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Love That Lets Go
Some people say I’m a troubled teen, but that’s not true. I’m a troubled sister. Everyone has regrets, like breaking curfew, arguing with a friend, or telling a lie to their parents. I would rather have any of those, than the kind of regret I carry with me— it’s a cold, hard stone in my stomach.
It was autumn, and I was rearranging my bedroom furniture as I so often did when something worried me. I yanked and pulled the armchair across the carpeted floor of my room. I heaved my desk to the left. When I pushed the bed aside, I saw a piece of paper sticking out from beneath it. I picked it up, and felt my chest tighten. It was a photo of me and my brother Jason. We had our arms slung around each other, and his head was flung back in laughter I could no longer hear. I was grinning too. He was ten years old then. I was nine, with a honey-blond braid, and sparkling brown eyes. We had been so happy. I kept looking at the photo, but wasn’t really seeing it anymore. I was seeing images in my mind that no one else would ever see. It was like an awful movie in my head of that terrible day. The blur that was Jason’s falling figure, the pounding hooves of our horse mingling with the pounding of my heart.
“Rebecca!” My world heaved and shook itself, like our dog Willow, after a bath. I hadn’t realized my fists were clenched, so I relaxed them, the photo crumpled in my palm. “Rebecca!” I turned and saw my little sister, Sam, in the doorway.
She bounced into my room, always in a state of effervescence.
“Want to play spies with us?” I was sure ‘us’ meant Sam and her twin sister Charlie. They are identical, but Sam has a miniscule birthmark on her chin, so I could always distinguish them.
“Sorry, Sam,” I told her. “I can’t.”
Sam scratched a bug bite on her arm. “It’s okay, I guess. But this is your third strike. You have to play next time!” She looked at me expectantly.
I gave her an older sister smile. “I won’t forget,” I sighed, adding in a more cheerful voice, “Have fun!” She bounced out again.
Strangely, I felt even emptier than before. I picked up the photo, and smoothed the creases from it. It’s weird, how life happens. I was so happy in that moment, captured by a camera. Now it was over and gone, the only proof being the picture I held in my palm, devouring the image with my eyes. Suddenly, it became unbearable to stand still, so I crossed the room and picked up
my phone, considering whether to call Carrie, my best friend since forever. I picked up the phone and heard the buzz of the dial tone. I put the phone back in its cradle. I wondered if I should try writing a poem from the deep, raw thoughts floating around my mind, but I wasn’t in the mood. It was a terrible feeling, knowing you need something but not being able to put a finger on it. I bit a fingernail. I paced. I thought and sighed then sighed and thought. I finally went to my bookshelf. The books there seemed like they belonged to a different girl, a younger sister whom I had lost long ago. I picked up a book, flipped through it, and then put it down. The heroines of most books are brave and strong during tough times. They rise up and become great in the face of adversity. But I’m just a normal, human girl. I’m definitely not perfect, by any stretch. I don’t even know if I’m brave. I hope so.
In that instance, I felt on the brink of discovering something important. Then the feeling vanished, and I was left with the hollow emptiness of the present.
The air was sharp. It smelled of burnt leaves, cinnamon and pine. The leaves of the trees were crimson, mustard and burgundy, though their outer edges still hinted of green, giving them a delightful candy coated appearance. I myself was perched in an oak tree, high among its sturdy branches. This particular tree grows outside my bedroom window, and is excellent for making a quick escape. There I sat, legs dangling in thin air. I thought how nice it would be if I were a bird. I could soar away on a breath of wind, never to experience sadness or pain again. I pulled my knees up under me, and leaned my chin on them. I watched as a squirrel pranced through the dry, brown grass, its tail waving merrily. Then, a cloud obscured the sun and I was momentarily thrown into shade. The slight temperature drop made me shiver, and I rub my arms vigorously. Something creaked loudly somewhere over my shoulder, and I started, nearly falling to the ground. It was Carrie. She stuck her head out the window, and spotted me. “There you are!” She exclaimed, looking doubtfully at the gap between the windowsill, and the nearest branch. “Do I have to climb out there?” She asked, her voice an odd mixture of amusement and trepidation.
“C’mon,” I cajoled. “It’s just a matter of practice.”
Carrie rolled her blue eyes, but she scooted onto the window ledge, and grasped a branch. “Here goes nothing,” she muttered, and swung into thin air.
I studied her. She was 13 like me, shortish, with creamy skin and vibrant blue eyes. Carrie considers her hair a personal downfall. I told her it’s chestnut. She told me it’s ‘dog poop’ brown. In spite of this, I think she is beautiful. I most love her eyes. “I’m already your friend,” they seemed to say. Carrie settled herself on the branch beside me. She gripped the trunk with both hands, her knuckles white. “Don’t look down.” I advised her.
Carrie grimaced. “You’re telling me.”
For a while, we sat in friendly silence. I was admiring a striking bird, aloft in the blue sky, when Carrie blurted, “Henry. What do you think of him?”
My immediate reaction was a boiling sensation in the pit of my stomach. I threw Carrie a sour look. “He’s an arrogant, idiotic jerk with no regard for other people’s feelings.”
Carrie expelled a puff of air. “I mean, aside from that.”
“There’s nothing else to say! You think I’m going to be his friend after he bullied my brother. “I shook my head after this outburst. “Not going to happen.”
There was a pause while Carrie fiddled with the hem of her sweater before she spoke. “He sure seems pretty miserable—at school at least.”
I thought back to school earlier that day. I recalled Henry sitting in the back row in every class, glowering at students and teachers alike, and taking care to drop his homework in a mud puddle before school. He did seem unhappy, but I had no sympathy for him. I looked sidelong at Carrie, only to find her staring back at me.
“You’ll get through this, Rebecca. You’re strong.”
Inexplicable tears jumped to my eyes, and I breathed out, hard. Carrie rooted around in her jeans pocket for a moment, and then withdrew something gray and nondescript. “Here, I picked this up for you on vacation in New Hampshire. Sorry I didn’t give it to you sooner,” she added apologetically. I took a gray, ordinary rock from her outstretched palm. “Flip it over.”
I did as Carrie said, and flipped it over. “Wow!” I breathed. There, embedded in the rock, were sparkling crystals, the exact shade of the sea, just before sunset.
“See?” Carrie beamed. “Life is like this rock. Sometimes hard and gray, but…” she turned the stone over. “It also has its shining moments.”
A smile bloomed on my face, and I felt suddenly light hearted, as though I had the heart of a bird, rather than the body of one.
“Dinner!” Dad’s voice floated up to us from the depths of the house.
elped Carrie, checking her watch. “I have to go, or I’ll be late for swim team.”
“Good luck,” I told her, “And thanks for the geode!”
Carrie clamored back through the window with more ease this time, and I followed. We hustled downstairs, and then Carrie raced out the back door, hopped on her purple mountain bike, and was gone. I walked along the hall toward the kitchen, the enticing scent of tomato sauce filling my nostrils. I entered the kitchen, and stopped dead. Dad stood, stirring a pot of something bubbly, and he was singing the theme song from Phantom of the Opera in an enthusiastic, though rather tone-deaf voice. I jammed my hands soundly over my ears and sat at the kitchen table. Dad loved singing. Pop, classics, rock, even Broadway—he did it all. The one problem was that he was horrible at it. Every time he sang, it sounded the same—toneless and squawky. He leaned down and tapped my on my shoulder. “Want to make this a duet? You’ve got a great set of pipes there, kiddo!”
I shook my head. “That’s okay, Dad. The spotlight is all yours, tonight.” Dad beamed and started belting out a song from Wicked.
A moment later mom came hurrying in, laden with several boxes of Band-Aids. “Sam hurt herself when she was playing outside,” she explained.
Sure enough, Sam came limping in, looking weary, but proud. She limped over to me. “Check out my scab!” she grinned.
“I’ll pass, Sam. D’you need some ice for it?” She nodded, and I went to the freezer. I wove around Mom, who was pretending to hit Dad with a dishtowel to make him stop singing. Sam and Charlie were now giggling gleefully, and Willow was running in frenzied circles around the kitchen.
After a dinner of Dad’s legendary jalapeno chili, I retired to my room and fell into a dreamless sleep, a glimmer of hope clinging to the far reaches of my mind.
“Morning, Rebecca!” A voice pierced my sleep-deprived brain, and I groaned. “Rebecca!” Somebody flung the curtains wide, and a ray of sunlight jarred me awake. A blurry figure stood before the window. I blinked, and Charlie swam into focus.
“Whaaat…” I moaned.
“Get up! You’ll be late for soccer!”
I resisted the urge to throw the bedside lamp at my sister. She began jumping on my armchair, joyfully. Finally, I dragged myself out of bed, and managed to pull on my soccer uniform.
Half an hour later, my entire family piled into our mini-van. Soccer is a passion of mine. Pounding down the field, maneuvering through crowds of competitive players—it is fabulous. Today, the soccer field is a crayon box come to life. The endless sapphire sky, the autumn leaves ablaze with color, the blue and orange of our uniforms. As I trotted across the Cliff Head High School soccer field, I spotted Elena Ramirez. Elena is our team captain. She has a raven ponytail that danced behind her as she bounced a soccer ball from knee to knee. She saw me and ran over.
“Oh my gosh, you’re finally here! I thought you’d never come!” She stared at me with wide, hazel eyes. I opened my mouth to apologize, but she pressed on. “So I thought we could discuss some strategies for the game, okay?” She twisted her ponytail absently.
I wasn’t really interested, but said that I would discuss some pregame ideas with her. As the minutes passed, more and more of our teammates arrived, bringing with them a sense of anticipation. At last, we got into position, the referee blew the whistle, and the game was on. I was playing mid-field, so I darted forward, weaving through the onslaught of players. The soccer ball was passed easily from person to person. We played like a blue and orange soccer machine.
For a while, I wasn’t thinking about Jason, just the excitement of the game. Then something terribly unexpected happened. I had just crossed the halfway line, when someone yelled my name. “Rebecca!” I looked around for the source. “Watch out!” Something slammed into the back of my head so hard, that I reeled.
“That’s odd,” I thought. “I seem to be falling.” The soccer field grew smaller, as though being viewed from the wrong end of a telescope. Without warning, it seemed the sun had been turned off. My world went dark.
It was like slipping back into a nightmare. I was watching my brother die. Sometimes it seemed I floated above the scene as an invisible spectator. Other times I was in my body, which at that time belonged to a terrified eleven year-old. Blurred images swirled around me. There was screaming…falling…silence. A frenzied whinny from our horse, wailing ambulances, voices that were yelling—calling to us. Then came the guilt. It charged at me, sweeping over me, clenching my stomach. “You shouldn’t have stayed with him,” a part of me said. “You should have gotten help.” I was drowning, drowning in sadness. “But I couldn’t just leave Jason!” Another part of me retorted. It was my fault, all my fault. My brother told me to get help after he’d been thrown from our horse, but I knew it was too late, much too late. There would be no more riding with Jason.
I became aware of hushed voices and concerned whispers. Random words seeped into my understanding. “Concussion…pulse…out cold.” I opened my eyes with a valiant effort. Then I remembered. The game! A soccer ball was looming above me and I reached for it. Suddenly, my vision cleared, and I realized it wasn’t a soccer ball, but Willow, her black and white head protectively close to mine. I licked my lips, and tasted salt. Had I been crying?
“Rebecca?” My mom leaned over me where I lay on grass and dirt, her head obscuring the sun. I breathed in her wonderful honey scent while she asked me, “How are you?” There was such sincerity in that simple phrase that I began sobbing all over again. Unable to speak, I rose unsteadily to my feet. My mom watched me, and I could see the longing in her eyes, though she made no attempt to stop me. I left her, where she knelt in the grass, passed my dad, whose every freckle stood out on his bloodless face, and walked away.
The whole scene—the soccer field, exuberant children, cheering parents, seemed surreal and insubstantial. I kept my gaze on the grass beneath my feet. One step, two steps, three—wham! I walked into someone, forcefully. Looking up, I saw a boy with dark hair, pale skin and eyes that weren’t refreshing like Carrie’s, but icy and unforgiving, in contrast. I glared into Henry’s piercing eyes, and spoke the one word that come to mind. “Why?” This was a statement, not a question. My brown eyes locked on Henry’s stormy blue ones. I bit the inside of my cheek so hard I tasted blood. How was I expected to heal, when every day just got harder? A muscle twitched in Henry’s jaw, and he surrounded me with his fierce stare, so full of lonely pride. We stood there, suspended in time, as I remembered his jeering face when he shoved Jason, hit him, fought him. But then Henry pushed past me, and my family came hurrying up, full of ordinary concerns.
“Are you alright?”
“Who was that?”
“Let’s get some ice on that bump, hmm?”
I followed them, mute. I took the angry words, painful questions and tears, and mentally shoved them to the back of my mind. I was tired of hurting. For now, I’d be a normal girl, devoid of tragic thoughts and memories. One day, I’d come back to them, but not today.
For one week, I was normal. At least, I became a good actor. Every morning, I forced a smile. At school, I pretended to enjoy the many conversations about pop culture, celebrity gossip, and fashion. I threw myself into my schoolwork with abandon, and was constantly occupied with some activity. I discovered that the best method of distraction was being with someone else. Somehow when those painful thoughts came knocking, they were easier to ignore in the presence of another person. The second method was staying busy. As long as I was doing homework, babysitting Sam and Charlie, or developing my soccer skills, it was okay. Then there was cleaning. I couldn’t quite understand that one, but ever since Jason died, I couldn’t stand clutter. So I scrubbed, dusted, and vacuumed my way to happier thoughts. However, when my mom found me going over the grout in our kitchen with a toothbrush yet again, she hinted that maybe I needed more counseling. I asked her why a girl couldn’t clean her own kitchen if she wanted to. Mom left the room with an expression of concern and sadness.
I was just beginning to believe that I could keep those boiling emotions under the surface, locked away in the basement of my spirit. I would have too, if it hadn’t been for Mr. Penn’s English assignment.
It seemed harmless enough. “Find one of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short stories,” he’d said. “Online, at the library, I don’t care where you find one. Once you’ve chosen, write a two page essay on style, tone, or the symbolism you notice when reading his work.” Then Mr. Penn had dismissed us, and school was over.
Carrie caught up with me out on the sidewalk. “Hey, Rebecca!” she greeted me. “I have swim team, and that I cannot be late for.” It seemed Carrie was always racing off to some after-school activity or another.
“Okay,” I sighed. “Since the school library just closed, I’ll head over to the main branch,” I told Carrie. “I want to get a head start on our Hawthorne assignment.”
“Well that makes one of us,” Carrie sighed ruefully. Her mom came cruising to a stop in a dark green Subaru, and beckoned for Carrie. Carrie gave me a fleeting wave, and was gone. I hitched my backpack up on my shoulders and exited the school grounds. The afternoon air was fresh and chill, and a few low hanging clouds threatened rain. Higher than the clouds, stretched rocky peaks of mountains. They stood rigid, like sentries guarding our town. I had always lived here, in the modest town of Cliff Head, Colorado. Not a very original name, but it was home. I strolled along a leaf-spattered sidewalk, and soon saw the library. It was a stately brick building with a single cupola perched on its roof. When I was small, I had longed to go inside the cupola, though no one was allowed. I was certain it was magic, in some way.
I climbed four stone steps, and entered the library. It was illuminated only by natural light from the windows, so the room was slightly dim. I strolled down a carpeted ramp, and paused. After thinking a moment, I headed in the direction of the H’s. “Hawthorne, Hawthorne…” I muttered, scouring the rows for his name. “Here we go!” I crouched down, in order to study the titles of his works and pulled one from the collection. It slid from my finger, and I reached to pick it up. When I glanced up again, I found myself staring into a pair of sharp, blue eyes. I blinked. The eyes were still there, set deep into Henry’s face. His eyes put me in mind of a crab, peering from beneath a rock. Was I doomed to be followed by this boy, as though he was some sort of apparition? I stood, and he mirrored me.
“I’m not following you,” he said, as if reading my mind. “I came because of our English homework.”
As he spoke, he kept his eyes fixed on the carpet. I noticed his eyelids; so pale, they were almost transparent. I remained mute, and acted as though he wasn’t there. I looked down, and pretended to be engrossed in the book I had picked up, but I knew Henry was watching me. I felt his gaze boring into me.
“You hate me,” Henry spoke again. He sounded exhausted and somehow much older than his thirteen years.
I opened my mouth to agree, and then stopped. “I hate your behavior,” I said.
Henry looked surprised at this remark. His darks brows went up, in danger of disappearing into his hairline. I was annoyed with myself. Why was I letting him off so easy? I no longer felt cool and calm. Instead, I felt like a pot of boiling water with a tight fitting lid. Either the lid needed to come off or I would overflow and burn someone. I chose the latter.
“You,” I hissed, “are an arrogant jerk. I do hate you. Everyone hates you! People say you don’t want to live in Colorado, they say you’re miserable here! Well, I have a solution. Why don’t you just move back to wherever you came from, this week!”
I might have just slapped Henry, he looked so shocked. I snatched up my bag, and marched away, full of grim satisfaction. But as I stormed up the street, Henry’s pained expression wavered in my mind’s eyes, and then it hit me… hard. I was tired, so tired of pain, whether I was being hurt, or doing the hurting. I was a kid, and so was Henry. Didn’t we have a right to be happy? Didn’t I have a right to miss my brother, but to let go of the guilt that so crushed and suffocated me?
Angry tears welled in my eyes. I was furious. “I want to be human again!” I raged into the wind. “I don’t want this anymore!” There was nothing to do, but follow my instincts. I ran.
I wasn’t Rebecca anymore. I was no longer a weather vane of emotions turning this way and that. I was pure anger. I pounded through town, oblivious to anyone watching. I made better time up the streets than if I had been in a race. I pelted flat out on narrow pavement that meandered toward our house. I kicked up pebbles, reveling in the fact that I was muddy, and didn’t care. I tore past our white shingled house, past the oak tree and barn, and ascended a rolling hill from which I used to admire the town of Cliff Head. Slipping and sliding, I reached the top. There I stood, powerful in my anger. I picked up several loose stones, and threw them in a quick succession, with no other way to vent my fury. Then, heart pounding in my ears, I recalled something Jason had once told me. He said if you put your ear to the ground and listen, you can hear the earth’s heartbeat. I hadn’t believed him, but he had finally gotten me to try. I lay on the ground. Sure enough, there was a steady, primal pulse. It seemed to speak to me, so I pressed my ear to the earth harder. I shut my eyes and listened. Nothing. A panic swept through me, and I felt as though some invisible tether had just been cut, leaving me to drift away. My head swam and my mind went numb.
All of a sudden, I opened my eyes. I was still on the hilltop. But it wasn’t okay. I had been sad before, many times before, but never like this. Anguish filled me, like a baby taken from its mother. I looked around, helplessly, and gathered a few leaves in my hand. I lay back, and placed the leaves over my face. I would just stay here, and rot, and worms would come to eat me. My only comfort was the fact that at least I would help the grass grow. I lay utterly still, even when drops of rain splattered on my cold cheeks. I was merely a speck under the lonely, gray sky. The internal ache I felt was deep, too deep even for tears. The sky split, and buckets of torrential rain came pouring down. The scene might have seemed dramatic, but it wasn’t. I was just a lonely human being who now wished I was in my room, dry and safe. I heaved myself up, and struggled down the soggy hillside.
By the time I reached home, my sneakers squelched with every step. I felt like a mutant sea creature. Once inside, I was greeted with an eerie silence. The house shunned me, pretending to be too small, with colors that felt unfamiliar. I paused to wrestle with my sodden shoelaces for a moment, and was alarmed to hear crying.
I followed the sound upstairs, and found Sam and Charlie in their room. Charlie was crying as though her heart had been crushed, and Sam wore the odd expression of a sadder, wiser eight-year-old.
“Hey,” I said very gently. “What’s up?”
Sam met my eyes, with a look of sorrow. “Genevieve teased Charlie today. She called her stupid, and shoved her, and when Charlie tried to stick up for herself Genevieve told her to drop dead.”
These words, coming from my innocent little sister made them even more chilling. I knew Genevieve was a grade above my sisters, but I had never expected her to bully anyone. I crouched down beside Charlie, and faced her. “Listen, Charlotte. You aren’t stupid, you’re intelligent, and funny, and amazing. People only say mean things when they’re hurt, afraid, or don’t feel good about themselves. I know it hurts, but they don’t really mean it.” I thought back to my fight with Henry, earlier.
“Yeah, well, why is she hurt and afraid?” pressed Charlie.
I suddenly remembered what my friend Molly, Genevieve’s older sister, had told me the previous week. Their beloved grandmother had died. “Well,” I began after a long pause, “I know Genevieve’s grandma just passed away. I bet that made her very sad. I bet she’s really hurting right now. You know what it’s like to lose someone you love.” Sam clenched her jaw, and nodded. I spoke again. “So on Monday, why don’t you talk to Genevieve? Ask her to sit with you at lunch, or invite her over. She’ll appreciate it more than you know.” My sisters looked dubious, but I knew what it was like to be abandoned by people in times of sadness. And the pain had to end somewhere.
So I sat on the floor, Sam on one side, Charlie on the other, and we watched the rain until sundown. Those were dark days for us; it seemed that all the light had gone from life. It rained and rained, and I spent the entire weekend deep inside my room and my thoughts, wondering what to do if I couldn’t find the courage to face the world again, and what to do if I did.
On Saturday evening, I was in bed, listening to the silence. It was so loud. Longing for distraction, I remembered that I’d left my mystery novel on the kitchen table at dinner. Now, it seemed incredibly far away with the long hall and stairs filled with creepy shadows. Casting my anxiety away, I flung off the covers, and tiptoed to my closed bedroom door. I grasped the knob, swung the door wide, and began the lengthy trek down to the kitchen. I crept along the shadowed hallway, praying no one would wake up and come looking for me. Down, down, down the dark stairs and past the downstairs bathroom. I slipped past the living room, stopped, and turned around. My mother was kneeling on the carpet, her honey-colored hair shimmering in the small pool of light cast by the one lamp. I stood in the doorway, watching her. She faced away from me, so I couldn’t judge by her expression how she was feeling. The seconds slid by, but I didn’t move or speak. After a long time, Mom pulled a book from the shelf beside her. She stared at the book without opening it, her body so still, she might have been frozen. Then she placed the book gently on the floor. As it was bathed in lamplight, I recognized it. It was a photo album with a pocket on its cover in which to slip a photograph. I squinted, trying to see the picture. It was a photo of Jason, me, and Carrie lying on the roof of the barn. We were barefoot and sprawled in languid serenity. I took a moment to picture that day in my mind. The great blue sky stretching in every direction, the ripples of wind that echoed through the grassy field, and the birds, wheeling about joyfully.
I shook my head. It was hard to believe Jason had died three weeks later. But no—back to the present. I moved quietly, and crept up to my mom. As I drew close, I had been expecting her to look sad, melancholic, or even downright pained. I was surprised to see her face was angry, and her eyes possessed the fierceness of a lion. For a brief second, I was almost afraid of her. Then she saw me and the anger faded. She opened her arms, and I fell into them without a word. “Couldn’t sleep either, huh?” She whispered to me.
“No,” I mumbled into her shoulder. I drew back from her, and studied her. She was staring back at me with the same look she wore when she felt a great deal, but couldn’t say it. I gestured to the album prone on the floor beside us. “You didn’t open it,” I commented. “Why?”
Mom eyed the album. “I guess maybe I’m not ready,” she said, after a long pause. I chewed my lip in thought. “I don’t think I’ll ever be ready,” she went on.
I looked at my hands nestled in my lap, and spoke to them instead. “It’s so hard, Mom.”
She held my hand, and I felt nothing would ever equal the comfort of her tender grasp. I glanced down at our hands, intertwined. We both had the same bitten off fingernails. Somehow, that tiny detail made my eyes swim with hot tears, and to keep myself from breaking down, I had to pinch my leg with my free hand so hard, that I was sure to leave a black and blue mark behind.
My mom squeezed my hand tightly. “Hold on, baby,” she whispered, and the words went straight to my heart. I knew, instead, the time had come for me to let go, but there were things I needed to do.
It took a lot of courage to touch Storm Runner. I hadn’t touched or ridden her since I lost my brother. It had all been an accident, and not her fault, but Storm had become a symbol linked to his death. Still, I loved her and I had to try again. She was in her grassy paddock, tail swinging dreamily. I approached her tentatively, praying she wouldn’t bolt. I crept closer, my boots sometimes getting wedged in the soft ground. When I was about ten feet from her, I paused taking her in. She was both beautiful and powerful, muscles rippling just beneath her chestnut coat. I quickened my pace, anxious to get the hardest part done with. I slogged along, but suddenly I tripped and flailed wildly. Unfortunately, gravity won this battle, and I landed in an ungraceful heap of limbs. Muttering, I brushed hair out of my eyes, and craned my head back to look at her. She regarded me with a comically regal air, and I had a sudden urge to giggle—me laying in the mud, and my horse looking down at me. I struggled to my feet, and placed a dirt-spattered hand on her broad back. We both shivered. A burst of electricity shot up my arm, and I knew it would be easier from now on. I clumsily swung a leg over her, and gracelessly hauled myself up. I had never attempted to ride bare back before, but I wasn’t thinking about that. I took a moment to enjoy the sensation of being atop my horse again. Storm chose that moment to canter forward. Startled, I wind milled my arms frantically and slid of her with a loud plop. At the sound of bubbly laughter, I snapped my head around.
Carrie was there, grinning and leaning on the fence. “You looked like you were falling out of an airplane!” She chortled, convulsing with giggles.
I rose, scowling in mock anger. “How dare you insult my dignity!” I roared, scooped up a handful of mud, and flung it at Carrie. It splattered on her chest. She squealed, and mirrored me. I ducked to avoid the clump of dirt aimed in my direction. To anyone watching, we probably looked like a pair of harmless lunatics. I guess these are the moments I’ll tell my grandchildren about, one day!
After a few more unsuccessful tries, I was able to remain on Storm’s back for more than three seconds. She trotted a few feet, and then stopped to eat a stray apple core, hidden in the long grass. I took one hand from Storm Runner, to high five Carrie. Somehow, I found myself on the ground again. Carrie and I spent a long time grooming Storm, and whispering into her velvety ears. When Carrie and I were little, we believed that if you told a horse your wish, it would come true. I wasn’t sure if I still believed that, but it was worth trying. When the sun was high in the azure sky, we both clambered onto Storm, Carrie gripping my waist tightly with her arms. Then we rode. One moment, we were simply two girls and a horse. Next moment, we were one creature, connected and strong. We practically flew across the expanse of grass. I knew this was a moment I’d never forget. I had conquered my first fear; riding Storm Runner. As we galloped onward, I left a layer of sadness behind. Slowly, but surely, I was living again.
“You’re sure you want to do this? “Carrie was staring at me with an expression of concern.
I nodded. “As sure as I wanted to ride my horse again.”
“But, Rebecca.” She frowned. “Talking to Henry is going to be emotionally tough on you.”
“Then I’ll just have to get stronger.”
We were sitting in my otherwise empty kitchen, still muddy from riding. Carrie stood, and I was struck by how tall and mature she looked--almost adult. I stood, too. “Carrie, I need to do this. I feel it might even be cathartic.”
Carrie broke into a smile. “Wow, your vocabulary is improving.”
I sighed in exasperation. “I’m leaving, now.”
Carrie pointed to my clothes. “No, no. You’re all muddy. You can’t go like that.”
“So what?” I retorted. Carrie grabbed her jacket from the kitchen chair. “Wait, wait, wait! Can I come?”
I stopped, one hand on the doorknob. “Why would you want to come?”
Carrie joined me at the door. “For moral support,” she said determinedly.
We left the house, and strolled along the driveway. I knew where Henry lived. I’d seen his bike leaning against the side of an old, dilapidated house with missing shingles. Carrie jogged to keep up when we headed onto the main road. At an intersection, she paused to catch her breath, while I steeled myself for the coming skirmish with Henry. We passed Lookout, and Woods Hole. I pointed out Henry’s house when we were in close vicinity.
“Whoa.” Carrie grimaced. “Looks pretty beat up, huh?”
We drew up, feeling more and more uneasy. I led the way up several wooden steps, to a porch, which was weatherworn, and devoid of furniture. A board groaned beneath Carrie’s foot, and she burst into nervous giggles.
“Shhh!” I admonished. Carrie abruptly stopped laughing, and assumed the expression of one at the deathbed of a close friend. This time I fought to keep a straight face, and turned to the front door. When I knocked, the door literally wobbled on its hinges, and Carrie and I jumped back. I heard footsteps from the depths of the house--heavy, trudging footsteps. A latch on the opposite side of the door clicked, and then it swung open. A man wearing a sweatshirt and grimy jeans gave us a baleful stare. He had Henry’s eyes, though there was something much sadder about his.
“Yes?” He grunted.
Carrie prodded me with her elbow. “Uh—is Henry here?”
I expected the man to say no, but he nodded. “He’s around back.” He jerked his chin to the left. We waited, awkwardly, until he spoke again. “Just follow the side of the house.”
I gave the man a weak smile, and turned away.
“Hey!” I whipped around, startled by the man’s sudden cry. “What d’you want him for?”
“School project.” Carrie spoke, and I had to admit, she was a good fibber.
The man’s shoulders, so tense and stressed, relaxed into a slump. “Fine,” he muttered. “Go ahead.”
We walked the perimeter of the house, careful to avoid stepping on any of the loose nails scattered in the weeds. An incessant bashing sound reverberated in the still air.
“What the heck is that?” Carrie had lowered her voice to a whisper.
I shrugged. “Not sure.”
We turned the corner of the house, and saw Henry, repeatedly kicking a scuffed soccer ball into the side of a shed. The shed quavered every time the ball smacked it. Wham, smack, thud! Henry kicked the ball a fourth time, but this time it bounced of the shed and sailed toward me instead. With the unerring skill of a mid-fielder, I punted the ball back to Henry. He gaped at us, shocked. Even when the soccer ball hit him in the stomach, he didn’t move. His eyes flicked up to the house, and then back to us, as though he wanted an escape.
“How’d you know where I live?” he interrogated.
This struck me as an odd greeting, but I shrugged. “I’ve seen you going in the house a lot.” I paused then went on. “You know how I kind of, uh, yelled at you at the library?” Henry gave a curt nod. “Well, I want to apologize.”
“Wait, let me get this straight.” Henry squinted at me. “You’re apologizing to me?”
“I shouldn’t have yelled at you.”
“But I’m a jerk, and we all know it!” Henry cried. He had a stricken expression and his eyes were wide. “I-I-pushed your brother and jabbed pencil lead into his arm, and stole his stuff! I don’t deserve to be forgiven, and I don’t want to be! I just want to be left alone. Like you said, Rebecca, I am an arrogant jerk, everybody hates me—I even hate myself! So if that’s the truth, and I know it is, why are you standing here telling me you’re sorry?”
A terrible silence followed Henry’s explosion. After a moment, Henry flung up his arms and walked away.
“Because,” I said gently, going after him. “I’m sick of having regrets and guilt. I want to forgive you, so we can both move on. Forgiving you doesn’t mean I accept what you did, but I know you feel awful about it. So I need to let it go.” Henry stood rigid, his back to me. He turned toward the fence, as though to climb over it, but it was too much for him, and instead, he dropped his head onto the fence post. His shoulders twitched, and then they began to shake.
“Is he crying?” Carrie mouthed to me.
I approached Henry with caution, and laid my hand on his shoulder. He didn’t shake it off, which I took as a good sign.
“Henry?” I waited until his sobs had quieted into the occasional sniff. “Why do you bully kids?” I put the question honestly, and even through his sadness, I could see Henry’s relief.
He raised his head and spoke, still facing away. “I’ve been bullied before. It was scary. The only way I survived, was to give it right back.” He said this with a new kind of gravity.
Behind me, Carrie shifted. “Well, aren’t you sorry for bullying Rebecca’s brother?”
Henry nodded, and turned to meet our eyes. “Jason had the life and family I didn’t. I was delusional enough to think to myself, ‘Gee, maybe if I bully Jason, I’ll feel better about my own life.’ That was the biggest lie.” Here, Henry stopped to sniff and clear his throat. We waited for him to continue. For a moment, Henry studied his sneakers, then glanced nervously at us, and swallowed. “I’m sorry.” His apology hung in the air for a second, and I realized the coldness was melting from his cobalt blue eyes. He stared beseechingly at me. “Are we okay?”
I held out a hand. “What do you think?” We shook, feeling very formal and adult. Henry and Carrie shook hands too, just for good measure. As Carrie and I departed, we heard Henry’s whoop of happiness, and turned to see his soccer ball sailing over the trees, where he had kicked it in a sudden spasm of joy. Carrie and I stopped to watch the ball where it hung amid the birds, before it dropped back to earth. I beamed at Carrie, then arm in arm, we walked straight into the sunshine.
The autumn night was clear and sharp. Masses of silver-bright stars speckled the sky. I was in my bedroom, pen in hand, writing a letter to Jason. The fact that the words pouring from me were raw and unrefined was okay. The house was cozy. The woodstove in the kitchen was burning warmly, and Dad was working on a bonfire in the back yard. I could see him through my window, rubbing sticks together like a little kid. Two weeks had passed since Henry and I made peace. Two almost perfect weeks. I’d made caramel popcorn with Carrie, played soccer with Henry (he had to admit defeat), and watched I Love Lucy reruns. I had gone through myriad photo albums with my parents. None of us had had the strength to look at them since Jason’s death. But now, I needed physical proof of his place in our family. In fact, I had developed a kind of mini photo obsession, but my family understood. Whenever they saw me knee deep in outtakes, they’d just smile and pass by. No tricky questions.
I had known for a while, that I needed to write a letter to Jason, but I hadn’t found the right words. Now, I knew exactly what I needed to say. There is a veil between my brother and me, but that will never keep me from loving him. If possible, I love him even more. My sisters are finally realizing, too, that they will never see Jason again in this time or place. Still, he lives with us, and although I can’t see him, I feel him.
I took a moment to write my closing sentence. Then, I folded the letter in half, then into quarters, then eighths. A tiny pillow of paper, which I slipped into my pocket. I meandered down the hall, stopping to peek at my sisters. Their room was empty, so I hurried downstairs, hoping they weren’t in some kind of trouble. In the kitchen, I found them, getting under my mom’s feet, laughing, and just being eight year-olds. My dad came stumping in to run cold water over his slightly scorched hands, while my mom hid a smile at his incompetence.
The back door banged open, and Carrie appeared, wrapped in a hooded sweatshirt. “Hey!” She greeted me. I wasn’t surprised by her arrival. Carrie constantly dipped in and out of our house. It was simply a part of life. She skirted the table to reach me. “Can I talk to you for a second?” I nodded expectantly. “I mean—“Carrie glanced at the joyful chaos around us. “Not here. Somewhere quieter.”
We exited through the back door. “What’s the problem?” I asked, and turned to face Carrie.
She dismissed this. “There’s no problem. I just wanted to know how your letter is coming. You know, the one you’re writing to Jason.” She faltered a little over the last word.
“It’s actually really good,” I confided. This was the truth.
“Great, ‘cause I was thinking you could maybe do a ritual with it. For closure,” she added.
I crossed my arms over my chest. “What do you mean? Like, you expect me to smoke a peace pipe over my letter, or dance around it? You’re losing your mind!”
Carrie rolled her eyes. “There are multiple meanings for the word ‘ritual,’ Rebecca!”
“I know. Yes, I think I should do one. A real ritual, I mean. But…”—I frowned. “Where would I do a ritual?”
“Try the Look-out.” I turned sharply, momentarily startled by Henry’s voice. He was striding through the darkened yard toward us.
“I called him,” Carrie explained. “Are you mad?”
I shook my head distractedly. “Why the Lookout?” I questioned.
Henry met my eyes with a sorrowful expression. “It would be the best place to commemorate anyone.”
He had a point. The Lookout was a grassy plateau from which generations had admired this miniscule patch of Colorado. As small children, Jason and I had picnicked there with our parents. When we were older, we escaped to its untouched serenity, and played Pirates or built fairy houses. The Look-out never changed. Modern life, the economy, or the latest techno gadget didn’t affect it. As most things in Cliff Head were, it was simplistic, yet beautiful and priceless. Honestly, I couldn’t believe I hadn’t thought of it sooner. I nodded to Henry. “I think we’ve found the place.”
The air was so cold and sharp, it took my breath away. I felt like an athlete striding through the dim tunnel toward the stadium. Full of nerves and hope, and fear. On either, side of me, Carrie and Henry walked, silent, but supportive. We all knew the way, step for step. So well, in fact, that our feet were mainly responsible for getting us there. Our minds were too occupied. The path gradually grew steeper, until our breath came in smoky puffs. Up and up we trudged. Then we were there, the place of countless childhood wanderings. I left the others, and walked alone to a spot almost at the edge of the precipice. I crouched down, knees cold on the frozen earth. I extracted the letter from my jeans pocket. I unfolded and smoothed it. From my other pocket, I withdrew the palm-sized geode Carrie had given me, weeks before. It glittered briefly in the moonlight before I flipped it over, and placed it on my letter. A seemingly plain rock, anchoring a sheet of paper on which both my words and tears had fallen. Almost in a trance, I stared at my small memorial. The coldness from the ground seeped into my skin, but my heart remained warm and open. There was a relieving finality to these actions. I stood and stared out at the world and the vast razor like mountains.
I realized, then, that I could be entirely alone, in a place like Antarctica, or the Sahara Desert even, and still feel connected. As though at this very moment, thousands of girls stood on hilltops having left letters for loved ones not lost forever, but simply gone before. I was aware that Henry and Carrie had joined me. There we stood, staring at twinkling lights from distant cities that blended with the stars overhead. It was so powerful and beautiful, my heart hurt. Like the feeling a parent must get when they first look into the eyes of their child. As though their heart actually expands. I would remember this forever and always.
After a while, I was done. The regretful pain I had harbored for so long, had flown away, leaving behind a tenderness and pride for my brother that would never be extinguished. We left the plateau as changed people. While my friends grew up a bit, I became more of a kid again. At least, I regained my curiosity, joy, and general zest for life. I was ready to move forward. For what it was worth, I was waiting for anything life flung at me with my arms out wide.
During the walk back to the house, my mind continued its discovery. In that inky blackness, so infinite and secretive, you couldn’t lie to anybody, especially not yourself. The darkness was relentless and honest, and you had to lay your emotions bare. I could tell by their expressions, that my friends felt something of the same. Everyone’s personality is multi-faceted; we’re all a mix of light and dark. But what really makes us who we are, in the end, is the part of ourselves we choose to act on—to grow.
As we left the narrow footpath, and turned onto the main stretch of road, a breath of wind lifted our hair and scattered leaves. It grew into a gust which uprooted pebbles and tugged at our clothes. Without warning, it became a full out windstorm.
“Hurry!” Henry yelled, above the tempest, “Run!”
We struggled against the wind’s power, keeping our heads down, and plodding forward. All I could see where strands of my own hair, whipping around me and getting in my eyes. The distant flames of our bonfire diminished, then went out. The only light we had was the moon, serene and benign. It gave me comfort. I caught sight of something floating on the wind, high over our heads.
“It’s your letter!” Carrie cried, her shock clearly visible.
It was. I recognized its many creases, and the tearstains translucent in the moon light.
“No, no!” Henry shouted, desperately.
He and Carrie scrambled to capture the letter. They jumped and reached and ran beneath it, but it was as easy as catching a wild bird. The wind lifted it high, and it was spirited away, a tiny smudge of white scudding across the dark sky. As suddenly as it had begun, the wind died, and all was still.
“I’m so sorry,” Carrie panted, bending at the waist, hands on her knees. “I just can’t believe you lost your letter.”
“Hey.” I knelt down until we were eyelevel. “It’s Jason’s letter. He can do with it what he wants. I have to let go,” I continued in a whisper.
“Yeah,” Henry nodded. “Or be dragged.”
I stood and looked at Henry. “I’m going to hug you now, okay?”
Henry groaned. “No, I—“
“C’mon,” I grinned, “You know you want to!”
“Okay, okay,” Henry laughed. “You broke me down.”
We embraced, and Carrie flung her arms around us. “Group hug!” she sang, and nearly knocked us all over.
“Oof,” grunted Henry. “You know I have a sensitive cranium!”
That got us laughing. Then we headed home. The moon lit our way back. It glimmered brightly, as though Jason was a giving a message to me alone. “Be happy. I am with you always.”
And he was.
Have I told you how much I miss you? I miss your nose, with its splatter of freckles. I miss your laughter. I miss doing the Sunday morning crossword puzzle together, and I even miss Mom yelling at you because you tracked mud on the kitchen floor. It’s the little things that make our separation so hard. You used to tell me that no matter what happened we would always be the best of friends. Well, guess what, Jason? We still are. No amount of distance will ever keep us apart. Even as I write this, I know you are with me. That doesn’t mean this has been easy. Every morning, the house is quiet because you’re not there sneaking downstairs to get coffee even though Mom and Dad told you not to. At school, your desk sits empty. Every night at dinner, you’re not there to steal my dessert. Your bed lays untouched. I don’t understand why you had to go, not when you meant so much to us. You are like my conscience and heart all wrapped into one.
Where are you? I think you’re everywhere. I hear your laughter in the falling rain, feel your fierce spirit in the wind, and remember the hours we spent sledding whenever it snows. Do you remember the times we’ve had? I think of them every day. I know you will always be a part of me. But on quiet nights when I lay in bed, and reach into the darkness to find you, hold you, hug you one last time—you aren’t there. Are you homesick? Do you look down on our little house from wherever you are, and remember the people inside who love you? I’m not afraid of dying, Jason. You taught me that people can die with grace. But I miss you so much. It might seem selfish, but I do. I miss you, but I need to set you free.
I have lived with so much pain and guilt since you died, Jason that I felt I was dying too. And the grief was overshadowing my life and all the good memories and making it impossible to heal. I was missing being your sister so much that I couldn’t be a sister to Charlie and Sam—not like they deserve. And mom and dad felt like they were losing me too. In letting the sadness go, I am able to hold onto the love and the joy. I am able to remember. In letting go, I can truly hold on to all that we were to each other. Do you understand? Don’t hang around just because we’re your family. Soar, Jason. That’s what we know you want, myself most of all. I’m so proud of you. I know you have become a part of the light, a force that will never die. This isn’t goodbye, but farewell until we meet again.
I love you to the moon and back.
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