by Brandy Wilkinson

I can’t believe I flew in from the greenest state in the Union, Tara says, to watch these people launch burning paper into the air. She snaps the tines from her Crystal Ware fork, tucks them into the edges of her half-eaten coleslaw. My plate sits untouched on my lap, my bare feet in the grass next to Tara’s. At a folding table thirty feet away, our mother slides rice paper lanterns from cellophane sleeves, her smile pulled tight. 

Matty would never have allowed this, Tara tells me. I nod, but she is wrong. Our brother was, in Grandpa’s words, “one of those earthy types,” but he would not have challenged our mom. Planning these family reunions has always been our mother’s thing, and if she wanted paper lanterns, she’d have them.

But Matty isn’t here, and Tara believes what she wants to believe: that he would have insisted on no paper lanterns. That he died doing what he loved out on those rocks, stupid and ropeless. That she could run away to the greenest state in the Union and not become a blazing cliché.

She leans against me, shoulder to sun-freckled shoulder. We watch as Grandpa struggles with a lighter, forcing his crooked knuckles to the task. He wears his faded Semper Fi hat and a small photo of Matty pinned to his shirt, at his heart.

Tara takes a deviled egg from my plate. Marine to the end, she laughs, with a pacifist pinned to his shirt pocket. Guess he doesn’t see the irony. I pluck the egg back before she can take a bite. She laughs, a warm song I no longer know the words to.

One by one, pieces of our family nudge their lanterns up and away, cheering. Grandpa touches his hat, the photo of Matty, his own lips. Lets his go. The lanterns float like jellyfish into the sky.