The waitress who has taken my order wears a sepia-coloured dress, checkers faded and hem ruffled. She excuses herself as she leans in and wipes the table with a damp cloth. On her sleeve is a single red, round button. It gleams. She asks me something. My car is parked between two cargo trucks. I’m not usually the type of person who visits roadside diners. The red, round button reflects the light from the fluorescent lamp, its four holes laced with loose black thread.
I’m ten years old, and attempting to catch a ladybird in our garden. My mother brings me a glass of orange juice, because, she says, it’s been a rough day. I manage to catch one after hours of searching. It isn’t good enough. My mother tells me I’ve done my best, and that’s enough. And that’s the exact thing I tell myself some time later, when I’m supposed to be watching my brother and he tumbles off the stairs. I don’t know for how long he’s been crying before I finally noticed.
Coffee, sir? I look up and tell the waitress no thanks, and point at the dark stain on the trousers of my suit. Spilled some on myself earlier at the service, I say. She hesitates, then smiles.
I would have space for plants on my apartment balcony. Ladybirds are attracted to cilantro, dill, fennel, and scented geraniums. I looked that up. Of course I wasn’t aware of this during that summer twenty-three years ago, when I comforted myself with the thought ladybirds don’t live very long anyway, and Liam was only young so he wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. That was also the year I spotted a silver Aston Martin DB7 for the first time and pledged to myself that I’d have one as my first car. I don’t own any plants. I don’t particularly like them. My mother never seemed to. Our garden was filled with tall, unkempt grass.
It’s nearing twilight, and I reek of sweat. The diner smells of burnt sugar and cleaning detergent. I take off my suit jacket and place it on the cracked faux leather seat beside me. There is a bouquet of yellow flowers on the counter. I don’t recognize any of them. I don’t know much about flowers. I suspect they’re fake. Maybe I won’t be brave enough to drive back.
I see Liam again during that summer. He opens the lid of his box and peers inside. His face drops. ‘It’s not him,’ he says without a shred of doubt. ‘He hadno spots… It’s not him!’ to which I reply with my well-studied line, ‘Don’t be weird, of course it’s him. Ladybirds get more spots over time, especially in the summer!’ But Liam wails and screams, the blue plastic lid clutched in his white-knuckled fist, ‘IT’S NOT HIM! IT’S NOT!’ I didn’t understand then that my brother’s terrarium box had been especially selected by him, just like he especially selected everything else. His first car wasn’t an Aston Martin DB7, nor was mine. We shared the crimson-coloured Ford Fiesta that he kept—the one they scraped off the asphalt and brought straight to the dump. They wouldn’t even let me see it.
Ladybirds have a lifespan of two to three years. I don’t think my brother liked ladybirds in particular, but he liked taking care of things. I’ve never been good at that. Not as good as lying to myself, which is why I think the only Aston Martin I own is the toy I got for Christmas. It had a dent on its side and the back wheels were taped to the tin frame. It’s also why I think that if it had been my brother standing at the side of the mortuarium’s table instead of me, he wouldn’t have struggled to answer the simple question asked—Is it him?
The waitress comes back with my order and a cup of coffee. It’s on the house, she says. You look like you need it. I want to grab her hand and tell her, It wasn’t, you know, not really. But I call her back, take a deep breath, and say, Hey, I really like those flowers over there. Are they for sale, maybe?