The streets were a mixture of tar black and weak coffee brown, slushy and nasty; the hard packed snow rose in three foot high banks on either side. The first strong winter storm had just blown through, leaving white blanketed lawns and questionably safe roads in its aftermath. Natalie Thomas braved the dangers of this wintry weather for one reason: it was her 28th birthday. Technically, it was her twin sister Lydia's birthday as well, but she tried not to think about that as she carefully drove her grey Chevy Corsica across town to her parents' house. She felt ages had passed since she'd seen them, July at least (in that department store where she would have actively avoided them had she not literally ran into her mother) and it was now mid-November. The anxiety of her impending visit plagued her all morning. The awkward, tense silences she could almost deal with, but her mother's cold indifference gripped her heart and choked it.
Natalie's thoughts drifted involuntarily to her twin as she drove her car carefully around the blind curve on the road of her childhood home. Lydia was younger than her by two minutes. Those two minutes seemed to have made a significant difference in them growing up. Natalie was always so overprotective of Lydia, although they fought constantly. But if anyone else said a cross word to the other then they were in for a world of hurt. The two of them were close, as siblings often are, but being twins, they had a connection. They could communicate with simple looks and gestures; they hardly needed words, and it frustrated every outsider that watched them and couldn't understand. It was so rare; Natalie knew she would never find it with anyone else. Natalie smiled momentarily, pulling into her parents' driveway, as she recalled the insane number of chalk drawings they'd covered the pavement with. Their finest works of art demolished in minutes by the ever changing New England weather. They did everything together when they were younger. If the school tried to place them in separate classes they would either put up a monster of a fight or they would just sneak out to be in the same class anyway. The school gave up after a couple years. Natalie smiled again. Sometimes being back home conjured happy memories.
Unfortunately, her moment was shattered when the front door opened to reveal a thin, tall woman with graying hair emerge from within: her mother. Georgia Thomas used to be a kind and gentle woman. She had never spoken a harsh word to anyone and never ceased to smile the minute she saw her daughters. But things were different now. Natalie's heart sank when she saw her. Her gray hair was tied back into a bun, without a strand out of place; she wore black from head to toe, even a black winter coat. Her black leather gloved hands were carefully cradling a bouquet of vibrant crimson roses, wrapped in clear cellophane. She entered the car with barely a hello, as elegantly as anyone Natalie had ever seen. It was like watching royalty; if it hadn't been Natalie's ancient Corsica she was gracing her presence to, it very well could have been. Her father always refused to come on this annual outing. He stayed rooted in front of the TV and virtually carried on with life as usual.
The silence lingered on, thickening the air with every passing minute. Natalie was the loud and fidgety twin, as opposed to Lydia's quieter and more reserved attitude, so being quiet for longer than a few minutes was an Everest-level struggle. The leg not controlling the pedals was in constant motion, slightly jiggling the car when it sat idle at stop signs and red lights. Her mother used to berate her for it, but now she hardly noticed it. She just sat, staring out the window, as if she was simply an observer.
To help pass the time, Natalie compared her raggedy car to the elegance that was her mother. The lining along the inside roof of the car was drooping in places where the glue had dissipated; one spot in particular nearly brushed the top of Georgia's head. She used to loudly complain about it. The dashboard and car doors were covered in scratches and nicks, no one knew exactly where they'd come from. Her windshield wipers never quite worked as normally as they should have, always stopping and starting long after the switch had been flipped. Natalie thought her car had character; Lydia often poked fun at it for falling apart.
They were still a good 20 minutes from their destination and Natalie knew she couldn't last that long without saying something.
"So, the weather is fairly decent today, don't you think?"
"It's cold and dreary. Probably going to snow again soon. And my arthritis is acting up," Georgia's reply only solidified Natalie's theory: her mother refused to be optimistic about anything anymore.
"Yeah, alright, today sucks, but can we talk about something…anything, please?" Natalie kept her gaze firmly set on the road in front of her, her hands never straying from the 10 and 2 position on the steering wheel; she'd recently become very cautious when it came to driving, especially when she felt she was emotionally compromised.
She could talk to her mother, but sometimes it was so hard to look at her. She looked like Lydia. Natalie favored her father's looks. They were fraternal twins, so being completely different wasn't really a surprise. But they completed each other. Yin and Yang. At least she could look in the mirror and not worry about seeing her sister's reflection. Her mother didn't really have that luxury, which explains why she let her rich chocolate brown hair fade to gray (she'd been dying it for years); at least something would look different.
"I bought your sister some roses. A lady deserves roses on her birthday," Georgia finally said after a while, her voice low and stiff, as her fingers gently gripped the cellophane.
Natalie glanced at the bundle of flowers. "Yeah, I suppose you're right." She made no comment about the fact that it was her birthday too and that she saw only one bouquet. Her hands tightened on the wheel. "They're beautiful, mom."
"I know she preferred lilies, but they're hard to come by this time of year," Georgia replied without acknowledging her daughter's compliment.
Natalie still had trouble with just how much her mother had changed. Before the accident, Georgia would have filled the car with unnecessary chatter, always going on about what the neighbors were doing or who she'd seen just the other day at the market. It was widely believed that she abhorred silence but she never admitted to it. The twins used to simply look at each other and smirk, a shared trait that wordlessly mocked and adored their mother. Natalie would give anything to have moments like that again.
"They are, I haven't seen any recently myself. But roses are fine mom, she loved those too. And you know how she loved the red ones."
This was how the little conversation they forced typically went: questions followed by generic answers. Nothing overtly personal. Lydia didn't have an overabundance of love for flowers, so this was an unsentimental topic. A safe one. That's all their relationship was anymore, safe. To an outside observer, it was heartbreaking, but to them, to Georgia, it was all that they had left.
Silence reigned again, but this time the tension was somewhat lessened, like someone had deflated an overfilled balloon. Natalie could handle this kind of quiet, at least now she didn't feel like she was suffocating. She saw her final turn up ahead and her stomach clenched into a tight knot. She hadn't been here in a long time; since this time last year. She went from talking to her sister everyday to only talking to her once a year. It was pathetic, but she couldn't handle much more. Thinking about Lydia was sometimes far too painful and so she avoided it for the most part until this time each year.
Natalie approached the final stop sign at the crossroads to her destination; left would take her through the large iron gates, flanked on either side by flagstone pillars; right would take her far away, back towards town and life. She took a deep breath to clear the light sting that began to form behind her eyes and turned, the frame of her car groaning at the speed bump just past the entrance. Natalie wasn't naïve enough to think that her mother's sharp intake of breath had anything to do with the harsh bump coupled with her car's ancient shocks. They passed headstone after headstone, many marginally the same: steely grey and polished to shine. The tops were coated in at least two inches of snow while loved ones slept beneath an untouched layer of white twice that deep.
Natalie slowed her car to a crawl as they came upon their row. This one was almost as nondescript as the others, but with one minor difference. A weeping willow stood at its center, its bare branches swaying without the prompting of wind, and Lydia Thomas waited for them just beneath it.
"Y-you go ahead, mom," Natalie winced at the emotional stutter. "I'll leave the car running for you."
Georgia unbuckled her seat belt, the cellophane bouquet crackling as she shifted. "There's no need to do that, you'll just drain your battery and then we'll never get back home." She exited the car without another word.
Natalie leaned her head back against the seat and blew out a breath that fanned the hair around her face. She knew this was going to be rough, but she didn't expect the hardest part to be dealing with her mother while biting her tongue against scathing retorts. She figured making her mad wouldn't really help their situation any. She glanced up to see that Georgia had already reached Lydia's headstone and placed the now unwrapped roses in front of it. She wanted to tear her gaze away, let her mother have this moment completely to herself, but her eyes were anchored to that spot. She watched as Georgia reached out a hand, bizarrely ungloved, and rested it against the stone. She trailed her fingers along the bold lettering, tracing each one of her name.
A wet trail made its way down Natalie's cheek before she realized she'd started crying. This moment, watching her mother at Lydia's graveside, brought to the surface a thought that she'd long ago squashed to near inexistence. She wasn't the only one to feel the raw, stinging injury of loss. Natalie may have lost a sister, but her mother and father had lost a child, and no parent should ever have to bury their child. She wiped at the tears that had followed the first until all that was left was a salty residue and prickly eyes. She wouldn't let her mother see her upset. She had to be strong; she couldn't expect to be taken care of.
Georgia made her way back to the car and Natalie got out quickly, avoiding immediately facing her. She heard the car door open and shut as she made her way back down the path her mother had just taken, the only footsteps marring the otherwise perfect snow. She reached the stone and placed her hand on it, mimicking the actions of her mother. She sank down to her knees, completely ignoring the dampness seeping through her jeans.
Lydia's headstone was so unlike the surrounding ones; it made a silent statement. Rather than muted grey, it was onyx, the color of the midnight sky, complete with glittering flecks to match the stars. Natalie smiled softly, remembering the fight she put up against her mother over the color of the stone. Her eyes drifted to the engraving:
Lydia Jane Thomas
Nov. 16, 1984 — Dec. 9, 2009
Beloved daughter sister and friend
Just three lines; three lines to sum up the life and death of Natalie's twin. It didn't seem like near enough. Where would you see that she loved music and to dance like no one was looking? Where would you see that she had a twin sister that loved her more than her next breath? Where would you see that her death was so sudden, so tragic, that her loved ones were still reeling from it?
Natalie broke, the tears squeezing her heart and the breath from her lungs. She brushed her fingers across the name. "Lydia…" she gasped, her throat tight. Her knees grew too stiff to maintain her position, so she instead moved to simply sit and try to put as much of her jacket underneath her as possible. As her eyes cleared somewhat, helped along by her ferocious wiping, she looked again at her sister's stone. She took a steadying breath.
"Lydia, I miss you…so, so much. Not a lot's changed since I talked to you last, 'course it's been a while. Sorry. Mom and dad are still frosty; the rest of the family doesn't even know how to be around us anymore. They all just keep this sympathetic smile on their faces and do their best to seem interested while they look for an escape. I wish I could be mad at you for leaving me alone here. But really, it's partially my fault that you're gone. Such a stupid fight. I just…didn't want to be without you, Lyd. We always said that we would stay together and you were leaving me for some stupid trip. Why did you have to drive while you were angry at me? Why couldn't you just go hit something like I did?"
Natalie stayed silent for a few minutes, letting the memories of that day wash over her; each one in perfect clarity. Natalie and Lydia in a screaming match. Doors slamming. A car starting and peeling out of the driveway. Not ten minutes later, getting the call that changed everything. That blind curve still had ice on it.
She shook her head, clearing the images away. Her gaze flicked briefly back to the car, she saw her mother staring resolutely ahead, a feat Natalie had been unable to accomplish.
"Lyd, I don't know what to do anymore. Mom and dad have shut me out. We…we're not even a family anymore. We're broken. And I don't think we can be fixed. I wish you were here. Apparently you held us together, more than anyone realized. You were always so good at getting through to them. Maybe you can help me with that now? Help me get through to her. She's like a shell, you wouldn't even recognize her, I swear."
She knew she'd been there a bit too long; she decided to stand and start to work the cold and stiffness from her limbs. It was then that her focus was drawn to the roses. In the monochromatic world that surrounded her, their scarlet petals stood out starkly, a vibrant splash of color against black and white. Natalie smiled. There was her sister, a spark of life that resonated with everyone that met her. Lydia may have been the quiet one, but she exuded the very joy of life from every pore. Here, in this silent realm, filled with oppressive death that darkened the soul, Lydia still shined.
Natalie had one last thing to do before she left her sister. She walked to the back of the gravestone and gazed at the engraved image that she further insisted upon. It was the only testament that she could think of that would demonstrate the bond they'd shared. Two distinctly feminine hands, joined by encircling pinkies: the universal sign of a pinky promise, the most sacred of promises. She pressed her hand against the image, relishing the feeling that another had briefly ghosted against hers. "I'll see you later, Lydia. Love you."
She trekked back to the car, feeling marginally better than when she'd first arrived, despite the wet patches on her jeans. She entered the welcoming heat of the car (what happened to draining the battery?) and sat smiling to herself for a moment before she buckled the seatbelt and threw the car into gear. With her improved mood, she could now sense the tension and depression that surrounded her mother like a dark aura. Natalie decided, as she left the cemetery, that things were going to change, even if she had to force them.
"I wish dad would come," Natalie refused to go back to their cold silence; they were going to talk and it was probably going to be painful.
Georgia shifted in her seat. "He can't handle it, Natalie. It's hard enough for him to see her pictures around the house," her tone was flat and lifeless.
"He doesn't get it, does he?" Natalie smacked the steering wheel for emphasis. "We're a family, we're supposed to stick together," now for the kicker, "Lydia wouldn't have wanted us to act like this."
"Natalie…" Georgia's voice was now decidedly colored in warning and judgment.
"I know, I know. I have no room to talk. But I came back. After the funeral, I just…there were too many people and I had to get away for a while. I needed to deal with things on my own and I figured maybe you guys did too. It just took me a little longer than expected."
"You were gone for two weeks Natalie," the accusation radiating from her words felt like a slap.
Natalie lowered her voice, as if being quiet would somehow get her point across better. "I had no idea what that time apart would do. I'm sorry I wasn't there, mom."
"Yes, you should be," another verbal slap. "You may have needed space, but we needed you. We'd already lost one daughter and it felt like we were losing another."
Natalie thought for a moment before speaking, her voice still quiet and timid, "So that's why you pretty much disowned me?"
"Oh don't be so dramatic, Natalie, we didn't disown you," this was the Georgia that Natalie remembered. The previous Georgia may have been kind but she was stern when necessary, usually when she thought her daughters needed a correction or two. It felt like progress.
"When I came back, neither you nor dad would say hardly a word to me. I was planning on staying home for a while so we could get back on our feet together, but I decided on going back to the apartment after I realized you didn't particularly want me there," the calmness was gone, replaced with the indignation she'd felt long ago that went unexpressed until now.
Her mother sighed. "Natalie, of course we wanted you there. We were both still grieving and, I'll admit, a little angry with you for leaving. But you were out the door again too quickly for us to work things out and from then on you were never around long enough to hold a proper conversation."
Rather than argue back against her mother, as she very much wanted to do, Natalie calmed herself down before speaking again. "You're right. I guess I kinda felt betrayed by you guys and rather than talk it out, I bailed. I'm sorry for that mom. I just want us to be a family again. I want to talk to you about everything, like we used to. I want us to get together for no reason at all. I want us to keep living, because Lydia would have wanted us to…and because I honestly don't know how I survived this long without you."
Georgia sniffled and Natalie took her eyes from the road for a moment to glance at her mother. She was smiling through her tears. "I want that too, baby."
Natalie returned the smile and they sat in companionable silence for the last couple of minutes left in their journey. As Natalie pulled back into her parents' driveway, Georgia spoke again, "Do you want to come in for a while? I'll be cooking dinner soon, your father and I would love for you to stay."
"Yeah, sure, I'd love to, mom," Natalie couldn't keep the smile from her face as she turned off the car and followed her mother inside. Her family had suffered a loss and suffered even more as they broke to pieces. But she could see the beginnings of hope as they slowly repaired the damage. Their relationship was still fragile, but no matter how broken it may have been, a part of it had always existed; now it was just a matter of strengthening it. They could be a family again, they could lean on each other, the way they should have from the start.