I looked up at the photo in Tom’s hand.

It was washed out like the saturation had been turned down, but that’s how pictures looked back then. It was a Christmas party. A tree with tinsel and lights stood in the background. Mom and Dad held cups in their hands, laughing. They looked young and tan. Aunt Debbie stood next to Mom, wearing Daisy Duke shorts that would not look good on her now. I’d wonder why Debbie wore shorts to a Christmas party, but that seems like something she’d do. On the other side of Dad was Angel Soft, a younger Angel Soft. He seemed a little fuller, but his cheekbones still jutted out of his face like a malnourished runway model. He wore a red turtleneck with black pants and had his hand on Dad’s shoulder, laughing with my dad. He laughed with my dad at one point. This picture proved it. I took the photo from Tom and turned it over. The back had faded cursive scrawled across in blue ink. “Lolly’s Christmas party!” That’s my mom’s name. Her real name’s Laurel, but people she grew up with call her Lolly. The second line of writing said, “Deb, Lolly, Jay, Pauly – December 19, 1977.” So they called Angel Soft Pauly. Pauly and Jay. “Were you pretty good friends with the guy?” I asked, looking back at Uncle Tom. Tom bunched his mouth to one side. “Debbie and I both knew him pretty well. He’d come home for Thanksgiving sometimes while he lived with your dad.” Tom rubbed his nose between his thumb and forefinger and snorted in like he was going to hawk a loogie, but he didn’t. Aunt Debbie would’ve heard it from wherever she was. She kept this house cleaner than her own teeth. “He sort of fell out with the family though,” Tom said, swallowing. I tried not to think about phlegm sliding down his esophagus. “Stopped seeing us when work got him going in different directions than Jay.” I handed Tom the picture. “He seemed pretty angry when he talked to you at the cemetery.”

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Tom didn’t move at all, but his eyes stared somewhere between me and the picture in his hands. He wasn’t looking at anything. He was thinking. “Are you okay, Tom?” Simone asked, touching his arm. Tom looked up at Simone, then at me, smiling a little. “You guys want some lemonade or iced tea or something?” It was still rather cool outside because summer doesn’t really start in Oregon until mid-July, but Simone nodded and I did, too. “Yes, please,” I said, watching him drop the photo back in the box and walk towards the kitchen. I looked at Simone. “He’s hiding something,” I whispered. Simone nodded. “But you can’t just ask him. You gotta get it out of him so he doesn’t realize you’ve gotten it out of him.” “I know,” I said. I stood up and peered around the wall to the kitchen. Tom’s back was to us. He was rooting through the fridge. I hurried over to the photo box and pulled out the pictures, putting them neatly on the coffee table so I could put them back the same way. Then I slid my fingers under the letters, feeling the thin cardboard bottom of the shoebox graze against my cuticles and knuckles. “You want raspberry or strawberry lemonade?” Tom’s voice shot through the kitchen doorway. I straightened, feeling my breath catch in my mouth and slap against my teeth like a choppy tide. I turned around, hiding the box behind my torso. Tom’s head was all that was visible from behind the refrigerator door. “Deb likes to keep drinks on deck in case anybody stops by.” My fingers shook against the box, knocking some of the pictures off the table and onto the floor. “Strawberry sounds good.” I glanced at Simone, raising my eyebrows. “Mm? Strawberry?” Simone nodded. “Actually, if I could have raspberry, that’d be wonderful.”

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Tom disappeared again into the fridge. “Strawberry and raspberry. All right….” Simone knelt next to me by the table, collecting the photos. They turned in every direction. “Do you remember if they all faced one way?” Simone whispered. I shook my head. “Just stack them together.” I took the heap of letters from the box, feeling the flexible thickness of paper inside paper. Weighing the pile in my hands, I frowned. “We need to replace the weight,” I said. “He’ll notice.” Simone glimpsed at the box, holding pictures in one hand and brushing hair out of her face with the other. She looked at the couch, next to where I was sitting. “What about your notebook?” Simone aimed her chin near my knees. The little spiral-bound book looked up at me, almost nodding as I shifted my weight on the couch cushion. “What if he looks through it?” I asked. “Come on,” Simone said. “He hasn’t opened this in years. And if he does look inside, he’ll probably just look at the pictures.” She leaned over the coffee table and grabbed the book, flipping the cover back so that blank pages no faced outward toward us. “You’ll have white paper under the pictures, so it looks exactly the same.” She said. I stared hard at the book. “Those are my notes.” Sounds of ice clinking glass rang from the kitchen. “All righty,” Tom said, closing the refrigerator door. My eyes burned. I blinked a second and looked at Simone. The bones in my fingers felt like hollow straws that would snap and break if I moved. Simone dropped the notebook on the bottom of the shoebox, taking the letters from me and shoving them in her cloth bag on the floor. Tom’s boots clunked across the kitchen floor. Simone

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scattered the pictures over the blank pages on the bottom of the box, keeping a few in her hand and displaying them for me to see. “What you got there?” Tom bent over the box, setting the glasses of pink and red juice by our hands. I could feel the cold from the cup spreading like mist onto my skin. Simone held up the Christmas picture. “Is this Debbie?” she asked, smiling like nothing was wrong or strange or different from when Tom left. She pointed to the Daisy Dukes on Debbie in the picture and took a drink of lemonade. Simone looked at me, nodding. I felt her knee hit my shin and I took a drink from my glass, too. Tom laughed. “Yeah, she liked to show off those gams of hers.” Simone laughed, too. So I laughed. We all laughed. “Well,” I said, putting down my glass. “Simone has to go to her grandparents’ house, so we’d better go.” Tom scratched his cheek, right next to his mustache. “Oh, so soon?” “Yeah.” Simone shrugged. “We just thought we’d stop by on the way.” Tom smiled. “Well, I’m glad you did. Good to see you holding up well, Henry.” Simone was so good at lying with nonchalance. We stood up. Simone grabbed her back, keeping the top pinched shut as she put it over her shoulder. I opened the door and walked outside, smelling fertilizer and feeling thick air on my face, the air that meant it was going to rain. “I’ll keep these drinks cold for you.” Tom waved. “Come by again, soon.” When Simone and I got back in the van, we waited a moment. Simone pulled out the letters and put them on my lap, keeping them below the dashboard in case Tom was looking out the window.

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I ran my fingers over the broken seals on the backs of the envelopes, feeling scraps of ripped paper shift under my thumbs. I could sense Simone looking at me. “You going to read them now?” she asked. I hugged the envelopes close to me, feeling my heart ripple through my t-shirt. “No,” I said, nodding toward the living room window where Tom stood waving. “Just go.”

Chapter 6 – Jay and Pauly

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