Today, a dark afternoon in February, on the way home from her job as a hotel housekeeper, Catherine goes into the 7-Eleven and buys her brother John’s favourite candy: Junior Mints. She checks her hands for obvious grime before reaching into the box for five mints. That’s the rule, five per serving. She isn’t counting calories or points or carbs. Five at a time means she can leave the box alone for the rest of her walk home, which means she is free to watch for waxwings.
The waxwings always appear in February on the coast, when the berries of the holly trees glow red against the daily gloom. But Catherine hasn’t seen one this year and it’s nearly March. She’s always thought of March as Martyr, when it’s shortened to Mar., on account of Lent and the way she used to feel giving up the things she loved. She never understood how it worked: if you offered your suffering up to Jesus, did it really make Him happy? As she walks along, she can hear the Junior Mints jumping in their box, safe in her purse. God doesn’t get her candy anymore. But she still believes in some things the Bible talks about, like the Golden Rule and miracles.
Because of this, Catherine looks in open windows—mostly at dusk—in case John’s inside one of the houses she passes. She rescued a stray dog once, brought him into her suite where he sat on the couch, staring out the window while she called Animal Control. Five minutes later, a man on a bicycle spotted the dog from the road and came knocking. It turned out that the spaniel lived three houses down; Catherine had thought he was lost when he’d only been on a little walkabout. Still, the man was happy to have him back. He still says hello to her when they pass on the sidewalk.
Maybe John, her missing brother, has lost his memory, or has just gone out for a wander. Maybe he’s in a kitchen nearby, washing dishes, and she will see him from the street.
Catherine knows she is well-loved at work, even though people might think she’s a bit naïve. She carries her water in a glass honey jar and wears suede boots in the winter. She buys lottery tickets, picking numbers based on ages she’s loved most, years she had the best times of her life, which leaves out, naturally, thirteen and twenty-one, as well as all the numbers beyond twenty-six, because she isn’t there yet. At thirteen, she had terrible acne and the largest breasts of anyone in school, and even friends she’d known since preschool stopped hanging out with her. She spent that whole year helping the librarian at lunch and the kindergarten teacher after school; she was particularly good at cutting out hearts, freehand, no fold down the middle to ruin them. And snowflakes, too.
At twenty-one, she lost John, the person who had loved her despite, and because of, and anyway. He used to play around with her name, calling her Cattail and Catkin, Catapult or Catbird, and it was as if he gave off oxygen, like a tree, because any time she spent near him made her feel more alive. With no parents left except the kind they visited in the cemetery, now and then, they’d been alone together against the world.
The police gave up on the search for him years ago. John went missing when he was her age, twenty-six, and now he would be thirty-one, and every day she sends her thoughts out to him with a coating of light attached, so he can see them and follow their beacon home.
Where are the waxwings this year? The hummingbirds are plentiful, making the air buzz, and robins with their cocky attitude, and sparrows everywhere. All of the regular birds are abundant, and therefore boring. She wants exotic, rare; she is a speciesist when it comes to birds.
Once, when she’d needed it, she’d lived in a hospital at the edge of the Fraser estuary, and the only birds that had caught her attention were the visitors, the fancy accidentals that should not have been there. A Whooper swan. A Stellar’s Sea eagle. An American Avocet. A Prothonotary Warbler. Oh yeah, she’s all about the bling, she thinks, which is a laugh. Her boots are leaking, her umbrella sags on one side and her scarfless neck is cold and bare. Fancy, indeed.
The search continues into March and April, a daily ritual for Catherine despite the warming temperatures and the abundance of so many other lovely birds. She needs that waxwing, its crest an elegant variation to so many round, predictable heads, because sighting it would mean that her brother is fine. That’s what she’s told herself every year: the waxwing is a soldier, back from war, and John is lost in action, in another kind of war altogether.
Oh, the hero’s welcome she’ll give him, the celebrity he’ll become!
Once a week, as she has for all these years, Catherine walks past the bus station to check for John. She saw him there once, before he disappeared, on a day when he hadn’t known she was following him, and she’d watched as he did his thing. His thing was a secret, she knew that much, and she was no snitch! Still, when he looked up from talking to a blonde woman in ripped pants, after giving her a small packet and taking rolled-up cash, his face had turned red beneath a blank and empty stare when he caught her watching.
As usual, he’s never at the station.
In October, Catherine begins a new kind of search. She’s been dreaming of black things, gigantic crows and umbrellas and bruises. She has not seen a waxwing all year.
Catatonic. Catastrophic. Cataclysmic.
She begins an exhaustive search, obituaries from when he first disappeared, or as far as Google will take her. John Bryan, she types. Dead. Death of John Bryan, suddenly. And, Young man dies tragically. She reads of young men dying tragically all over the place, even one with the same name as her John, who met his end by driving off the ferry dock. But the photos are not of her brother. The details are all wrong. The drugs are new ones—some hidden in other drugs, so that you don’t even know you’re taking them until it’s all over, just like that! They say it’s a peaceful way to go, but that’s no consolation.
She turns to searching for his description next, in case he isn’t dead, only at large. In case he might be wanted by someone else. She enters: Small-eared man. Afraid of rats. Double-crowned. Voice sweet, like cinnamon. Nothing comes up.
Then, after dinner, there’s a face at the patio door. A huge orange cat wants in, and after Catherine opens the door he lets her pick him up. She can feel him purring. He’s got a name tag, unlike the dog she rescued, and while she calls the phone number on the tag, Dexter, the cat, gets a can of tuna.
The woman on the other end of the line is ecstatic. Her baby has been missing for twenty-four hours. When she arrives a few minutes later, she lifts Dexter from Catherine’s arms, and it feels like he doesn’t want to leave her. Catherine begins to cry. The woman throws twenty bucks on the coffee table for her effort and makes a quick exit.
Caterwauling. Catapult. Catalyst.
After they leave, Catherine makes a sign to fit into the front window. Welcome Home, John! it says in bubbly letters, coloured like the rainbow. She stands on the lawn to admire it, to make sure it can be read from the sidewalk, and then she strings up white Christmas lights around the window frame, just to give it more punch.
A few days pass and the sign begins to buckle; a few more and the letters fade. Neighbours start to look away when she meets them on the sidewalk, once they’ve asked about the homecoming. Still the sign remains in the window. Still the lights shine, attracting moths and dust.
Catherine begins to leave open cans of tuna on the porch, and Junior Mints, and bowls of bright red berries she gathers from the park on her walks home, just in case. She sits on the front steps at dusk, and sings songs about coming home, even a hymn she’s heard at the church around the corner about putting your burden down. Come to me, it says. All who are weary.
John was tired all the time before he disappeared. She knew that could mean low iron, but didn’t that apply mostly to women? It could have been her; she remembers her mother saying that she was exhausting, on more than one occasion. But that was back when she ran the circuit, making a race track of the path from living room to hallway to kitchen to dining room, round and round. That was back when she had to sit on her hands to keep from picking at the wallpaper, or the label on the HP sauce, or whatever scab was ready.
She’s tired, now, too; tired of waiting, and the waiting makes her tired.
At work one afternoon, Catherine crawls into one of the beds she’s just made. She takes off her uniform and slides between the cool sheets and frees her long hair from its plastic clip. She turns to the window and sees her brother’s face in the clouds above the park. She closes her eyes.
When she opens her eyes awhile later—did she fall asleep?—there’s a man, right in front of her, in a uniform.
“Catherine,” he says. “Are you okay?”
“John!” she cries, and leaps out of bed to embrace him. “You’re really here!”
The man looks toward the door. “Better come,” he calls, and her co-worker Shirley bustles in.
“Ryan from engineering’s going to get you home, Cat,” Shirley says. “He’ll take care of you.”
Catherine is still hugging him, unable to let him go. “I am home,” she says. “In my brother’s arms. Shirley, this is John.”
Then she is in his arms, fully, because he’s picked her up like a bride; they move from the hotel room down the hall, into the elevator and out through the staff doors to a blue Jeep, where she’s set gently down in the back seat.
“No air bags in the front?” she asks. “That’s why I’m back here?”
“Sure,” Ryan says. “Safe and sound.”
They drive the short way to her apartment—without her even needing to give directions. Of course, he knows where she lives!
“Where have you been?” Catherine asks, calmly. She doesn’t want to upset him or scare him away.
He’s pulling up outside of her home. “Let’s get you inside,” he says. “Then we can talk.”
He wants to tell her! And look, he’s smiling at the sign in her window, even though it’s barely legible anymore, giving her a thumbs-up.
When they’re inside, she gives him another hug. “I can’t believe you’re here!” She holds him at arms’ length. “Promise me you’ll stay?”
“I’m here,” he says. “I’m not going anywhere.”
Photo by Anders Nord on Unsplash