Olivia Birdsall: Things Left Behind

I pull the emergency break back until it grinds reassuringly, a sort of audible punctuation. Over the steering wheel, out the window of the car, I see a hand-painted wooden sign planted in the patchy grass outside of the building: “Donner Pioneer Museum.”

My little brother Danny and I have driven an hour and a half-past an inland ocean, bird estuaries and a desert frosted in salt-to get here. As we sit staring at the converted double-wide trailer I ask myself: If I were a kid, would I already know this place was going to suck?

Last week over lunch my mom asked me to spend some time with Danny. She is divorcing Danny’s father, my stepfather. She looked tired.

“His therapist says he’s got a lot of anxiety, Jules,” she told me.

“He’s got a therapist?”

I was about to ask if the therapist was any good and maybe get her number, when my mom said, “Danny told her he worries a lot about me dying.”

When she said this, I realized that she didn’t look tired; she looked old. “You’re not dying are you?”

“His therapist,” Mom ignored me, “says he needs more individualized attention and reassurance.”

When I was Danny’s age, eight, my mom taught me how to make grilled cheese sandwiches with Velveeta cheese and Wonder bread, gave me a copy of our housekey on a teddy bear key chain, and started working full-time. My little brother is nineteen years younger than I am. He sleeps in my mother’s bed five nights a week, has a nutritionist and now, apparently, a therapist.

Mom went on. “Right now Danny’s very interested in the Donner Party.”

“The people who ate each other?”

“He did a report on them for school. Anyway, there’s a museum out in Grantsville. Maybe you could take him there.”

As we walk into the makeshift museum I hope that what Danny has seen of its exterior has lowered his expectations. That way, maybe he’ll be able to find something in the place that’ll let him pretend the trip was worth it.

“Look,” I say, “a glass case full of arrowheads.”

“I have an arrowhead collection at home. Mom buys one for me every time she goes on a trip,” Danny tells me. “I have more arrowheads than this in my collection.”

“When I was your age, Mom made me throw away my rock collection because it was dirty and took up too much space.”

“I don’t collect rocks,” Danny says.

We walk past cases of pottery fragments and horse shoes barely slowing down long enough to read the signs. We read a brief history of the Donner Party, and find out that you can still see the tracks of their wagons running across the white salt flats. Before they ate each other, the party crossed the Utah desert where their supplies of food and water started to run low. They began discarding stuff to lighten their loads. The museum’s entire collection consists of what they left behind.

We spend a few moments staring at the wheels of abandoned wagons. I think of my mother, and wonder who she would eat first if she had to choose between me and Danny.

We move on to another display. A faded pink index card inside the case has the words Skeleton Fragments typewritten on it.

“Spooky,” I say. “Skeletons.”

“These aren’t human bones,” Danny tells me.

“Did you want to see human bones?”

“I wouldn’t mind seeing human bones,” he says. He brushes his hair out of his eyes and I notice a freckle on his left elbow, just like the one I have on mine.

“I was there when you were born,” I tell him, not sure what this has to do with human bones, or why I said it.

“You were? Why?”

“I don’t know; I just wanted to be. I’d never had a younger brother or sister, so I wanted to meet you as soon as you got here. I took a week off from college to be there.”

“You got to miss a whole week of school?”

“Yeah. And you know what? I was almost the same age when you were born that mom was when she had me. I’m old enough to be your mother.”

“Gross,” says Danny. I can tell he’s trying not to smile.

After spending no more than seventeen minutes in the museum, we leave. As we drive back home the freshly tarred black roads cut through the white dunes rising up on either side of the highway, and Danny and I don’t say much.

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