I guess we all had to deal with them one way or another in childhood. Mine were so frequent I came up with a term: obligifts. You don’t want them, don’t need them, but you can’t throw them away because it’d be rude.
I never got that last part. Aunt Myra never really seemed to care what I did with her gifts, never asked after them. She just came back every visit with more crap that looked like she picked it up from the side of the road. She’d smile with nicotine-yellow teeth, arching her penciled eyebrows as she handed me a battered watch that didn’t even work or one half of a BFF necklace.
It was only ever me, too. Not my younger brother. Maybe it was because I was a girl, or maybe it was because I was older. My mom said that Myra and and her husband Eddy had always wanted kids but could never have them. I never got that impression. Myra’s concern began and ended when she handed me the newest present, she never asked about school or what books I was reading. Eddy didn’t come over as often as Myra, and when he did he would ask me to sit on his lap. Always came off as skeevy to me.
Anyway, Myra wasn’t really my aunt. She was like a second cousin twice removed or something weird like that, but mom said I had to call her aunt just like she said I had to accept all her gifts like they were gold. They were crap. I wasn’t exaggerating when I said it looked like they were road litter. They were all used kid’s stuff, just random crap like a yo-yo or a scrunchie she probably picked up for ten cents at a thrift store. Half the time it was boy stuff I wanted to pawn off on my younger brother but my mom wouldn’t let me.
When I was ten she brought me the headband. Purple with tinsel threading through the chunky plastic. It smelled like the kind of perfume they sold with fashion dolls. The plastic was scuffed, and it had just a little bit of hair grease on the underside.
I hung it from the end of my finger and stared at it.
“Say ‘thank you,’” my mom prodded.
I mumbled something that sounded like thanks and took it back to my room. Myra stayed through casserole and cigarettes at the dinner table while my brother and I had to go to bed early. The headband sat necklacing my Garfield lamp until the day I saw the news.
The weather had just ended and they were getting to local events; you know, where they announce rummage sales or animal rescues. That kind of thing. But this one was different. This one had the girl with my headband in her hair.
She was Jobeth Nichols, age 8, and she’d gone missing a week after they’d taken her school photo. That was the one they used in the story. She’d gone missing on a walk home from school. My mom would never let us walk home from school. I took out the headband and hid it in a drawer. I didn’t know what I was afraid of.
The next time Myra came over, she brought Eddy with her. He had too many beers and leered that I was never too big to sit on his lap. I was too distracted by the headband to react. It had to mean something.
My brother finished early and went to the den. Eddy followed soon after and the sound changed from cartoon noises to the roar of a football game. I picked at my potatoes. Myra lit a cigarette.
Mom prompted me to finish my dinner so I could go to bed. That gave me a little push. I set down my fork and said, “I was thinking of going to the police station, to ask them something.”
Myra’s hand tensed. Smoke steamed away from the end of her cigarette, forgotten. She was looking at my mom washing dishes, but she wasn’t really watching her.
“Why, sweetheart?” My mom asked from the sink.
“Did you see that news story that was just on, the missing girl? I think I might know something.”
Myra’s mouth pursed like it had drawstrings. From the den, I heard the sound of a can of beer being set down.
My mom flicked her hands and dried them on the towel pinned at her waist. “Don’t waste the police’s time, sweetie. That’s finished enough. I want your teeth brushed and you in bed.”
I left the kitchen but I didn’t go far. I paused in the little piece of hallway outside the door and listened.
Aunt Myra asked if I could spend the night at her house.
My breathing stopped for a second. My mom said no, it was a school night. Myra pleaded: I was such a good girl, mom knew her and Eddy didn’t have kids of their own, couldn’t she spare me one night? Miraculously, my mom only got more firm the more Myra pushed, finally snapping at Myra that they had survived all these years without a child, one more night wouldn’t kill them. Myra went silent. Out in the den, only the TV sounded.
Dad came back from the bathroom and told me to get to bed. I lay on my side on top of my pony quilt, unable to sleep.
The stairs creaked. One by one, steadily, like someone was sneaking up. My dad called Eddy’s name. The steps paused. Eddy called back that he just wanted to wish me goodnight. Dad said I was a light sleeper, he shouldn’t give me any cause to miss the alarm in the morning. I held my breath until I heard the steps downstairs again.
Myra and Eddy didn’t visit anymore after that. Mom didn’t seem too put out by it, I guess there were some limits to even her patience. I got rid of everything but the headband, still have it today. Sometimes I take it out and stare at it, like I’m doing right now. Guilt is the ultimate family gift. You don’t need it, don’t want it, but it’s yours.