I saw the flames as they licked the tops of the tallest trees, destroying not only the dry, autumn leaves, but the creatures that called the forest their home. I saw the wreckage on the highway, the crumpled heaps of five cars and an eighteen-wheeler truck.
My mother’s body was being wheeled away from the scene on a stretcher by two paramedics, a thin sheet covering her from head to toe. Her bloodied arm dangled limply off the side, exposed; somehow, the charm bracelet she’d worn for as long as I could remember had survived, though she would not.
The orange blanket around my shoulders did nothing to quell the chill going through my body. It wasn’t just the shock of the crash. It wasn’t the throbbing pain in my shattered leg. It wasn’t the droning of the tactless police officer to my right as he asked me questions I couldn’t answer.
I’d seen this exact event before, in a dream. If only I could have done something to stop it from happening.
His name was Abraham. Abraham Smith, to be exact. Irony of all ironies, his house was full of (intact) graven images. Everything from smiling Buddhist figurines to little statues that looked vaguely like Hello Kitty took up space on shelves, tables, window sills, and armrests.
“I collect and sell these things, y’see,” he explained awkwardly as I locked eyes with one leering pre-Columbian carving. “I don’t necessarily believe in them, in case you’re wondering.”
I shrugged, which isn’t easy when you’re leaning on a cane. I’d had my share of odd foster families in the last few months. What could I say that wouldn’t offend my newest guardian, who also happened to be my fourth cousin thrice removed?
My new bedroom was barely larger than a walk-in closet. Abraham held the door open for me as I limped inside. I’d hoped that once I graduated from crutches to a cane, people would stop finding me so piteous.
A statue of a grotesque, multi-armed monster that I thought existed only in the imagination of Steven Spielberg rested on the night table. I shivered instinctively.
Abraham waited in the doorway, looking a bit anxious. He fiddled with his scraggly, brown goatee. “I was, uh, running a little short on space. I can take that out for you, if you’d like.”
I nodded quickly. “Please.”
When he left the room with the idol tucked under his arm, I flopped down on my new bed and lay there for a few minutes, letting my shoulder-length blond hair spread freely under my head. It took five months for it to grow back to this length; they had to cut it after the–
No. I dared myself to not think about the past. Every memory hurt.
Abraham’s small apartment was situated above a kosher bagel shop. The yeasty aroma of freshly baked bread wafted up through the narrow, rectangular window above my head. Worst comes to worst, I could subside on bagels and lox for the duration of my time here, however long that might be.
I counted the years until I turned eighteen on my fingers. One, two, three.
An elderly couple I don’t recognize is walking down a mildly busy street. The woman is wearing a bracelet around her wrist; she fiddles anxiously with the assorted baubles hanging from the golden chain. Her purse is tucked under one arm.
The man swings his arms casually when he walks, as though he hasn’t a care in the world, but the ashen look on his face suggests otherwise. There’s something on his mind.
The woman turns to him and opens her mouth to speak. I don’t hear the words.
My perspective changes to the pavement a few feet behind the couple. A boy in a ragged hoodie and tattered jeans races down the sidewalk, glancing furtively over his shoulder every few seconds. He’s in a hurry; he isn’t about to stop for some slow-moving old people.
He barges right into them and keeps running. There’s now a small, white rectangular object sticking out of his back pocket, too.
It takes a moment, but the woman reaches into her own pocket and realizes something’s missing. I can imagine the sound of her startled cry as she points in the boy’s direction.
But it’s too late. The thief is already lost to them. He’s blended well into the density of the city.
The old lady’s face turns as white as the plastic of her stolen wallet. She crumples to the ground, unconscious.
I became aware of the sweat pouring down my face as my eyes fluttered open. I must have fallen asleep again. How much time had passed while I dreamed? As for what I’d been dreaming about … it was all a distant blur.
I’d arrived here in the early afternoon. Now, the small patch of blue sky I’d seen through my window was hued with orange and pink as the sun bid the day its last farewells.
There faint tapping on the door. “Julia?” Abraham called through the door. “Are you awake?”
I nodded, and then realized I hadn’t actually spoken. “Yes. You can come in.”
Abraham opened the door a crack but didn’t come inside. “My parents are coming by in a few minutes to, um, say hello. Would you mind getting some bagels from downstairs while I straighten the place up?”
“Sure,” I said, accepting a few dollar bills from him to pay for my order.
Twenty minutes later, I stepped out of Larry’s Bagels with a paper bag of six garlic-onion bagels, a tub of cream cheese, and lox. As I walked around the side of the building to the back entrance where Abraham went into his apartment, I heard a woman’s scream behind me.
Immediately, I turned to see what was going on. A boy in a threadbare sweatshirt and jeans was barreling down the sidewalk, heading straight for me, his worn-out sneakers hammering on the concrete. Suddenly, I realized – it was the boy from my dream!
Before my brain could process what the rest of me was doing, I held the cane out and latched its curved handle around the boy’s ankle just as he passed by. He tripped and fell hard on the ground with an indignant yelp, taking me down with him.
The gravelly sidewalk grazed my elbows and knees, but that didn’t stop me from picking up the stolen wallet.
I looked to the direction from which he’d come to see the elderly couple standing stock-still, watching me intently. The lady was leaning on her husband’s arm, visibly shaken, but she wasn’t about to pass out like she had in the dream.
Retrieving my cane, I picked myself up and hobbled over. There was no sense gawking at them.
“Here you go, ma’am,” I said.
The old lady smiled gratefully as she took back her wallet.
“That was quick thinking on your part, young lady,” her husband said. “If you hadn’t stepped in, that thief would’ve made off with most of Roz’s cash!”
I heard approaching footsteps from behind me. “There you are,” Abraham said. He was holding the bagels, which looked a bit worse for wear. I must have dropped them during all the excitement. “What’s taking you so long?”
When I looked back to the spot where the thief had lain so as to explain what had happened, he was gone. That kid must not have wanted to mess with a cane-wielding girl like me ever again.
“Abie,” said the old lady gently, “is this Julia?”
“Abie” blushed at the mention of what I assumed was his childhood nickname. “Yes, Mom,” he answered, the slightest hint of irritation in his voice. “It’s her.”
Immediately, Abraham’s mother enfolded me in her arms, but it wasn’t one of those stiff, awkward hugs. It was loving and familiar, as though we’d known each other for a long time. Up close, her cardigan smelled faintly of mothballs and lilacs; a pleasant, grandmotherly sort of smell.
“Julia,” she said softly. “You’re so grown up!”
She continued, “I’m … awfully sorry Bill and I couldn’t make it to the funeral.”
I nodded grimly. The funeral had been a relatively small affair. They couldn’t find a will and nobody trusted me to relate her final wishes, so my mother’s stepfather insisted on having the body cremated. Only then did I have a say in what was done afterwards. Very few people showed up to watch me bury an urn of my mother’s ashes: some coworkers, her rabbi, and a handful of strangers who were distantly related but couldn’t even say how, like Abraham. But no immediate family.
Abraham cleared his throat self-consciously. “Mom, Dad, can we, uh, head inside now? People are starting to stare.”
The bagels were deliciously crispy on the outside and chewy on the inside, but when Uncle Bill, as he insisted I call him, had trouble with his dentures and fixed himself an instant oatmeal instead, I wished I’d picked up a salad from Larry’s as well.
Abraham seemed more than a little tense in the presence of his parents. I wasn’t sure why. I had a good time with them, though. It seemed like “Abie” was their only child; I was sure they’d make awesome grandparents someday.
When it was time for the couple to leave, Abraham cleared the table and I walked them to the apartment door. Aunt Roz stopped me in the front doorway. As she held up her hand, her shiny bracelet dangled from her tiny wrist and her eyes twinkled like she had a secret to tell.
“I have something for you,” she whispered. She opened her wallet and pulled out something small and shiny.
It was a thin, gilt chain just long enough to fit around my wrist. One small, white pearl hung from the chain, glinting mysteriously in the light..
“All the ladies in our family wear these,” Roz explained, glancing absently at her own bracelet, which, as I’d seen in my dream, was generously adorned. “We fill them with the pendants that represent ourselves, the things we like and do, what makes us unique. And that, my dear, is entirely up to you.”
I fastened the chain around my wrist and thanked her.
“No, thank you,” she insisted, squeezing my arm gently, “for what you did today.” With that, she ambled off into the night.
When I came back inside, Abraham was sitting at the kitchen table, watching funny pet videos that evoked an occasional childlike giggle from him. I slipped past him quietly; he didn’t even notice I was there.
In my room, I started to unpack my few belongings from my small, denim knapsack. In the recent months, I’d been to enough places where looting the new girl’s suitcase was in vogue that packing lightly had become second nature to me.
First out came my clothes: undergarments and socks, a few tops, one dress, pajamas, and a spare skirt. My wallet, which had contained my library card, learner’s permit, and a lot of loose change, “disappeared” ages ago. Then came my tiny, refurbished cell phone that could have been the coolest model ever in 2005. It did its job, though, which was calling people; but there was hardly anyone to call.
Lastly, at the very bottom, was a small, inconspicuous wooden box. It contained my mother’s charm bracelet, the one item of hers I was able to keep when all of her assets were liquidated. She’d worn it every day of her life … until the day of she died.
All the ladies in our family wear these, Aunt Roz had said. We fill these with the pendants that represent ourselves … what makes us unique.
On my mother’s bracelet, I saw bits and pieces of her personality in the numerous pendants that hung from it. There was the tiny Star of David she’d started wearing after she decided to “get back in touch” with her heritage; a silver artist’s palette and paintbrush; a book; a bouquet of lilies, like her name and the flowers she loved. And then there was that same type of pearl. What did it represent?
I slipped off my own bracelet and placed it inside the box beside hers. It was so bare by comparison.
We fill these with the pendants that represent ourselves.
It was time to find some pendants of my own.