Growing up, the Johansens had not been wanting. They’d been fortunate to never know hunger, or find themselves lacking life’s necessities; shelter, clothing, medicine, education. Still, many activities considered everyday for most families were instead moments of occasion; a Happy Meal, new shoes, a trip through the automatic car wash.
As an adult, Kylie occasionally felt a shimmering reminder of those basic, childhood joys. Sitting in the drive thru lane, the smell of greasy and French fries mingling with hot blacktop and car exhaust. Slipping her foot into a brand-new pair of running shoes, the laces brilliant white, the soles stiff and treads pristine, yet untarnished by filthy concrete.
Now, in the last moments of a $10 car wash on a chilly Tucson evening, as hot wax sprayed onto the windshield, reds and yellows mixing into the blue and greens, Kylie watched her sister sitting in the passenger seat of their rental car, her head tipped, her eyes wide and mouth slightly agape in fascinated wonder, reminiscent of those special childhood moments with their mother.
She wished she could turn back time, to the moment of Ashley’s birth, and do it all over again. Their entire childhood. Every second of Ashley’s life. This time, she would strive be her sister’s best friend and confidant, her playmate and partner in crime.
Not her second mother.
She had so much she wanted to say, a million apologies to make, but she couldn’t find the words, and her eyes were tearing up from the scented wax and humid air.
“Hey,” Ashley whispered. She squeezed Kylie’s hand. “You okay?”
“I’m good,” Kylie lied. “Just tired.”
“You can sleep on the plane.”
Staring unabashedly at her sister, Kylie marveled at the strength of Ashley’s jaw, her shoulders. Her hair, smart in pixie cut, had been dyed deep and highlighted like rich honey. She wore her makeup modest, with new-found confidence in her own natural beauty. She had conquered her lifelong battle against baby fat, her body sculpted in strength, lean with discipline.
Even the scent of the air around her had matured, no longer a nauseating musk of stale cigarette and knockoff body spray. Instead, the slightest hint of jasmine danced delicately around her.
Kylie said the words in her mind, in her heart. Aloud, the sentiment was inadequate.
“I still can’t believe Charlie’s bald.” Ashley’s eyes twinkled in merry smile. “Like, bald-bald. And not like he shaved it.”
“He’s shorter than I remember,” Kylie added, still amazed. In her memories, Charlie had always been larger than life, standing tall and proud with her high on his shoulders, presenting the world to her.
“Yeah, that was weird. I always pictured him bigger.”
“He was to us. We were kids.”
The car wash complete, Kylie inched through blowers. Blindly, she stared through the windshield as water drops pushed across the glass in bursts of invisible energy.
They’d surprised Charlie, ambushing him in the parking lot of the office complex where he worked. It wasn’t intentional, to catch him off-guard or gain the upper hand. They were just short on time, impatient. And slightly worried he would be unresponsive to a request.
It had been a good visit, more than Kylie had hoped for, a confirmation she’d spent her life loving a decent man, an honest man. A father.
It was impossible to catch up in a single afternoon, over Sonoran hot dogs and three hearts trying to talk at once, but they’d done their best. In the end, she’d hugged him goodbye, heartbroken they had missed out on so many years, but confident they could still share many more. She’d promised to bring Brayden next time.
He’d stepped aside with Ashley for a long, private moment with his daughter. Instead of jealousy or envy, or embarrassment, Kylie had watched with pride as her sister spoke freely, gestured wildly, and cried openly. Charlie had done much of the same. He’d held her face in his hands, kissed her forehead. She’d wrapped her arms around his neck and squeezed him tight, clinging to him like she would have as a child, if only he’d given her the opportunity then to say goodbye.
The dryers stopped, bringing a sudden silence to the inside of the car. Lifting her foot from the brake, Kylie rolled away from the dark cocoon of the car wash, into the warmth of a winter sunset. She still hadn’t said everything she’d wanted to say to her sister.
She hadn’t told Ashley she was proud of her, that she admired her commitment to her country, her devotion to her friends.
She had not admitted she was wrong about Mike, that she had been insensitive to his plight. She had not expressed how impressed she was by his journey to recovery.
She hadn’t complimented her sister’s strength. Her determination. Her bravery. Her humor. Her heart.
She had yet to apologize for lying about her feelings for Jimmy, for falling in love with him while chastising her sister for having done the same.
For a lifetime of criticizing her every decision, interrupting her every word.
For never listening to her dreams.
She’d run out of time to say in a million ways, I’m sorry.
Please, forgive me.
Instead, she parked alongside the bank of high-power vacuums, unbuckled her seat belt, and turned in the driver’s seat to face her sister directly.
“I love you, Ash.”
Amused, Ashley smiled. “I love you, too, Ky.”
“I’m sorry,” she whispered in her mind, in her heart, into the jasmine scented air, and she hugged her sister tight.