Summary: Oneshot. Dealing with the circle of life.
Every morning, Charlie loaded two 14 x 14 x 14 boxes into the trunk of his Prius. Two more fit in the back seat. The front passenger position was reserved for odds-and-ends, of which there was an apparently unending supply. He would pack the boxes in the evenings, sweating in the hot summer hours, finding them both endless and transient.
Most of the boxes were purchased – which is why he knew exactly what size they were. Sometimes he could score a box from school, when something was delivered to the Math & Sciences building and he was lucky enough to see it happen. If any time at all passed after the delivery, custodial staff would flatten the box for recycling. Charlie would sometimes muse, during the packing, how difficult it was to find a decent box nowadays. Once, he had unpacked a full case of laser paper just after it had been delivered, so that he could have the box. He had carted a-ream-at-a-time to every single office on the first floor, whether the Professor in it had requisitioned paper or not.
Most afternoons, he simply stopped at the Kinko's near campus and bought himself some boxes. Sometimes, he would add a roll of package tape, since he used so much putting the boxes together. That had been an unwelcome revelation, when this project began. He had found it somewhat embarrassing and oddly unnerving, when the clerk had handed him flat cardboard. "But I need a box," he had protested.
"Yeah," the teenager sniffed. "Dude, you kind-of cube it up, like this, see? Tape it good on the bottom, or you'll lose all your stuff. You want I should get you some tape?" Charlie had nodded silently, chagrined to think he had three doctorates and didn't know how to put together a box. He had gone through three rolls of package tape since then.
Every morning, he stopped at Goodwill, to drop the boxes off. Also, his odd passengers were donated: An electric typewriter, which even he had difficulty believing was an antique now; An ancient, gigantic, unwieldy box fan he recalled lying in front of as a young boy, before they got air conditioning. He had experienced some difficulty with the rocking chair, which nearly did not fit into the car. Finally, though, he had reclined the passenger seat fully and somehow wedged in the ornately-carved wooden monstrosity. (He never knew quite how he had managed the feat, and dock workers at Goodwill had to find a way to get it out again, while Charlie stood helplessly beside the boxes already stacked on the pavement and pulled at his ear in a gesture that reminded him of Larry and scared the crap out of him.)
Once begun, the job took on a life of its own and refused to be ignored. Although he was teaching full-time at the campus that summer, and still consulting, Charlie could not deny the boxes. He no longer had time for his personal research, or the occasional day hike, or any of the other distractions he had developed along the way. He barely kept food in the house. Even then, he would carry in one bag of groceries and pack out an entire box full of cookware he had decided he would never use. It was providential that Amita had taken the summer off from teaching, and was currently on an extended trip to India with her grandmother, getting in touch with her ancestors. Charlie didn't know what he would do with her if she was in L.A.
There was no time; and time was eternal.
He found it in the solarium.
His first reaction was surprise. During the last three weeks he had been in cobwebby corners of the attic and the musty basement room under the stairs, and he was not unnerved by anything he had found in those places. But this – this had been hiding in plain sight for so many years that he had ceased to register its presence. He grasped the small glass globe in one hand, tipping it to watch the snow swirl, and wondered what had changed; why he could see it now. He decided at last that his eyes had changed. He saw everything differently these days.
A memory played across his mind like a silent movie, and he felt the corner of his mouth tug up in a smile. He gripped the tiny winter scene a little tighter and spoke to the rapidly-emptying room. "I wish I could keep this," he said. "I really like this. Mom liked this. I remember when she bought it, the first winter we were at Princeton." The house did not answer, and Charlie felt a familiar weight settle on his shoulders. It was heavy, like a blanket, and it threatened to smother the flame of his soul.
Don stood in the doorway and regarded his brother silently for several minutes. He had been shocked at the condition of the house. He had not had a clue that all of this was going on. He saw Charlie on a regular basis. His brother was in the office at least once a week on a consultation, or they met for lunch; occasionally, dinner. Sure, Charlie was always slightly distracted and rushing off in the end as if desperately late for something, but there was nothing new there. Don found himself flabbergasted. Confused. Anxious.
Maybe, a little angry, even.
He swallowed back that part and crossed the few feet that separated them, disconcerted by the way his footsteps echoed in the room. Knees creaking a little, he lowered himself to sit next to Charlie on the floor. He eyed a half-full box in front of them. "What's going on, Charlie? Are you selling the house?"
Charlie jerked his head up, startled, and blinked a few times. When he recognized Don, he dropped his gaze to the globe again. "I don't know," he answered honestly. "Maybe. I have some boxes set aside with things you might want. Did you know your first baseball mitt was still in the basement?"
Don kept his voice reverently low, respectful of the memories held in this room…in Charlie's hand. "I'm not sure I understand," turned out to be the best response he could manage. "Where did everything go?"
Charlie nodded once, brisk and resolute. "Goodwill, mostly. It's time to clean things up, and let things go." He nodded again, and carefully reached out to place the globe into a corner of the box. "I should wrap that in something," he frowned. "Glass."
Don's hand actually brushed Charlie's as he reached to pluck the globe out again. "Don't," he said, pressing the warm sphere at his brother. "You should keep this."
Charlie sighed and fingered the glass. "I would like to," he admitted sadly. Somewhat hopefully he added, "It is small. Maybe just for a little while."
Don felt strangely defensive, as if he had to protect the little brother he knew from this unfamiliar incarnation beside him. "You can keep it all, Charlie. Whatever you want. You don't need to do this!" In the end, his voice was pleading.
Charlie placed the globe gently on the floor, petting it as if it were a cat for a while before he pulled his hand back and looked at Don. "I'm a grown-up," he informed him. "Not sure when that happened, myself. But I can't hide in this…this stuff…forever." He looked thoughtful, as if he were just considering his words for the first time himself. "It's a trap, this house, full of lives once lead and now over, and it's going to kill me if I don't get out from under it."
Don winced. "You can't be saying you don't want to remember them. Us, when we were little. All of it." Charlie looked quickly away, and Don saw that he had scored a direct hit. "This won't fix it," he continued with sudden insight. "When you empty the house, it will all still be in your heart. Even if you move. Eventually, you're gonna run out of things to pack, things to unpack, and then you'll have to feel. You'll have to remember."
Charlie stiffened, and spoke in a voice that chilled Don even in the summer heat. "Not for quite some time," he said. "I need to finish it, and then I will find something else I need to do, and I will never feel again, if I can help it."
Don started to drop his head and the snow globe caught his eye. He lifted his head again, defiant. "That's not true. You want the globe. You want to remember."
Charlie suddenly stood in a fluid motion that took Don by surprise and made him think of his aching knees with jealousy. "That's one of the things I'm trying to fix," he answered, brushing his hands on his jeans. "What can I help you with tonight, Don? I'm very busy, have a lot to do."
Don tugged at the denim. "Sit back down. Please." Charlie hesitated. "Or, you could help an old man get up," Don finally counter-offered. At that, the ghost of a smile crossed Charlie's face, gone as quickly as it came, but he settled on the floor again.
He crossed his legs in front of him and loosely laid his hands upon them. "It needs to be done," he whispered.
Don glanced sideways at him, then picked up the snow globe and nurtured it between his own large hands. "I hated this for a long time," he said. "To me, it was just another thing the two of you shared that Dad and I could never be part of. When I moved back here from Albuquerque, I used to catch her sometimes looking at it. One afternoon she told me that she had picked this out because the little family inside reminded her of me and Dad waiting for her back in L.A." He laughed. "Also, she said when she shook the snow up, the way the whirlwind fell over the littlest boy made her think of how she imagined numbers had always pursued you."
Charlie nodded, studying the globe in Don's hands. "She told me. And she liked how the mother seems to be holding all the others together." Tears stung the back of Don's eyes and he swallowed against a lump in his throat, unable to speak. Silence stretched on between them, and Don noted abstractly that he couldn't hear the old grandfather clock at the top of the stairs anymore. Charlie must have gotten rid of that, too. "Chuck," he said gently. "Maybe you need to think this through."
"What do you mean? This has to be done, and I'll do it. I didn't ask for your help."
"What do you remember about Mom dying?"
Charlie took on a slightly defensive tone. "I'm sure not as much as you do, since I was out in the garage those last months. Let's not re-hash that again. We already both agreed that I was wrong."
"Probably feel pretty badly about that?"
Charlie stood up again. "Of course I do, Don. Why are you asking me this after all this time?"
Don reached up a hand and made Charlie haul him up. "I'm just saying. I know you're in the sinking quicksand right now, but someday this will pass. You'll find yourself in the position of looking back, and I want you to be happy with what you see."
Charlie looked at him in confusion but stayed silent, so Don went on. "I don't want you to look back at a long list of potential mistakes, thinking you stumbled through the best you could." Don reached out suddenly, surprising them both when he planted a firm hand on the back of Charlie's curly head and drew him closer. It was an almost unprecedented show of physical affection between the brothers, resonating its subsequent power in waves that seemed to splash off the walls. "I don't want you to look back and feel like you were all alone, either," Don whispered. "We're together in this. Always. If I haven't been clear about that, I'm sorry."
Charlie's eyes widened for a brief moment, then filled with moisture and narrowed before he hung his head as far as he could with Don still hanging on. "I'm so…unhappy," he finally choked out in a broken voice. "All the time. I just want…."
Don dragged his hand through Charlie's hair until he was lightly cupping his chin. "What do you want, Charlie?", he asked, forcing his brother's head back a little.
Silence ticked on for a few moments after Don dropped his hand. "I don't know," Charlie admitted at length. "For this not to be so hard, maybe. I feel like…I had everything, for a while, and wasn't careful enough with it. Didn't appreciate it enough."
He sniffed while Don took a step closer. The gap between them was now so narrow, Charlie could easily have been intimidated, so Don purposefully kept his voice quiet and non-threatening. "Buddy, Dad didn't die bcause you did something wrong; no more than Mom did. This is just…what happens. I'm proud of you for making it so Dad could stay here in the house he loved for so long. I know that meant a lot to him – and I know he wants to see the house continue to be filled with love, and laughter, and all things Eppes. But it's just a house, Charlie. You and I were what really mattered to him. Separately, and together." He watched Charlie's long eyelashes flutter as he blinked rapidly, head hanging again, and Don did not comment on the tear that dropped onto his shoe. "Come and stay with me for a while."
Charlie raised his head slowly and looked around the room like a man who had just been awakened. "That won't help," he answered softly. "Like you said, this is just what happens. I can't hide from it, and I can't 'what-if' it away. I have to deal with what's left. What's left in the house, and what's left of me."
Don dropped his hands to his side and backed up a step, and let his own eyes roam around the half-empty room. He had heard friends talk about their pregnant wives hit the 'nesting' stage in preparation for filling their houses. Now, he was witnessing his own brother hit the 'purging' stage because his house was no longer full. "Charlie…" he sighed, but the younger man interrupted.
"I need to do this, Don." Charlie's voice was oddly melodic; almost dreamy. "I'll be able to see more clearly without all the clutter, don't you think?"
And Don understood that Charlie's life could never be his own, his house could never be his own, until it was done. Still, he worried that one day, his brother would be able to peacefully coexist with the past, and unable to claim it again. "Just don't…you shouldn't…maybe you should rent a storage unit," he finally said. "Some things can wait until later for a final decision."
Charlie tilted his head, and considered, finally nodding. "All right," he acquiesced.
Don felt a surge of ridiculous hope and pushed his luck. "While you're working on the house, you should stay with me. We can think about a remodel, maybe." He grinned. "When Amita comes back, she could help paint."
Charlie looked at him and smiled almost shyly. "I'm not very good company these days," he warned.
"S'okay," Don assured him. "You hardly ever are."
A burst of laughter tore from Charlie's mouth and echoed around the room, sling-shotting back in a sound eerily reminiscent of a cry. He dipped his head and a hand crept to his face to rub at a temple.
They stood silently for a while. At length, Don shifted. "I hope you didn't get rid of all the suitcases," he muttered. "I mean, you could just live out of grocery bags, but that's pretty pathetic, even for you."
Charlie regarded him with suspiciously bright eyes before he dropped his hand from his head and started for the door. "I think there are several old backpacks in the hall closet upstairs; I haven't gotten that far, yet."
Don knelt and picked up the small glass snow globe before following him out of the room. "We don't need a lot," he offered. "We're just keeping what's important."