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Niah Eppley: Finders Keepers

George wasn’t a thief. Her sticky fingers usually only applied to pilfered cookies and midnight snacks, but her nails were already ruined, splintered and weak, from digging with her bare hands in the dirt in the dead of night, like a neighborhood dog searching endlessly for a bone just out of reach. Unlike a dog, George didn’t have sturdy nails made for tearing apart the tight earth. If she wanted to continue her midnight action, then she would have to branch out and find tools to take the place of her vulnerable body.

The hardware store smelled of gasoline, a grimy layer of sawdust clung to every surface. She left long lines as she skimmed her hand across dusty shelves, like carvings into sand, until she found herself in the small gardening section at the far end of the store. The shovels weren’t the bright colored plastic she was accustomed to; these had curved metal heads and rubber handholds. They were made for carving into fragile earth.

Before grabbing one with a dark green grip, George touched every item on the shelf. Her fingers, coated in dust, left tiny markings behind, paintings only her body could produce.

If the woman working the counter tried to peer around shelves and merchandise crammed into the small space, she would only see a girl trying to waste away time during a hot summer. She wasn’t a customer but not someone to chase out, either. 

George carefully took the gardening shovel from its hook and pulled the others forward to take the place of the snatched. She slipped it into the pocket of her baggy hoodie. One she preferred because it seemed to swallow her whole. She could disappear into ripples and folds of fabric. Charlie used to compare her to a hermit crab, retreating into a shell too big. Maybe, she wore it to discourage mean comments from her grandparents and nosy kids at school who took any opening to criticize, or she wore it to feel the comfort of being small, even as her body grew. 

She was a cute, chubby kid, but with age, people became less willing to accept the natural roundness of her face and body. The loose clothes in which she draped herself were an advantage, not something for other kids to mock. But, she found other ways to strengthen her outer shell. The sharpness of her tongue was a good deterrent for most. For a girl that had no sharp edges, she often left people nursing tender wounds.

As George started to weave back through the shelves to the front of the store, she was interrupted by a familiar call.

“I thought that was you! How are you doing, George?” asked Mr. Allen, her elderly neighbor. 

Mr. Allen was the kind of man you’d see on a commercial advertising some new medication: tall and flat and still getting around regardless of his ever increasing age. He used to babysit her brother and her when they were small, but as they grew, their constant energy became too much for his frail body and house to handle. She has vague memories of sitting on Mr. Allen’s lap while Charlie splashed around in a kiddy-pool, but they are overshadowed by how he treated her for the last five years as her girlhood became more evident. Like the kids at school, he couldn’t tolerate all the ways in which she didn’t look like every other perfectly pretty girl. He had always liked Charlie better, anyway. Mr. Allen had raised three boys and Charlie fit nicely into the golden boy archetype. “Shouldn’t you be in school?”

“It’s July.” 

“Oh, that’s right! Sorry ‘bout that. What are you doin’ then in this fine establishment?” Mr. Allen lived in the south his whole life, until he retired and his restless legs brought him to their small Indiana town. He had a way of saying things, buttery soft and as sweet as sugar that made him sound cloying, even if he was interrogating her. It made him stand out from locals who clipped words rather than letting them linger on their tongues.

“I just…” It was none of his business, but Mr. Allen would only hunker down if she confronted him with that. He was just as much a dog with a bone as George was. “Just didn’t want to be home, I guess.”

Mr. Allen got a pitying look in his eye. The look that adults give children who have gone through something terrible, something shattering, but adults don’t get it. At Charlie’s funeral, every family friend and distant acquaintance looked at her the same way. Like they understood her pain more than she ever could. Like she didn’t realize the enormity of tragedy. Like they held all the answers to the secrets of grief.

 “Ah, I expect you wouldn’t.” The loud buzzing of the air conditioner filled the space between them. His hunched back did nothing to lessen his height. He was always looking down on her.

“Bye, sir.” As she said goodbye, her body already turned towards the door.

“Bye, George.” he sighed.

George hightailed it out. The bell above the door jingled, a tiny band’s final goodbye. With her prize safely secured and no one to stop her, George started the short walk back home.


Though the path between town and home was ingrained in her brain, George wasn’t used to walking it alone. Before, she was accompanied by her mother and older brother. Charlie and George would walk side by side, exceptionally close even with the age gap. They were loud with their youth, disrupting an otherwise serine neighborhood. Their mother would trail behind, waving at neighbors and tracking new cracks in the pavement, which she reported to the HOA when she got home.

Now, George dragged her feet alone. Without Charlie by her side, cracking jokes, knocking into her side, or pushing her into the grass of manicured lawns, the ten-minute walk stretched into eternity. There was no more poking fun at the decorations people put up for Halloween and Christmas or peaking through the front windows of houses and into living rooms almost identical to their own. It was just George, staring up at houses that have remained unchanged.

There was only one entrance to the neighborhood, so George passed by each one of her neighbors’ houses. The house Charlie collapsed in front of was no exception. The house with the lawn their mother dragged Charlie onto, so he wasn’t lying on hot pavement when she put her ear to his chest, where a neighbor called 911 when he saw a family of three collapse into a family of two. The place where George stood helplessly watching, as her mother climbed into the back of an ambulance with Charlie: the ambulance’s lights casting his skin red, the flashing lights the same pace as her heart beat. As they drove away, George began to weep. 

Now, the house was the boogeyman in her dreams, growing taller and wider until it eclipsed the sun and stretched out across the horizon. Its shadow forever linked to her final memory of Charlie. Before the trees in the backyard regrew their leaves, she could catch glimpses of it between branches and through the gaps of houses. It always seemed to be looking back.

Her own house seemed miniscule in comparison. The garden beds, previously home to native flowers and whatever her mother could get from the grocery store, now withered, languishing for a drink of water, a helping hand. The flowers her mother lovingly cared for, dead. The house itself, a red bricked, two-story home her father pampered, looked shabby in a way it never had before under his care. Routine maintenance was no longer a priority in the face of losing a son that the house should have protected, like her parents were betrayed by its inability to shelter their family from harm.

George opened the front door, she kicked her tennis shoes off into a pile of sneakers, heels, and yard shoes. Charlie’s favorite pair were absent from their designated place, right in the middle. Her parents were having a hushed conversation in the kitchen, barely audible over the sound of her bare feet on hardwood floors. Her father’s voice was muffled and quiet, and her mother’s rising in pitch so George could hear every third or fourth word: you, right, house, George. 

These types of conversations, previously few and far between, fights between two people who always avoided conflict, had become commonplace in the three months after Charlie died. It was the only way her father could be dragged into acknowledging the existence of life outside of the comfort of TV, and the only time her mother stopped hiding behind menial tasks: cleaning out drawers, organizing the basement.

Instead of engaging with the argument filling the kitchen, George went up the staircase lined with old family photos and to her room at the top of the stairs. Her door was cracked open, waiting for her entrance into its embrace, while the door across the hall was closed from any grieving eyes. She could imagine Charlie listening to music or playing video games if she weren’t confronted with the growing quiet that seemed to creep out from under the door. The reality of his dust collecting room, all his things arranged perfectly, the carelessness in which he treated his belongings absent, was too much to bear. She appreciated whoever made the decision to lock it up and out of sight.

George shut the bedroom door behind her as she finally unveiled her stolen treasure. The gardening tool, cold metal and dark colors, was a stark contrast to the pink that occupied every square inch of her room. It belonged to a girl that had never felt any real pain, only scrapped knees and stubbed toes and biting comments from classmates. George had long since grown out of the pink. Her closet, full of large, secondhand hoodies and T-shirts for bands she hadn’t listened to, was more of a reflection of who she was now than her own room. Her parents, confronted with the fact that they’d lost who she used to be while they weren’t paying attention, would have to mourn her at the same time they grieved for Charlie.

After digging through her closet, the floor was scattered with Legos and battered copies of Nancy Drew and The Hardy Boys, George secured a space under the abused books for her shovel. Once the sun had set, her parents had gone to bed, and the nosy neighbors had settled in to watch reruns of the sitcoms depicting a foreign serenity, she would take her shovel and dig until she found what she was looking for.


Lego set building was the one activity that their father could do with Charlie without getting distracted halfway through. They’d spend days after birthdays setting up Death Stars or entire cities out of tiny bricks. It gave Charlie a chance to connect with their forever estranged father, and George craved that closeness. She was never granted that same openness that Charlie was freely gifted. When George broke Charlie’s favorite Star Wars Lego set, a large Imperial TIE fighter, he was furious. He called her the worst sister ever and vowed to never talk to her again. Eventually, he calmed down, realizing how boring Battleship and Hide-n-Seek were with only one player, but not before he got all his most cherished toys together and buried them in an old toolbox in the backyard in a fit of possessiveness. George had become a little obsessed about the whereabouts of the buried treasure. She felt like a detective or archeologist trying to uncover the secrets of the past, but without Charlie’s help, there was too much ground to cover.

One particularly boring summer, George took a shovel from her mother’s gardening shed and dug hole after hole in the freshly mowed yard, trying to find what her brother tried to keep away. By the time her mother caught her, Charlie having tattled after the fifth hole, the yard was a mess of overturned dirt. Their mother, usually exceptionally well-tempered, bought the meanest padlock she could and forbade George from unsupervised time in the backyard the whole summer. So, while the gardening tools sat neglected in the shed, George was forced to steal for her plan to work. 

The Christmas before Charlie died, he confessed to her that he had forgotten where he buried the box, so they vowed to search for it together when the ground finally thawed, but time got away from them and soon enough, Charlie was buried too.



Her mother laid down steaming ceramic dishes of chicken, homemade mac and cheese, and broccoli. Her mother was making more and more elaborate dinners each day. They used to rely on a few consistent meals, but now, she would spend hours working over a hot stove, using spices she used to never touch. Her hands were in constant motion, her body not sitting for even a second. Stillness was the greatest sin. Her father, on the other hand, rarely stood from his recliner. His butt had become a permanent imprint on the seat, the soft leather as malleable as beach sand. The track he paced from chair to kitchen to chair again ruined the softness of the previously plush carpet. His immobility left just as much of a stain as her mother’s constant productivity, who left unwashed dishes in the sink for days at a time.

As her father dug in, George and her mother sat back in their chairs, neither reaching to scoop food onto their plates. Without Charlie, their routine, the way they’d eaten for twelve years, was ruined. They weren’t sure how to move, who was supposed to go first, or what could break the silence. Charlie, forever talkative and energetic, carried them through countless dinner conversations. He could rope their father into talking about his day and irritate George out of her silent deference to the louder people in the room.

“Did you see those holes in the backyard? Mr. Allen was telling me about the mole problem he had a few years ago. Completely tore up his yard.” Her mother said, turning her fork over and over again in the palm of her hand. George squeezed her own utensil tightly in hand, the thin handle leaving a deep imprint in her palm.

“Uhuh.” her father said as he shoveled bites of chicken into his mouth, eyes unfocused.

“He also told me about how he ended up killing it. Apparently- “

“You’re going to kill it?” George asked.

“George!” Her mother acted scandalized, like she wasn’t the one to bring it up. She was always like this, blaming others while she victimized herself. How dare anyone suggest that she might be at fault! It was the first time that week her mother deigned to say her name. It must have grown bitter in her mouth, a reminder of the name she could no longer call.

“What does Mr. Allen know anyway?” George mumbled under her breath, scrapping her fork across an empty plate, listening to the screech of metal against ceramic and watching as small lines appeared in the white paint.

“Don’t make a nuisance of yourself.” Her mother said as she yanked the offending utensil out of George’s hand. “Is one nice dinner too much to ask? And Mr. Allen has always been kind to us. To you.”

Charlie’s seat, pushed up to the table and placemat clean, felt excruciatingly empty. Without him, the person the whole family orbited, they were set loose, ready to bump into each other and shatter. 

“Mr. Allen said he saw you at the store. Said you were looking around like you were planning to take something.”

“You have him spying on me?” George was angry. For the first time since Charlie died, George’s mind wasn’t totally occupied by the loneliness of missing him. There wasn’t any reason to get mad at her father, a non-entity in their house, like a virtual pet you had to remember to feed. But her mother, her mother who was always stepping in, always putting her foot out there, so different from George herself, was the perfect figure for which she could aim all her bottled-up pain at.

“You guys don’t even leave the house, but you have Mr. Allen, who hates me by the way, spying on me?”

A big sigh escaped her father’s chest. His chest expanding, pushing against the edge of the table enough to slightly skooch back his chair, like he was exasperated by her show of emotion. Her mother, on the other hand, seemed to deflate.

“Why did it have to be Charlie? It shouldn’t have been him.” her mother asked, tears slipping from her eyes and falling on her still empty plate. The balloon of tension built up over the last three months, hanging over their heads at every dinner just like this one, popped. It took a minute before George realized no one was going to say anything. No apology. Nothing that could bring them back together.

George pushed her chair away from the dining room table, stood up, and left her parents sitting together, but alone.


The box continued to elude her searching. After spending three hours with the shovel in her hands and knees in the dirt, she was tired and frustrated as she sat back onto the grass. George had spent years looking for it on and off. Charlie was the absolute worst at hide and seek, always trying to squeeze his body in places it wouldn’t fit, behind curtains or under the sink in their bathroom, so it shouldn’t have been that hard to find something he hid five years ago. George tried to put herself in the mindset of her brother, but she always had a hard time imagining what life was like for him. As the golden boy, the first born son, he was everything she could never be. He loved their parents, flaws and all, and they loved him in return. Even before Charlie’s death made her abrasive and angry, she was already the add on. Her parents wanted three boys, but when they had her, birthed powder pink and crying, they decided not to risk another pregnancy. How was a child to deal with the fact that for her parents, she was the worst-case scenario? That she continued to be the worst-case scenario.

Her mother loved Charlie with the same care she loved her garden. She coaxed him into growing taller and wider. She wanted him to take up space, a beautiful flower that just needed some tender, loving care to reach his full potential. George was a weed her mother tried desperately to eradicate, but she kept missing the roots because under the protection of Charlie’s arms, George was safe.  The garden though, previously bursting with the work nurturing hands tended, was dead. Nothing grew there anymore, not even weeds.

George would never touch the garden. She was afraid of an even harsher punishment than what she got for digging around the shed, so it would have been the perfect hiding place. George imagined Charlie carefully digging into the dirt, trying to find the best place for his favorite things.

George brandished her shovel and dug. She started closest to the back door and worked her way around the side of the house, cautious of the motion sensor flood lights pointed into the darkest corners of the yard. When she came upon the place under her brother’s window, where the ivy grew tall and wrapped up the side of the house, she knew she was in the right spot. Her pants, crusted with dry dirt at the knees and shins, stretched as she leaned forward. Her shovel set a furious pace as it carved into the earth. Every rock and root network she passed made her heart stutter an awkward beat in her chest. Until finally, her shovel hit something that was not so easily discarded. The clang rang out in the quiet backyard, interrupting the silence that had settled over the neighborhood. George waited a second for lights to flicker on, for someone to notice, for someone to catch her red handed, but no one did.

She threw her shovel to the side and started to dig with her own hands. Her breaths became more frantic as she unearthed a heavily rusted box. George yanked it out of the earth, fell backwards onto her butt with the force of her pull. The box landed next to her in the yard, but the handle stayed in her grasp. A final piece of her brother that she never really got to know, too young to remember what he really hid away, and she found it. She rolled up onto her knees and cracked open the toolbox. 

At first, George didn’t know what she was looking at. Muddy, grayish water obscured all of the box’s content. As she dumped it into the yard, it became clear that everything was ruined. Toy cars were stripped of their paint. Lego figures’ faces were completely gone, and bundles of paper now a slimy mush at the bottom. This was what George had been searching for.  All the hope she had tied into these tiny things, gone. There was nothing more to learn from a box of ruined toys. It didn’t spontaneously give her insight into who Charlie was, nor did it fill the cavity near her heart where he used to be.

She thought that everything buried would eventually be welcomed home, but whatever magic carried in his toys that kept a favored stuffed animal’s stitches from tearing or an action figure from losing a leg, no longer existed. There was no satisfaction in finding something that had been ruined long ago. There was no value. It wasn’t the gold pirates hide away or the solution to an unsolved mystery, but more proof that everything could be and would be taken away. George had unknowingly been in a battle with the earth, and the earth won. It reclaimed these precious things, leaving her with only vague memories of what used to be.

About the Author:

Niah is a writer and poet working on her Bachelors in English. She writes about self-discovery, forgiveness, mourning, and all the things that try to escape definition. She lives in Ohio with her darling cat Nico and the creature lurking in the woods behind her house.

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