Emily took a deep breath and opened the door. Charles was inside already, next to the bed, holding a broom down in both paws like it would fly off without him. He looked up at her, startled, and began sweeping again. He had clearly been lost in thought.
“Hey,” he said, staring down at the floor. His long ears and whiskers drooped. He clutched the broom like a crutch.
“Hey,” she said, and stepped inside. The room was just the way it was the last time she left it; it was halfway between something lived in and something clinical. Mom’s scent was fighting for dominance with plastic, deodorant, medical equipment. The bed hadn’t been made, she noticed. If she looked close, she could see the imprint of a body in the folds of the sheets.
The thought made her eyes sting and her whiskers bristle the way they did when she inhaled powdered pepper, so she abruptly turned away and faced the far wall. Boxes were stacked there, only half-packed with mom’s things. Charles, as usual, hadn’t been careful. He always favored speed over efficiency. She took in the brown cardboard in front of the bland, pastel wallpaper and breathed. Focus on the problems, she told herself. She was going to have to be clinical to get through this.
“Is this everything?” She walked towards the boxes, pointing at them. Charles looked up from where he was sweeping and shrugged. “I would have thought she’d have more stuff than that.”
“There’s probably only a few things they would let her have. You know she was bad at the end.” He mumbled this straight at the floor, probably knowing her hearing was good enough to pick it up. She had to wonder if he had any friends who couldn’t hear as well as his family could. Probably not. At the slightest provocation he curled into himself and bristled. Grandma always joked that he should have been a hedgehog.
Emily sighed. She would have to manage the packing, and she would have to manage Charles. But that was good. She’d be too busy thinking about what she needed to do to think about anything else. Don’t look at the bed, she told herself, and you’ll be fine.
“Well, I’m going to make sure everything’s packed well before taping up the boxes. Not that I think you did a bad job!” She put her paws up as soon as she caught his glower. “It’s just that we want to make sure this stuff survives the trip to storage. Is there a clean spot on the floor I can set the boxes?”
Charles pointed to a spot on the floor that looked like there was a small gathering of dust bunnies. Brown fur rolled towards the edges of the wall like miniature tumbleweed. Emily sighed, and shook her head. She would have to sweep again once Charles was gone. That meant a longer time resolutely staring away from the bed, and not thinking about how that bed was her mother’s entire world for the last three months of her life.
She set one of the boxes on top of the floor and opened them; there was a collection of keepsakes littered on a field of crumpled newspaper, protected but haphazardly placed. In one corner was one of her frilled lizards, an animal she collected and loved. There was a note pad, with her spidery handwriting skittering across the surface. A deck of cards, an ashtray that had been cleaned, a framed picture of her and Charles. Each one of them brought back a memory that she didn’t feel like dealing with, a reminder that she would never see her again.
She heard sniffling, then looked to see Charles flop on the bed. He slumped, shoulders rounded, ears folded, whiskers drooped. It hit Emily that she was about to cry just before he did. “She’s gone,” he said, and then began to sob.
Emily felt herself walking over to her brother before she knew what she was doing. She sat next to him, put her arm around him, and he turned and really cried on her shirt. She felt all of the resistance drain out of her, the stress that was holding her together, all melted onto the sheets and the half-filled boxes of her mother’s life. Suddenly she was so, so tired.
She buried her face in the back of Charles’ head. Her breath caught in her throat, and the tears fell freely.