciated his brother’s attempt to smooth things over. Staring at the calendar, he shrugged. “This was momma’s,” he said, his normally strong voice breaking.

He continued staring down at the calendar, remembering his real momma. She had been slightly on the large side. She had said that only meant there was more of her to hug. They laughed every time. The son could still see her laughing and threatening the Lord’s wrath and hers, too, whenever Nathan and his siblings got to squabbling too much. Nathan could never be sure about the Lord’s, but he had learned early on that his momma’s wrath came in the form of a floppy old house slipper and, though it never really hurt when she used it; the sound of slipper flopping would make one believe they were being punished worse than they really were.

Trading the calendar for a pair of gold earring loops clamped to a piece of cardboard. “Momma got a part-time job as Mr. Catching’s secretary. One day she didn’t come home. Daddy came home late that night and said she’d been hurt and was in the hospital, but he never said how. When she came home, she had a black eye and she never smiled again. A couple of months later, she started getting sick a lot. One morning she left the house, that night Daddy told us she had died. He never really explained how or why. After the funeral he told us we were moving and we left town.” Nathan expelled a long breath; his voice sounding old and tired. “Shortly afterwards Daddy killed Mr. Catchings’. Never knew why, either,” he said.

“Janis and Bobby, always said when I turned twenty-one, I could petition the courts and get the records opened and find all the missing pieces,” Nathan informed flatly. “Not sure I want to though,” he added. “You know?” he half-asked, still looking at the earrings he held. He had begun having his suspicions as to why his dad had killed the man, but it wasn’t something to share with a twelve-year-old.

Vin nodded. “Yeah,” he said sympathetically. Sometimes not knowing and being able to fill in the holes with one’s own fantasies was better than learning the stark and perhaps ugly truth.

Laying aside the earrings, he picked up two school pictures of his older siblings. Staring at his brother and sister’s faces, Nathan watched detachedly as his tears fell to the floor. After his mother’s death and his father’s subsequent imprisonment for murder, the five children had been placed in the children’s home, a nice euphemism for orphanage. Nathan felt a sad pull on his heart. He really didn’t feel the same deep love for his siblings that he felt for the six brothers he had acquired. He hadn’t seen them in over ten years. Two-year-old Michael had been lucky and adopted fairly quickly. Janis and Bobby had tracked down Michael’s adoptive parents and they had consented to let the two brothers have limited interaction. Up until Janis and Bobby’s death, that had meant Nathan could write his brother once in awhile and could call every three months. In exchange, the mother had written scant letters back, up until Michael learned to write himself. They were more like long distance friends than brothers. Ever since his second parents’ death though, Nathan had wondered if the rules would change. He had never mentioned their deaths to Michael for fear the other parents would cut off all communication. He tried to tell himself what an irrational thought it was, but couldn’t make the doubt go away. He had kept all the fears and worries to himself, figuring the three oldest had enough problems without being bothered about his insignificant ones.

Shanae had been five-years-old and had been placed in a foster family a couple of months later, leaving Nathan and his two older siblings, Susan and Dodderick in the orphanage until their own fate stepped in. Nathan tried not to think of that time too much. He was eight-and-a-half, too old to be considered adoptable and yet still very young. It had been a miracle when the director had called him into his office and informed him that some people were coming to get him. Nathan had tried to rebel. It had felt wrong leaving without Susan and Dodderick. They were the only family he had left. Susan had been the one to tuck him in that night and encourage him to go with the walker family. She had told him not everyone in the world gets a second chance at starting over. So, reluctantly, he had packed what measly stuff he had and walked out of the orphanage with Bobby and Janis Walker and into a new family and a new life.

All contact had been lost with his younger sister, Shanae. She had gotten into the system and had had several changes in social workers. Nathan dreamed of one day finding her again and prayed that she had a happy life. He knew the ratio of black children being placed in the foster system and those being adopted. The odds weren’t good for her. He and Michael had been very fortunate.

Doddrick, his oldest brother, had been twelve at the time. The correlation of the age Dodderick had been at the time and Vin’s age now struck Nathan as ironic. Staring at the picture, he wondered if Dodderick had felt as old then as Vin sometimes appeared to be now. It sadden Nathan to know that if Dodderick had been adopted back, then his life would have turned out so much different. By the time Dodderick had turned sixteen he’d been in juvenile detention three times. Currently, twenty-two year-old Dodderick was serving an eight-year prison sentence for armed robbery. It had occurred when he was seventeen, but he had been tried as an adult. Nathan had written to him two years back, but the letters had been returned with a message stamped up at the top of the envelop stating: ‘recipient refusal’. It had broken his heart the day the letter came back. Bobby and Janis had both tried to soften the blow and reason with him as to why Dodderick might have refused the letter. They had said he might simply be too angry at the world at that moment to realize what a precious gift Nathan was handing him. They had encouraged him to wait a while and write him again. Nathan never had.

Susan, the older sister, was now twenty. She had contacted him a couple of times after he turned eighteen and signed up on a national registry for locating missing siblings, parents, and children that had been lost through the social service or had been adopted. She had openly admitted she had turned to drugs in her early teenage years, but had since cleaned up and gone straight. She was now working on getting her G.E.D., the equivalent of a high school diploma. The last he heard from her, she wanted to take night classes at the community collage where she lived in Illinois. Nathan often wished he could feel the close kinship towards Susan that Josiah felt for Hannah, but too much time and circumstances had taken place.

Nathan stared at his paltry little collection of memories. Picking up a stack of three letters buried at the bottom of his box, Nathan gently ran his fingers over the return address. They had been from his father while he was in prison. Only a year after going in, Ben had contracted Hepatitis C and had died. Nathan, at the time, blamed a lack of wanting to live as the real reason his dad died. He still hadn’t been able to reconcile with that thought. On one hand, it had meant his father’s love for his mother had been so strong it transcended death; on the other hand it also meant that Ben’s love for his children hadn’t been strong enough to make him want to live for them. It was still heartbreaking and confusing for the senior.

Vin sat with Nathan, lost for words that would salve his brother’s wounded heart. He and the others had always known about the limited contact Nathan had with his siblings, but none of the six brothers felt connected to them the way they did to Josiah’s sister Hannah and Chris’ Grandpa Hank. Vin felt sorry for his brother. He couldn’t imagine what it would be like to knowingly have blood relations and not be close to them.

“We were a happy, normal family,” Nathan began, “I just…” He stopped, unable to verbalize the feelings he still had from his childhood. Nathan was disgusted with himself. He was an A honor roll student; he was intelligent, well versed and yet he still had the pent up traumas of that eight-year-old child that had lost his world. “I don’t know what happened,” he finished lamely. He inwardly berated himself for sounding so childish.

Vin scooted closer to his brother, shoulder touching shoulder. He was at a loss of what to do or say to make it better for Nathan. He understood perfectly what Nathan was trying to say. It was the same with him. How did his world fall apart in what seemed like a matter of moments. “Bobby used to tell me, sometimes there are no explanations for things that happen. Life is just what it is, fair or not.”

“Yeah, I know. He used to tell me the same thing. Still doesn’t make it right,” Nathan said bitterly.

“No, it will never be right,” Vin replied.

Nathan put the letters back into the box and reached for a strand of faux pearls. “Momma use to wear these every Sunday,” he said, a smile touched his lips at the memory. “She believed in God so much. After she died, I told my father I hated God.” Nathan snorted at the reaction of his father to the news. “I thought my dad was going to either have a stroke or kill me,” he said. “Finally, he just shook his head. He said God created us with free will and if He had wanted that much control over our lives He would created robots instead of humans.” Nathan sat for a minute before going on. “After he killed that man, my dad told me that he had taken the free will God had given him and used unwisely. He said God wasn’t to blame for his poor decision. He made me promise that, even if I stopped going to church, even stopped talking to God, I would never blame God for what he had done.”

Nathan paused for a second. “As weird as it sounds, going to church with Josiah every Sunday makes me feel closer to my mom and dad. I sit there and remember what it was like going to church with them.”

Vin nodded. He didn’t mind going to church either, most of the time. It had been a rule of the house with Bobby and Janis that they would attend church with them until they reached sixteen. Then they could decide whether or not they wanted to continue, quit or try other religions. Josiah kept going, but for long time, it was not because he believed he belonged there. It was different now, Josiah seemed to enjoy going to church. Buck quit going, but started randomly going after JD came along. Since their parents death, he went most of the time. Vin figured it was two-fold reason. The first being to help Josiah out with the three youngest because, for some reason, the older brothers thought Ezra, JD and himself would get into trouble when they were together. And the second, because JD had innocently nailed him with the questions, ‘Do you believe in God?’ and when Buck had replied yes, JD had asked ‘why he didn’t go to church all the time then?” Buck couldn’t come up with an answer that pacified JD, so Buck went. Vin figured Buck didn’t mind because some really pretty girls went to church, too. Vin figured Ezra would quit the day of his sixteenth birthday. Ezra wasn’t into what he called ‘organized religion’, whatever that meant. JD would keep going just because that was whom JD was. As for himself, Vin was undecided because he did believe there was a higher being. He was glad to know, though, that going to church brought Nathan some solace. The brother needed it.

Nathan reached into the box and pulled out an empty tootsie roll can that was also a bank. “Momma use to buy us one every Christmas and wrap them up,” Nathan said with a laugh. “Like we couldn’t tell what it was.” Nathan chuckled at the memory. “You know,” Nathan sighed, “there are good memories I have of my ‘before’ life. Sometimes they just get lost under all the bad memories.”

Vin nodded. He completely understood that sentiment.

Nathan began replacing all his items in his box when his eye caught a sparkle in the far corner. Moving the placed items out of the way, he reached in and put his thumb firmly against a shiny, red, piece of confetti shaped star. Staring at the small star shape glued to his finger, his mind traveled back to a kitchen as the tears fell harder. He and his family were gathered around a kitchen table. On it was a big cake. Nathan could see it as plain as if it were yesterday. The cake had white icing. Not the icky sweet stuff cheap places used, but the good creamy kind. There were five red roses done in stiff icing in one corner. His dad had told his mom it was for the five great kids she had blessed him with. The writing sprawled across the cake was done in a deep blue that read ‘Happy Anniversary’. Nathan remembered his dad and Dodderick had left the house and returned, having bought the cake home, and surprising his mom with it. She had cried out in joy, and to be truthful, shock. The tears that had streamed down her beautiful face only reinforced the appreciation she had for her husband’s remembrance of the day. Dodderick had picked up the small bag of confetti and had poured out a little into each of his brother and sister’s expectant hands. Michael had tried to eat his before being caught by Susan. Once Michael saw everyone else throwing theirs, he threw his, too. Nathan had swept up the floor for his momma afterwards, his present to her. Picking up a pinch full of the confetti, he had put it into a small plastic container he had gotten when he put a quarter into a prize machine at the grocery store the week before. The plastic container was long gone, but the small star shape piece of confetti had lasted.

Nathan figured that after Vin left, he might really look through his box and see if any more of the confetti had survived. In his head he could hear Josiah giving some kind of analogy between the confetti and Nathan. How both had endured impossible odds and so forth. The thought created a smile on Nathan’s face, lightening up his dark mood. Nathan looked at the single piece of confetti. Yes, he had survived some really horrible circumstances, but no worse than other children out in the world. He knew he had been blessed to have been adopted into this family. Maybe Vin was right. Maybe God knew what was going to happen and he had stepped in and taken care of him because there was hope and a future for him. Neither boy said anything as they sat there together in silence.

Nathan looked at his precious box itself. He remembered how Bobby had offered it to him to keep his treasures in it. The handmade box was crafted in love and polished to a high shine. Nathan felt shame as he ran he hands over the box. When he had arrived he had been an angry, out-of-control kid, who ripped into people with the slightest provocation and went looking for a fight. He had destroyed his bedroom on more than one occasion because, no matter how hard he had tried, he couldn’t seem to empty out all the anger he had inside of him. Janis and Bobby had taken him to see a counselor for over two years before the anger began going away and he could control his outbursts. Now, it surprised him that Chris and he hadn’t gotten into more serious fights than they had. The senior thought maybe it was because Chris had already been down that road and understood his need to lash out more than any of the others. Nathan sat there with his memories, realizing he had a lot more good memories than bad and maybe one day he would share more of them with his brothers. Vin patted Nathan on the back and rose to leave. A quiet ‘thank you’, followed him to the door. Vin turned around and solemnly said, “Anytime.” Walking out the door, Vin noticed Ezra sitting on the floor and grinned sadly. “Let’s go to the barn for awhile, okay?” Vin suggestion.

Ezra nodded and rose to his feet knowing Nathan needed time alone. Inside the room, hugging his box tightly to his chest, Nathan finally let the tears flow.


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