LETTERS TO SPINE
Benjamin was waiting for me on the verandah. My seven-year-old brother sat with our father at an old wooden table, one hand cupping his chin while the other lay on the large suitcase beside him. His eyes, quiet and blue, watched as I pulled my jeep into the pine-fringed drive. He had dressed perfectly for today's rainfall, his yellow poncho and matching boots splashes of vivid color in the drizzling morning. He was even wearing a bright yellow beanie to match.
When I stepped out of my car and ascended the verandah's creaky steps, Benjamin began to squirm with excitement. Immediately, I struck by how much he had changed in the past couple weeks. His cheeks had a hollow quality about them. The shadows beneath his eyes appeared dense and permanent. His warm, peach-colored complexion was gone, replaced by a pale alabaster shade that almost made him glow in the rainy gloom. Nonetheless, his personality was just as bubbly as ever; it was only his physical appearance that had changed since I'd seen him last.
"Mirandaaa!" Benjamin cheered. He shuffled towards me with a strange, jerky gait. I scooped him up and kissed his nose, trying to ignore how light he felt in my arms.
"Ooh, I like your beanie," I commented with a smile.
"Dad got it for me," Benjamin boasted. "It's the best ever!"
"Oh, absolutely. All this yellow makes you look quite handsome."
While Benjamin snuggled into my neck, his soft cheek grazing my collarbone, I looked across the verandah at my father, Scott Cooper. A man who carried the air of constant worry and weariness stared back at me. Even though he didn't want to part from his ailing son, we both knew it would be best to fulfill Benjamin's wish to visit his grandfather this season - especially while he was still well enough to travel. There was so little time left as it was. Everything was fading too quickly before our eyes, like morning mist vanishing beneath the dawn's light.
"Morning, Dad," I said, my voice rising in the rainy quiet.
"Good morning, Miranda." My father managed a thin smile in my direction before nodding at Benjamin. "He refused to wait inside. He was far too excited. We haven't been out here for long, though. Just about five minutes or so. You pulled up just in time."
"Excellent." I looked down at Benjamin. "You ready to go, B? You ready for this adventure?"
He nodded and climbed down from my arms. "Yes! Let us go!"
"You have everything, right?" my father addressed me. "Do you need anything else? Money for food, perhaps?"
"No, I'm all set."
"Thanks for taking him, Miranda. I would, but-"
"I know. You're busy with work."
"I can't wait to see Grandpa!" Benjamin proclaimed, clutching at the handle of his suitcase. The thing was far too heavy for him, so I scooped it up and walked it to the car. After placing the luggage in the trunk, I glanced back at the verandah to see my father and brother exchanging goodbyes, the rain falling softly from the eaves around them. They hugged for what felt like a lifetime; my father just didn't want to let go, it seemed. I returned to them just as they released each other. I made to take Benjamin's hand, but before I did, my father pulled me to one side.
"I left a list in his suitcase that details his daily medications," he said. "Make sure he takes the prescribed doses on time. And remember that he has an appointment with his neurologist in Seattle in three days. Three days. All right, Miranda?"
I nodded. "Don't worry. I'll make sure everything runs smoothly."
"I certainly hope so. Say hello to your grandfather and Micah for me."
I smiled and reached out to hold Benjamin's hand. He grinned up at me, revealing several missing baby teeth. Together we walked carefully to the car while our father leaned against one of the verandah's pillars, watching us. Benjamin clambered into the passenger's seat, raincoat and rain boots squeaking on the seats. He was practically bursting with excitement. As we began to the drive, and my father's rain-washed home disappeared behind us, he fell into nonstop chatter. Even though he sometimes slurred and stumbled over his words, I was still able to understand what he was saying. He rambled on about this and that: how he wanted to be a firefighter, what he'd eaten for breakfast, what he'd found in the garden yesterday, how his last MRI had gone, how hospitals weren't scary anymore, what he'd do when we arrived at our grandfather's house.
The rain lightened as we sped west on the interstate. Like Benjamin, I was also excited to see our grandfather as well as our older brother, Micah. The last time I'd visited them had been nearly five years ago. Now that I was living in Seattle, I was busier than ever with college, work, and the chaos of city life. Consequently, I had little time to spend with my family. But that was going to change now that I had a couple months to spend with the people I loved the most. If I was certain about one thing, it was that this oncoming winter would be a memorable one.
My grandfather lived in a tiny, rainy, seaside town known as Berg Harbor, where a forest of sail and fishing boats sat huddled in the bay, and the air carried a dense mixture of salt and cedar. The downtown area was small and quaint, with locally owned shops that included bookstores, seafood restaurants, and organic groceries. The wharves smelled of fresh-caught salmon and always harbored cheerful fishermen, while rolling blue-gray waves slithered along beaches of sand and stones. It was true that Berg Harbor had a fresh green beauty about it; the steep hills blooming with evergreens sloped down to meet sheer cliffs and flat shores, and sometimes, after a long rainy spell, everything beneath the trees carried a lovely, jade-colored tint.
As my little brother and I drove through the town, I could not help but gaze at my surroundings in earnest. Berg Harbor, after all, was a quiet place that held many of my childhood memories. There was the jetty, battered by waves as cold and gray as steel, and the Blue Docks, which were cluttered with the usual hoard of fishermen. I could see the men with their rods and gear, clearly eager to make a catch on the cloudy day. The downtown streets seemed relaxed and peaceful, settled beneath November's passive chill. With each familiar sight I passed, I found myself thinking more and more about the time that had flown. It seemed so strange that my last visit had been ten years ago, several days after my eleventh birthday. The gap between that past visit and the present one was enough to make my head spin.
The road to the beach house was dusted with sand and fringed by tall, towering pines. As we pulled down the drive, Benjamin repeatedly exclaimed, "Wow!" at each and every thing we passed. I smiled at him.
"You're going to love it here," I said. He gave an eager nod in response before squashing his face against the window.
The house sat at the end of the sandy road and within a few yards of the coursing sea. It was a small, two-storied structure swathed in green shadows made by the surrounding hemlocks. A wooden deck with a stainless steel railing wrapped around the entire house. When I pulled into the drive, I turned off the engine and stepped out into the cold, briny air. As I did so, two tall shapes emerged from the open garage. There was a flash of a blue flannel shirt, and suddenly I found my body being crushed beneath one of my older brother's bear hugs. Micah certainly hadn't changed a bit. He was still tall and lean, with sharp eyebrows and even sharper blue eyes. When he released me, and I began to massage my sore ribs, he grinned and said, "About time you arrived. I was beginning to think you'd weren't going to show."
"I wouldn't miss this trip for the world. How've you been, Micah?"
"Pretty good. And you?"
I gave him a small smile. "I could be better."
Micah's liveliness began to fade. "How is he?"
"He's fine." But the words were too much of a lie.
We turned to see Benjamin hurrying towards us, moving as fast as his little legs could carry him. "Benjamin! Oh my god, it's Benjamin bud!" Micah exclaimed, bounding forward. He scooped up his little brother by the underarms and spun him around once. While Benjamin squealed with joy, I moved forward to greet my grandfather. A tall, quiet man who essentially resembled an aged version of Micah, Jack Cooper had windy gray hair and a clear ocean gaze that reminded me of colored sea-glass. Like always, he was dressed in casual attire that certainly suited his personality - sandals, sweatpants, and an oversized sweatshirt. He had always been a laidback man, preferring to ride the ocean waves instead of focusing on reality and its troubles, and that was why I liked him so much.
After I hugged my grandfather, he rumpled up my hair with a wrinkled hand. "Good to see you, Miranda," he said, his voice as deep and serene as the ocean he surfed in. It was this voice that used to tell me bedtime stories when I was child, and I was relieved to hear it in person once again. "It's been quite some time since I've seen you last, hasn't it?"
"Much too long," I agreed. But I added, "I'm very happy to be back here."
"And I'm glad to have you." Jack inclined his head and gave a crooked grin. "You and the little guy. Maybe not Micah, though. I wish Micah would vamoose. He's been living with me for six years now, and I've realized that I really, really can't stand him."
I chuckled before observing, "Nothing's changed." My eyes traced the small wooden fence blooming along the spacious green lawn, the wide bay windows fringed by white shutters, the deck coated with sand, surfboard leashes, and seashells.
"Yeah, I prefer it that way," Jack said. "Sometimes change can be too much. Especially for someone like me."
"Still surfing everyday?"
"You know it. A day out of the ocean is like hell for me. Even if it's flat, and there are zero waves, I need to be in it. Call it my kind of therapy."
"Grandpa!" Benjamin came sprinting to his grandfather now, huffing and puffing with his raincoat turning him into a tiny yellow blur.
"Benjamin, slow down," I called, panicking. But it was too late. In his haste, my little brother tripped and stumbled to his knees on the pavement. I was about to help him up, but before I could move an inch, Benjamin launched himself on his toes again and continued towards Jack. The kid had taken quite a harsh tumble, but he didn't even look the least bit fazed. "Grandpa!" he cheered brightly. "Did you see me fall?"
"I did, Benj You know, you've gotten a lot bigger since the last time I saw you. And a lot clumsier, too."
"I've probably grown ten whole feet! Huh, Grandpa? Huh?"
"I think you're right," Jack said with an easy smile. "I'm impressed."
"Do you like my beanie?"
"Of course I do. It's sharp. Did your Dad get it for you?"
"Yeah! I like it lots."
"So do I, kid."
Micah appeared by my side, saying, "Well, no use standing out in the cold." He gestured towards the house. "Shall we?"
The beach house was exactly the same as I had remembered. It was small and clean, books neat in their shelves, wetsuits hanging on hooks by the backdoor. The floors were paneled with glossy wood and the huge windows showed a murky gray sea rolling just outside. Jack's favorite surfboard - the board that won him the second place in the Mavericks Surfing Tournament in 1979 - gleamed on the mantle above the fireplace. I suddenly envied Micah for moving in with our grandfather. After all, who wouldn't want to live in an enigmatic house with a surfing legend and a beautiful ocean vista?
"I see you're still impressed by the sheer awesomeness of my living quarters," Jack commented, looking amused.
"Our living quarters," Micah put in.
Jack rolled his eyes. "Good Lord, don't remind me." Turning to me, he asked, "What do you think, Miranda? Pretty slick, huh?"
"Pretty slick indeed," I murmured, still gazing around.
"Bet it makes you want to ditch Seattle forever," Micah said smugly.
"It's not that slick," I lied.
"And how about you, little Benjamin? What do you think?"
Benjamin looked beside himself. "Awesome!" he proclaimed.
"Just wait till you see the backyard - c'mon." While Micah took Benjamin out back to show him the orchard as well as Jack's surfboard shed, I returned to the car to retrieve Benjamin's luggage as well as mine. I brought Benjamin's suitcases into the first floor guestroom and unpacked all his things, making sure they were neat and organized. Then I lugged my own bags up to the second floor room where I usually stayed. Jack knew this had always been my favorite place in the entire house, which was why he had always set it aside for my visits. It was the only room on the second story, besides the adjacent bathroom and a loft Jack used for a spare office, so I had plenty of space for myself up there.
Tired from the drive, I decided to lie on the bed and give my eyes a brief rest. I ended up falling into a very strange and very real dream: I was standing in a dark, still meadow that stretched as far as the eye could see. The grass was colorless, each blade a varying shade of gray. White fog drifted all around me and blurred the distant hills. The feeling of desolation, of loneliness, that filled me like cold water. I started walking through the meadow, searching for someone. But there was nothing. There was nobody. Then the earth tilted beneath my toes, and I woke on my bed.
Dizzy, I put my head to my forehead, the daylight sharp and stinging in my eyes. Benjamin's voice drifted through the hall, calling my name. He appeared in my room moments later, shouting, "Miranda, Micah's making pancakes. Come on!"
I grinned at him. "Well, let's get some before he decides to eat them all." I took Benjamin's hand and walked him downstairs. We found Jack and Micah in the kitchen preparing a late brunch. Micah was making a batch of blueberry pancakes while Jack tossed a lush green salad in one of the largest bowls I had ever seen. I watched my grandfather throw in the vinaigrette dressing before turning to see Micah poorly flip his pancake. The batter sprayed everywhere while the pancake, absolutely mutilated now, landed halfway off the griddle. I resisted the urge to laugh as I sidled up to him. "Need some help?"
"No," Micah said stubbornly, "I've got this under control."
"I can see that." I pointed to the pile of lopsided mush now resting on the steaming griddle. "Funny, though, I thought pancakes are supposed to be circular."
"They are," Jack grunted from the salad bowl. "Kid can't cook for sh-" He glanced at Benjamin, who was sitting innocently at the oak table, and grinned. "Never mind. He just can't cook."
Micah, looking deeply disgruntled, waved his spatula through the air. "Come on, guys. They're a work in progress, jeez. Have a little faith." I laughed and sat down at the table while Benjamin began explaining to me, in great detail, about the beach below the house. He even reached into his pocket and withdrew several tiny seashells and a single piece of glittering blue sea-glass. I had yet to visit the beach today but I knew I would do so in do time. I just wanted to get settled in and relax first. Looking at my family, I couldn't feel happier to be here. I had my brothers, my grandfather, the beach, and the quiet, verdant serenity that came with Berg Harbor. Then I looked at Benjamin, sitting in his chair with the beanie that obscured his shaved head, and that happiness faded, like cold watercolor bleeding across paper.