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The girl slipped in silently; the door hardly made a sound. Ahead of her was a father with his two boys. The boys were hyper, and their father looked exhausted. The girl stood a ways back but she glanced at the little boys with a wary eye every now and again as they chased each other in a tight circle. The young man who watched her come in thrust a large silver spoon into the tub of grilled chicken before him and began to stir in slow circles. The meat was golden brown and sizzling, faint strokes of black indicated the lightest char. They ran out of this the fastest. Sure enough, the tired-looking father stepped forward and ordered two burrito bowls with chicken. The young man dished out two large spoonfuls of grilled chicken and laid them each on a bed of black beans and rice. The little boys seemed hypnotized as they watched. He slid it down the counter. The man and his sons moved down the line to choose their vegetables, and the girl came into view. She asked for a chicken bowl as well.

As the young man dipped the spoon back into the tub, he glanced up and froze. The girl was watching her food. He exhaled.

“Is that thrifted?” he asked aloud. The girl looked up, nonplussed. The young man nodded to her. “Your shirt. Is it thrifted?”

She looked down as if she was just noticing what she was wearing. “Oh, yeah,” she said. She smiled. “Actually, yeah. I got it at the Goodwill on Sunset.”

The young man nodded. “I know that one,” he said. “It’s nice.”

“Yeah, it’s a little bigger than the others and has a wider selection,” the girl said.

“Oh, I meant your shirt,” the young man said. “It’s nice. Looks cool.”

“Oh,” the girl said, looking slightly embarrassed. It was a simple tan tee, somewhat faded, and a little oversized. Across the chest written in bold, wavy burgundy letters was the legend, “California Dreamin’” and below that was a little scene of the beach. “Thanks,” she said and smiled again.

“Yeah,” the young man said, and slid her bowl down the counter. She followed it and the next customer stepped up with their order ready on their lips.

“Just a burrito bowl?” the assistant manager asked loudly. The girl was standing before him with her wallet in her hand. He slipped her bowl into a large brown bag and checked the register. The girl nodded.

“No drink? Chips? Guac?”

“No thanks.”

“All right,” the assistant manager said. “Ten even.” She handed him her card and he took it, swiped it, and handed it back. “You’re all set. Have a great day.”

She smiled her thanks as she took the bag in her arms and headed for the door. The young man watched as she went, saw the shirt clinging to her shoulders. Once she was out the door, she was swallowed up in the darkness outside.

It had been about a year since. The young man, Avery, had been working at the restaurant for a few months to build his savings back up. He’d been out of therapy because he could no longer afford it, but all things considered, he was doing okay.  

“You call me when you’re able to come back,” his therapist had said at their last session. “I think there’s a lot more work for us to do, and you’re making so much progress.”

“Okay,” Avery said.

“And think about asking your parents for help. I’m sure they’d rather you still have access to this care than not.”

“I will.”

It was that same day after he’d left the session that he’d gone to drop off the donations at the Goodwill.

“4 bags of women’s clothing

1 bag of women’s shoes

3 boxes of used books

1 box misc.”

The volunteer read this to him lazily and handed him a receipt. “For taxes,” they said, and then hoisted one of the bags into their arms. Avery wondered if he could help carry the bags into the sorting facility, but they said that was quite all right, so he got back in his car and drove home.

That was several months ago.

“Are you ready to part with it all?” the therapist had asked him that day. Avery didn’t answer right away. Instead, he thought of his trunkful of his aunt’s things and wondered at how they had moved from one place to another, bereft since she’d taken her last breath in the hospital.

First, they had cleared out her studio. She was young, much younger than his parents, and had lived alone. She felt more like a big sister to Avery than anything else and when she went, he realized that the good really could die young and for seemingly no reason at all. His mother had packed her baby sister’s things with great care. She’d folded all her clothes gently, wrapped her jewelry in tissue paper and laid it in boxes, removed her artwork from the walls and placed it all in a portfolio. They put her old diaries into a separate box that they would be taking back home with them. They found a drawer filled with cards and letters from past birthdays and Christmases and lovers and put those in the separate box, too. They wrote down everything. Once the sorting was done, Avery was put in charge of the actual donating, and everything was loaded into his car.

Next, they cleaned from top to bottom. Every sound echoed through the empty space as they worked, and they could hear each other from different parts of the apartment. While Avery was dusting the baseboards in his aunt’s now-barren room, he could hear his parents talking quietly in the bathroom on the other side of the wall. It sounded like one of them might be crying.

As the afternoon wore on, a strong smell of cleaning solution wafted throughout the studio, and they threw open all the windows so they could breathe. When they were done, everything felt sterile. She was gone. Avery’s mother left the apartment keys on the kitchen counter on their way out. She called the landlord to let them know the unit was officially empty. His parents told him they would see him at home. Avery’s car sagged with his aunt’s belongings, and he drove around with them for three months after. 

“I don’t know,” Avery had said to his therapist. “They’re just things, aren’t they?”

His therapist nodded solemnly. “But they were her things.”


“And…” the therapist ventured after a beat, “you’ve kept them with you all this time. It’s hard to let go of anything that’s been with you for a while, even if the thing itself doesn’t mean all that much to you. I find it always feels a little strange.”

Avery nodded, but this wasn’t true. They meant everything to him.

It was strange seeing it like that on someone else, warming another body, the way it hung on that person’s bones. But it hadn’t even been her favorite shirt. She mostly wore it on days when she didn’t feel like trying, days when she was simple and slow and close to home. Avery remembered her coming over one day years ago to babysit and she was wearing it. He was almost eight. It was the first time he remembered seeing it. His parents were almost out the door.

“What does that mean?” he had asked her, pointing.

“What?” She looked down. “‘California Dreamin’?”

He nodded and she frowned at him like he was playing a joke. “You know? Like the song?” Avery looked back at her blankly. She raised her eyebrows. “Come on, you know! ‘All the leaves are brown’?”

Avery stayed silent. She rolled her eyes. “Oh my God,” she’d said, shaking her head. “You two don’t teach him anything!” His mother had laughed; his father shrugged. She walked swiftly to the family computer and pulled up a video on YouTube. “Listen,” she said from over her shoulder. “It’s a classic.” And then she’d played it—those first twangs of the guitar mysterious and light—and he was transported to another world.

His parents finally gone for the evening, Avery and his aunt laid on the floor side by side. Her eyes were closed, and the song drifted over them and around the room like a mist. The melody made him feel like he was floating. She knew every word and each time it ended, Avery asked to hear it again.

He had forgotten about that day, or else buried it. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d even heard the song. Possibly on the radio. They might have even played it in the restaurant sometimes. That last day had been a day like they sang about. A gray sky and dead leaves, melancholy and mysterious. Avery had parked at the Goodwill and waited. Finally, he popped the trunk and got out. He hadn’t looked back there since they’d cleaned her apartment. He’d kept everything sitting here in the dark. Her books had been jostled, no longer in the neat stack his mother had made when packing them up. The toe of one of her shoes poked out of its bag, a faded white with a smudge of dust. Avery’s chest hurt.

He carried her things to the drop-off station one by one. As he walked, he caught frequent whiffs from her clothes: musty and stale, the perfume of attics and basements and forgotten places. When he placed the last bag on the asphalt, he saw it pressed against the stretched polyethylene—the burgundy letters muted beneath the milky white of the trash bag. California Dreamin’

That was the last time he saw any of it. That was the last time he looked.  

“Um, excuse me?”

Avery blinked. An older woman was standing in front of him with a sour expression on her face. “I said I wanted a burrito,” she said curtly.

Avery stared at her for a moment. He glanced at the door then back at the customer before him. There was a considerable line forming behind her. The assistant manager shot him a look from behind the register. “Oh,” Avery said, coming back. “Yeah, coming right up. I’m sorry, Ma’am.” He grabbed a tortilla from the warmer and laid it flat, then he thrust the silver spoon back into the tub of golden brown. 

Kathryn H. Ross is an LA-based author and freelancer. Read her at

© 2023, Kathryn H. Ross

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