The mantel had always been so full of photographs when Sandra was little. Mom had loved to take pictures. After she left, Dad took over. Every year, he took a new picture of each of the three girls and one of them all together. Sandra loved September because of those pictures.
Now the mantel was empty, gathering dust like Sandra’s bedsheets had in college, a lifetime ago. Looking at it was the hardest thing Sandra had ever done, harder even than Paul’s funeral, harder than saying goodbye and knowing this time was forever, harder than taking Linda here to this house that had once been hers and never could be again.
My old life is dead, Sandra thought. Not just Paul, but... everything. She wiped dust off the mantel and went to get a photo album.
She had no pictures of Paul. This was just as well. Looking at who he was made the pain come flooding back, as if she suddenly remembered he was gone forever.
Sandra flipped through her childhood memories. She kept coming back to the last time they were really a family. It was the Christmas she turned seven. She was on Dad’s lap. Her eyes were wide and her mouth was open like the flash of the camera surprised her. Jessi and Karen stood on either side of Dad’s armchair (what had ever happened to that chair, anyway? Did Dad throw it out after the divorce like he threw Karen out, years later?) Jessi’s braids glistened. Sandra could feel them swinging even though in the picture they were still. Karen stood tall and stared into the camera. She was smiling, but her eyes were two hard jewels. And Mom. Mom sat on the arm of the chair. Her hand—small and pretty like Jessi’s—rested on Dad’s free knee.
Sandra stared into the picture. Were any of their smiles real, except hers? She was a baby, seven years old. She didn’t know anything. But Mom and Dad were grown-ups, and Karen was thirteen. They must have known what was about to happen. Even Jessi, who had been ten then, must have known something. Did she guess everything was going to fall apart by Easter?
Soft footsteps vibrated through the house. The floor creaked. Sandra looked up. Dad was standing in the doorway. What was left of his hair was gray and he no long wore the beard that used to tickle Sandra when he picked her up and hugged her. "Linda’s asleep. You should be too."
"In a minute. I’m doing something."
"OK." Dad looked at Sandra for a long time before he left.
Sandra slid the photo out of the album. She tiptoed into the study and got a silver frame out of Dad’s desk drawer to put it in.
She dusted off the mantel and put the picture right in the center, where it belonged.