Through the passenger window of a taxi Katy saw him. Or was it him? Traffic was moving briskly despite the time of day. So just when she caught a glimpse, he was past. She looked behind through the back window. The sidewalk was crowded.
Then she saw him; head down, shuffling through the maze of people. His height and build were right; his moustache and hair were the same albeit with flecks of gray. Aging hair made sense; it had been several years since she last saw him. He shuffled into the parking garage. Suddenly she became convinced of the identity. It was him. Now she knew basically where he worked and what time of day he got off. That’s when she plotted the visit.
That first visit was a near miss, too. On the predetermined day Katy slinked through the parking garage several times before finally spotting his familiar car and vanity plate. Thank goodness he was frugal and a creature of habit. If he had purchased a new vehicle since she last saw him this visit may not have transpired. Katy checked her watch and then hid beside a van in an adjacent parking spot. She watched wordlessly holding her breath as he trudged from the street into the garage. His head was down. He would not see her. Like a stalker, she stepped forward as he raised his key to unlock the car. He was ambushed.
Despite growing up together, he failed at first to recognize her. When he realized who she was, he was not happy. She didn’t expect he would be pleased. For years he had never returned a phone call, email or snail mail. When one would make the long drive to his home, he was never home. Or just wasn’t answering the door.
Katy felt an ache in her heart, much like their mother felt so many times. A brother, a son, a godfather, an uncle had abruptly fallen off the face of the earth and didn’t want to be found. He mumbled a response to her greeting, got into his car and didn’t even say goodbye. Katy shouted, “We love you, don’t cut us from your life!” as he pulled away. But he didn’t hear her. At least that’s what Katy told herself.
The rest of the family would claim to have no idea why Derrick abruptly left the fold. After all, they were a large robust family that always included the younger brother despite his air of aloofness. His mood swings were legendary. But he was still loved and invited everywhere. At first, he attended every family gathering; seldom speaking, but a physical presence. Then, he just stopped going. Siblings would say they were at a loss at his sudden departure. That is everyone except Katy.
“It was the relentless bullying and teasing.” Katy said to her mother. “Especially about being a sensitive.”
Mother refused to believe it at first. As far as the teasing by his brothers went, boys will be boys was her motto. “He brought on the teasing,” she would say in defense of her other sons. The “sensitive” aspect was personal and best kept quiet. After all, Mother was a sensitive and very few knew. Most people – especially family – would not understand. In the past such a gift was swept under the rug or else held to ridicule. Mother encouraged Derrick to keep his gift quiet. And he did. Until he saw the man hanging in the rafters of the attic. Derrick was just a child and his reaction was commiserate with his age. He screamed and ran down the stairs to tell his mother. His brothers were in the room. They laughed and heckled him. Mother said he was imagining things. And so began the relentless bullying began.
“The longer he stays away the harder it will be to come back,” Mother would say at family gatherings. His absence broke her heart.
The children in the family noticed he was gone, too. “Why doesn’t Uncle Derrick ever come to our reunions?” a niece asked. Katy knew but simply shrugged. Later she would recount to her mother the last reunion her brother Derrick attended.
It was Christmas Eve years before. Family members had traveled far and near to the parent’s home. It would be the last gathering in the old house where they had grown-up.. The home was filled with joy and spirit. And was the place where Derrick as a child had seen the hanging man.
The picture Katy kept from that night was haunting. On the many faces of the photographed relatives was powdered sugar smeared amply around each and every mouth and face. Even Derrick had a white face. Except he wasn’t smiling.
Mother had put on a feast, as usual, for all the guests. Following a turkey with all the trimmings came all the goodies. But the cookies, divinity, fudge, peanut brittle, candy and cakes that were passed at the end of the meal fell short to some. Inevitably Mother was questioned about the one treat that had graced the table each and every holiday that was now absent.
“Where are the rum balls?” one of the brother’s asked.
Mother shrugged. “There’s a ton of goodies here,” she replied.
“Your mother has been cooking and baking for a month,” replied Father.
The brother grumbled. “I look forward to those all year. I can’t believe that you didn’t make any.” Mother looked away with raised eyebrows and a strange grin. Then the crowd all teasingly grumbled.
The teasing continued as the dishes were cleared from the table. While putting away the fudge in the refrigerator, Katy saw a suspiciously sealed Christmas tin. Upon opening it, the familiar aroma filled her senses. Taking off the lid, revealed Mother’s elusive powdered sugar rolled rum balls.
Katy started to laugh and popped one in her mouth. “Great Mom, now I know where they are hidden.”
“Hey, hey,” Mother said. “I didn’t put those out because there are not enough for everyone.”
The complaining brother had gone to the porch to checkout Mother’s stash of holiday goodies. Katy found Mother’s powdered sugar and quickly instructed the nieces and nephews to spread powdered sugar on everyone’s faces. They had just finished dabbing the last person, when complaining brother/uncle returned, chagrinned.
“There are no rum balls,” he groaned. Suddenly he saw a multitude of white guilty faces. “Hey!”
Chuckles greeted him.
Complaining brother powdered his face white. Then the final retort. “Hey Derrick look – I see dead people.”
The laughter was deafening. Katy’s husband snapped the photo. All the brothers and sisters were there along with parents laughing at Derrick’s expense. He abruptly left.
“That was his last time with us,” Katy said privately to her mother. “You and Dad moved to assisted living and he never visited. When dad died Derrick came and left the funeral home without words. Our family now calls him a crazy recluse. Mom he is not crazy. I saw the hanging man – ”
“I saw him many times,” Mother interrupted dismissively. “But you just don’t talk about those things.”
“He was just a kid. Why didn’t we defend him?”
Mother turned away. “I have had to live with being a sensitive my entire life. He needed to learn how to deal with it.”
“Mother, what kind of gutless wonders are we?”
Katy again watched as her brother trudged into the parking garage. This time her face didn’t bring him to anger. Instead, it was total apathy.
“Can I get in the car and talk to you?” She asked. “It’s cold out here.”
“Suit yourself,” he mumbled. It was the first words she had heard him say in a decade.
She climbed in the front passenger seat and began to talk. She rambled on about his siblings, their spouses and children. She told him how mother was doing in assisted living and missed him terribly. He stared ahead out of the windshield and said nothing. Then she apologized on behalf of herself and the family. She thought maybe she saw tears in his eyes, but she wasn’t sure. His face was expressionless.
“And I want you to know that I saw him, too. The hanging man in the attic. I went up there to get a toy and he was there. I told mom that I saw him and she said to be quiet or that I would be teased. So I kept quiet.”
“There was no man,” Derrick said softly.
“No man physically, but his spirit was still there hanging. He had on rumpled baggy brown corduroy pants with a grayed button down shirt – “
“With rolled up sleeves,” Derrick said. “The shirt used to be white but was grey from all the washings.”
“He had on worn dark brown shoes,” Katy said.
“There were holes in the soles. You could see that because he was hanging,” Derrick added.
“He had a full head of dark blonde hair and it was messy.”
“His clothes and hands were dirty, like he been a laborer and just came in from outside …” Derrick said quietly.
“Those glasses haunt me,” Katy said.
“Black horn rimmed,” they said together.
“And his eyes were opened – they looked like glazed marbles,” Derrick said sadly.
They were quiet for a few moments. “That house was over a hundred years old with many different occupants. Originally it was a farm until the land was subdivided and sold off.” Katy had done her research.
“I always thought he was a young farmer with a family who simply grew despondent,” Derrick said suddenly.
“There are no records of a death in the house,” Katy said. She shrugged. “I was always so terrified to sleep at night. Had to have the light on. Now as an adult, I see the man as tragic not scary.”
They sat quietly before Katy said her goodbyes. She kissed his cheek. He didn’t respond.
Katy visited Derrick every few months, ambushing him in the garage keeping her brother updated on family events, inviting him to every activity. He never came.
The last summer reunion the family traveled to the Lake Inn. On the final night of the reunion, a campfire was lit near the lake. Ghost stories were told. Then, Katy’s husband brought out night sky lanterns. There were enough lanterns that each individual family was designated their own light. As the lanterns were lit and floated up over the lake, that family would silently place all their burdens, cares and worries on the lantern and let them float away.
The busy chatter and laughter stopped suddenly when the first lantern was launched. They watched in wonder as the cares and burdens were lifted and carried away before disintegrating harmlessly into the lake. One by one the lanterns floated up, up and away leaving everyone teary and awestruck on this perfect night.
In the end, there was one extra lantern.
“To Derrick,” Katy said softly. And watched as the final lantern floated away.