That morning remains only a blur in my memory.
I remember walking into Spanish, only because my purse decided to fall apart on me and everything scattered on the floor. I remember Tanner grabbing my Stats book, and me, awkwardly taking it from him, avoiding eye contact the entire time. I remember him opening his mouth to say something, and me, cutting him off to thank him and hurry, blushing, to my seat. I remember Señora Candell, addressing the class, although the actual context of the conversation no longer remains in the confines of my memory. I remember the voice on the loudspeaker, calling me to the principal’s office, though the resounding jeers from my classmates are no more than reminders I’ve managed to gather from Gina. These things only do I remember, though I know these details will fade from my mind as did other details from that morning.
The events following my steps into Mrs. Gianti’s office, however, will forever be engrained into my memory.
I edged cautiously into the room, expecting a derisive speech concerning my participation in the senior prank. The sight before me stopped me in my tracks. Mrs. Gianti, the iron-handed enforcer of school policies, sat at her desk, her eyes reddened and damp. She was still, a single tear flowing down her face before violently crashing on the desk below.
She saw me, standing awkwardly at the door, embarrassed to have intruded on her private moment. But it was not grief, as I had predicted, but pity that distorted her normally harsh features. Suddenly, I found myself praying for the reprimand.
Her next words I will remember always, although I have not the heart to say them now. All I can bear to say is that her tears were genuine, and her suggestion that I join my parents at the hospital well-intentioned.
Yet my refusal was abrupt, almost too abrupt for her liking. I did not cry—I couldn’t find a true enough emotion in me to cry. All that flew through my mind was a furious rat race of memories, and the repetition of the one name I had grown to rely on. My brother’s. Caleb’s.
But I couldn’t rely on Caleb anymore; Mrs. Gianti’s tears had made that viciously apparent. I only knew that I needed to get back to Señora Candell’s classroom, though whatever driving force sent me there I still don’t understand, nor will I ever. I don’t even remember the walk to the classroom, although I found myself at the door sooner than I had hoped.
I wandered into the room haphazardly, losing all focus as I stepped into a harsh reality. All around me seniors smiled and laughed, yet the laughter surrounded me mockingly and fear crept into my mind. Fear of a life without the young nine year old I’d watched grow up. Fear of a life forever devoid of laughter and joy. Fear of the aching in my heart.
The overhead light suddenly seemed blinding to me, as I looked desperately around for Gina. My breath came in ragged gasps, but when I found her frightfully comforting smile I felt no relief, no sense of lifted weight from my shoulders. It was as if Atlas had not only given me the weight of the sky, but granted me also the weight of the ground. I was being crushed under the power of this knowledge. One second I was floundering in a sea of pain, with no way out.
And in one more instant I was bereft of all emotion. I was left without any will, without any hope. I felt no pain; indeed I felt nothing at all, as my mind threw white flags into the premise of death. And, as my eyes glazed over and the blackened edges of my sight advanced, I felt my mind surrender its processes to a dark cloaked man, whose name I knew I should remember but couldn’t recall. The last physical sense I knew was a sharp pain above my left ear, and the flow of some warm liquid as I lost all consciousness.
“Kiley, can you hear me?”
Gina’s voice rang in my ears perfectly, but my lips refused to part to tell her so. The pain in my head dulled to a mere ache, and I managed to open my eyes.
I did not see Gina, as I had expected, but a vast gray nothingness instead. Here there was no pain, no feeling at all, nothing but an endless expanse of gray all around. Although I was aware that I was sitting on something, it felt neither hard nor soft nor a combination of the two. I was numb, but, had I been capable of emotion, this numbness would have come as a relief.
I wasn’t happy, but I no longer cared. I could accept the numbness to replace the pain.
“Gina, what happened?”
Señora Candell’s voice reverberated around me, causing the thick, gray air to pulse with every syllable.
“I don’t know. She just passed out. She hit her head Señora; it won’t stop bleeding!”
The panic in her voice sent the air around me racing like a heartbeat, even as mine slowed steadily.
“I called an ambulance; it’ll be here soon. Come on Kiley; stay with us…”
Although my heart skipped in reaction to Tanner’s voice, my mind could not process the emotion of shock, and even after the skip, it progressed, ever slower, as the voices began to fade. Even the pulse of their words became lighter and lighter, following the trend my heart was setting.
“Kiley, everything’s gonna be okay. Just hold on!”
Gina’s words were now so faint they were barely a whisper to my ears.
Didn’t she understand? Didn’t she realize everything was already better? Even the pain in my head was beginning to lessen. This place of nothingness, devoid of emotion, was the only home left for me.
I could no longer hear the entire conversation taking place, though I recognized that new voices had entered. The last thing I heard was a vague argument between two voices, a boy’s I barely recognized, and a man’s I didn’t. Then, my pulse stopped and the air around me stood still.
Time passed slowly. For what felt like hours, I sat in a gray oblivion, not thinking, not breathing, not feeling. I felt no boredom; I simply stared at a gray sky endlessly extended into eternity.
Suddenly the infinite gray sky jerked, as if a thin bolt of electricity flashed across it. Shapes swirled around me, and the ground underneath me warped and roughened.
Confusion and panic overwhelmed my senses and I pushed away from the ground. My hand slid across a jagged rock, tearing the soft palm. Twisting onto my stomach, I crawled up what had become an ominous mountain of sharp boulders, struggling to reach a gnarled tree high atop the peak. Very soon, my knees and legs were covered with deep scrapes and my hands were stained red. Tears streaming down my face, I finally reached the distorted trunk of the tree, and grasped the coarse bark with my blood-stained fingers. I gazed past the barren branches, my pain and sorrow distorting my once quiet face. I spun around, slamming my back into the abrasive wood, and faced the thing I had crawled desperately away from.
A person in a long black cloak stood silently, staring at me from the bottom of the hill. As he walked forward, all the desire to escape his unfaltering gaze drained from my face. Resignedly, I slid down the trunk of the tree, strips of my skin peeling against the serrated surface, not even bothering to register the searing pain that was coming from my spine.
The hooded figure stopped in front of me, continuing to stare although I lay helplessly before him. He lowered to his knees, or at least where I assumed his knees would be, until his shadowed face reached eye-level with mine. His face was nothing but a dark hole of shadow underneath his hood.
My tears remained as sticky, cold pathways to the edge of my chin, and, though it no longer spilled from my eyes, sorrow still wound its way through every facet in my features. The edges of my lips dripped limply, my eyelids barely fluttered above my eyes, and my hair swung wildly into my face, untamed and unnoticed. I leaned my head against the trunk, exhaustion coursing its way through my body.
“Just do it,” I whispered, to the hooded figure.
The cloaked man stood, brandishing a scythe that I hadn’t noticed before then. He stood up completely straight, standing nearly seven feet tall and holding the scythe high above his head, ready to strike. A breeze blew behind him, gently rustling the long tears in his black cloak. I winced at the cold wind on my stinging wounds, while the man in black gently lowered his weapon, and nodded, as if conversing with some unheard whisper in the wind. He raised his hand once more, and I held my breath waiting for the final, life-ending blow I knew was coming. The man swung his arm forward violently.
The scythe flew from his hand to the left of me, where I watched it disintegrate into a fine black mist and blow away in a light breeze. Turning back in shock, I witnessed the cloaked man turn around and slowly walk away from me, back down the hill.
Shock and anger rattled my bones, as tears once more retraced the well-worn trails down my cheeks. “Just kill me!” I screamed. “I want death! It’s what I deserve God damn it!”
Yet he continued to walk away, undisturbed by my emotional devolution behind him. Collapsing once more against the tree, I curled into a ball and shivered against the biting wind that surrounded me.
“It’s not your time to die,” the breeze sighed into my ear. I recognized that voice. Slowly, I lifted my head as tears continued to fall.
Faintly, in the distance, a pinkish glow began to appear.
The sun rose elegantly, like the most beautiful painting I had ever seen, one singular ray of light at a time. The light blasted its way past the brewing storm clouds, shoving the gray omens away, and leaving an ever-growing strip of blue shining down on that dead, barren wasteland.
I watched, unable to move, as the dead ground began to come alive. Wind whipped through the dying grass, dancing through the scorched yellow blades. Suddenly they’re broken stalks began to bend fluidly, sprouting beautiful golden foliage.
Like the tides of the oceans, the wind fluttered in waves, each one pushing further from the glowing horizon. The wind surges lapped at my hill, and I watched as each one pulled forth daisies and yellow zinnias as they advanced upon it. Each blast of wind weathered the rocks, until their surfaces were as soft as the petals of a rose. The swells flirted with my toes, inching ever closer in an agonizingly long dance, never reaching the bare skin yet always returning, hoping for the extra burst of energy needed to achieve that single tender caress. Finally, one brushed the very tip of my toe.
Instantaneously wind surged up and in my body. Warmth coursed up the tattered skin on my back, allowing my tank top to slide once more onto freshly healed skin. I watched as the skin on my hands and knees closed, and the pain subsided. The gale lifted even my heavy heart, as its comforting heat poured through my muscles.
I leaned once more against the tree, whose bark had softened and whose branches had flowered cherry blossoms. One final burst brought with it the sound of laughter, and I looked up at the horizon where the silhouette of a young boy stood, framed by the glowing light around him. A silent downpour of tears fell from my eyes, falling gracelessly upon the soft soil that had replaced the rocks beneath my feet.
The silhouette shifted, running through the grass, the light no longer blocking his image but highlighting it. A familiar laugh erupted from his lips and he danced through the golden sea, paralleling the movements of the ever-changing waves that rippled through the thriving field. He made his way to the very edge of my hill and glanced up to where I stood, staring down at him, awestruck. The sight of his glittering blue eyes pulled forth more tears, as he scrambled up the smooth rocks, dancing his way up to me. When he was exactly level with me, the boy stopped, smiled at me, and spoke.
I flung my arms around Caleb’s neck and hugged him tighter than I’d ever hugged anyone before that moment. Tears flowed steadily down my cheeks, dripping onto his back and forming little wet trails down his shirt.
“I thought I’d lost you,” I breathed, almost entirely to myself. Caleb shoved me away, his eyebrows furrowed. He tilted his head to the side as concern flooded his glittering eyes. His lips formed a perfect little frown as the lines on his forehead exposed the intense thoughts running through his mind.
“Why?” It was a simple question, one that he’d asked too often. Half of these questions had gone unanswered because of their incessant repetition. But here this question felt out of place.
“Caleb,” I spoke tenderly, as if I was speaking to some incoherent child. “Mrs. Gianti told me that you were dead.”
He did not look confused as I had expected. The furrowed eyebrows and forehead fell. Confusion was washed away by an onslaught of pity, as the glittering eyes softened and the tense frown relaxed. Concern never left his face.
“I am dead.”
My hands jerked away from him. It was true. My brother was gone. I’d lost him.
Tears began to follow their familiar course down my cheeks as I shrunk back against the tree, wishing for the bark to tear at my skin once again. At least physical pain could take me away from this biting psychological pain. It could mask the heartbreak, at least temporarily.
My eyes closed as I whispered to the sky.
“I have lost you.”
“You haven’t lost me just because I’m dead. I’m here, aren’t I?”
My eyes snapped open as his words registered in my mind. If he was dead, how was I talking to him now?
Suddenly I remembered Señora Candell’s classroom. I remembered Gina’s face, and my panic. I remembered the searing pain at the back of my head and the warm flow of blood down my neck. I reached my hand up to the back of my skull, but the pain was gone and no blood slid down my neck. I looked back at Caleb. Hope filled my stomach. For a few seconds I saw a light, an out, a piece of Heaven waiting for me to find it. “Am I dead?”
Caleb started, his look of concern deepening.
“No, you’re alive.”
And as quickly as it had come, hope deserted me. My throat constricted and I could feel the tears welling up in my eyes. Yet before they could break, Caleb was at my side. I looked into those bright blue eyes that I would never again see and my heart stopped.
“I don’t want to live. I wasn’t supposed to outlive you.”
His look of sympathy was tragic. Never had a nine-year-old shown such understanding. It was unsettling. I wanted him to smile. I wanted him to laugh. I wanted him to tell me that he’d always be there to beat up the guys that hurt me, like Tanner.
“Don’t jump to conclusions, about me or Tanner.”
I stared, confusion filling all my features.
“How did you—”
He smiled the same coy smile he had used when he’d hidden my things among the disaster zone that was his room. The memories brought more tears, but his hand on my cheek stopped them before they could start.
“Kiley, I’m here.” He struggled to explain what I obviously couldn’t understand. He sighed, bringing a tiny smile to my lips. “You can’t lose me, because I’m here.”
“And where’s here?”
He laughed, as if I should have known better. He glanced at the still rippling field, and pointed to somewhere just past my hill. The fields ebb and flow circled around a small sign, its wooden face bearing the words I had read to Caleb every night since he was three: “Oh the places you’ll go”. And as I focused farther along the horizon, I saw my life. The clouds drew out memories—Caleb’s first birthday or my first date—while the wind played the soundtrack—the laughter, the voices, the music of life. My dreams and imaginary friends frolicked among the field. Immediately behind the sign Tanner looked up and smiled at me. I blushed and turned back to Caleb, focusing all of this information into one solitary realization, the thought resurrecting the pain in my head. We were in my mind.
“How did I get here?”
“I don’t know. It’s your head. What you need to know is why.”
I sighed at his unending search for reason.
“Fine. Why am I here Caleb?”
“I can’t tell you that.”
“Why? Because you’re a figment of my imagination? A dream that knows only what I already know?”
“Of course not. I am me. At least I’m the part of me that lives in you. I can’t tell you because I’m not you. I don’t know what you know.”
That silenced me. I had no snippy sarcasms to spout, no questions, no tears even. I sat against the tree, staring at the wooden sign, trying to comprehend the words that had come from my brother’s mouth. The effort worsened the pain in my head.
“You’re a part of me.” The thought was difficult to comprehend, yet even as it struggled to come together the air around me started to pulse. Pity and concern left Caleb’s face to be replaced by the purest joy I had ever seen. “What?”
“Your heartbeat.” He smiled as if that could explain everything.
“What about it?”
I hadn’t even noticed the absence of my pulse, yet, as soon as Caleb pointed it out, it was as if some hole had been filled. My head began to ache even more.
“Then why is my head killing me?” I looked up to see panic-stricken eyes on me. I put my hands out defensively. “Not literally.”
Caleb’s body relaxed instantly, and he slumped down beside me.
“Kiley, I have to tell you some things but I don’t have much time.”
At the very edge of the field the sky began to darken. The darkness crept forward from the edges, silently engulfing all that it touched. I watched my three-year-old imaginary friend and last year’s backpacking trip disappear before my very eyes.
“Caleb, what’s going on?”
“You’re waking up. I have to tell you not to lose faith.”
More imagined creatures and dreams were swallowed by the darkness. My head ache focused itself at the back of my head, where I’d crashed my skull into a desk.
“What does that mean?”
“And you need to trust your gut, and Gina. She loves you.”
The darkness had reached the bottom of the hill and was now traveling closer and closer to where Caleb and I sat.
“Trust Gina? But if you’re here, can’t I just talk to you?”
“That’s the last thing, Kiley. I’ll always be here, but you won’t always see me.”
The darkness had reached the very top of the hill. I was backed up entirely to the tree, trying so hard to keep away from the darkness, but Caleb had already stood and walked toward it. He stopped at its edge, and let it travel up his legs, slowly engulfing his entire body.
“Be brave Kiley. I love you.”
And then I was alone on the hill, with the darkness slowly advancing upon me and the pain in my head intensifying with every approach. It crept closer and closer, flirting with my feet, until it finally captured them in its black embrace.
It was like stepping into a warm bath, but it was completely dry. It lapped up my legs, surrounding my whole body, and as it encompassed me entirely my breathing became steadier and more regular. I closed my eyes and let the comforting darkness consume me, drifting off to sleep for the first time in what felt like years.
When I opened my eyes, all I saw were white tiles. The back of my head ached dully, but the pain was subsiding slowly. Light overwhelmed my eyes, as my nose was attacked by the bitter sterile scent of cleaning products and immaculate rooms. Slowly, the black and white contrasts evened out. I groaned.
I felt fingers wrap around mine, and a loud whisper next to me.
“She’s waking up!” The familiar voice of my best friend flooded my ears, much louder than a whisper should have been.
“Gina, why do you bother to whisper? Everyone on this floor can hear you.”
I placed my hands at my side as I tried to sit up, but my weakened bed-ridden arms slipped under the weight of my torso. Two sets of hands held my back, lifting me into a sitting position. The IV in my veins tugged uncomfortably at my arms, but I supposed that the bags of saline were less intimidating than bags of blood. Right?
I blinked, making a mental note to check with the doctor on that fact when I noticed who the second pair of hands belonged to. The first had been Gina, as I’d suspected, but next to me stood a weakly smiling Tanner. “Hey,” he whispered, barely audible even in the silence of the room. I sat, gaping, my throat constricting, unable to utter a single syllable. I took a ragged breath.
“Y-you see, Gina. That’s how you whisper.”
Tanner chuckled, as Gina shoved her hands into her hips.
“Oh ha ha. Very funny.” But her sarcasm was destroyed by the relief and joy in her smile.
The door opened abruptly, as a doctor with a clipboard stormed into the room.
“I need you two to leave, while I examine Ms. Teylon.”
This time Tanner’s voice was clear and angry.
“Young man, your friend is fine. I only need to—”
“I’m not leaving her side.”
Gina’s grip on my hand tightened.
“Neither am I. Not unless she asks us to leave.” She turned her head to me, eyes pleadingly wide and her mouth just barely open. “Kiley, do you want us to stay?”
I looked at these two people, refusing to let me out of their sights for any length of time. These two people were latched onto me, when mere minutes before I had been frantically trying to leave them behind. They had refused to give up on me, when even I had given up on myself. I had been willing to die, while these two needed me to live. They had been willing to take it on faith that I would come back to them, even as I had forgotten all about it. I have to tell you not to lose faith.
Next to me, Tanner’s uneven breath told me that I knew what he’d done last night. I’d heard that same breath after every party we’d ever been to. The bags under his eyes, and the chewed-up ends of his fingernails. He was a wreck, barely able to stand on his own. Not able to support himself. He needed someone to lean on, yet here he stood. He was holding me up with the last of his strength. In my gut, I knew that he wasn’t going to leave, because he cared more than he would let on. Trust your gut.
Tears flooded my eyes, as I glanced at the lines on Gina’s wrists where she had sliced her own skin. Her fidgets and her darting eyes betrayed her. She still feared these white walls. She wanted out of them. She had since the day she’d woken up on a bed just like this one, after having had her stomach pumped and the pills washed out of her system. She hated this place. Yet she never once let up her grip on my hands. She stayed by my side, begging me to tell her not to leave the one place she wanted so desperately to flee. Trust Gina.
My eyes flitted upward at the window sill, where a vase of daisies and yellow zinnias sat. My heart leapt into my throat, as a wind blew through the petals, carrying with it the faintest sound of laughter. I’ll always be here, but you won’t always see me.
I looked up at the doctor, her condescending eyes narrowing on mine.
I fiddled with the zipper of the grey sweatshirt as I stood next to the grave. I couldn’t take my eyes off the soft green mound. I’d missed the funeral while I’d been in the hospital. After that I hadn’t had the heart to visit the cemetery until now. The grass had almost completely grown back over the dirt, and the headstone was set to be put in next week.
Mom and Dad had gone on a road trip. They’d asked me to come, but I’d said no. I’d stay over at Gina’s house. They worried about me, but I worried more about them. My gut told me that they were struggling more than they let on. I was beginning to wonder if they only ate because we had food already prepared. I’d sent them away with a cooler of frozen dinners just in case. They were driving around the country, to all of the places we’d always meant to go as a family. I’d take that trip one day, but I had more pressing matters at the moment. Besides, they needed time to themselves.
After I woke up, Gina had explained everything that had happened while I was unconscious. Tanner had argued with a paramedic to accompany me to the hospital. Gina had watched them try to restart my heart after it had stopped beating. They’d gotten it back up, but I hadn’t woken up. I’d just slept.
While I stayed in the hospital, neither Tanner nor Gina had left my side. Gina brought over my laptop and a million and one movies, while Tanner slept in one of the chairs. After a lot of begging, my parents had given them permission to stay the night. I’d told both of them about my dream. I hadn’t expected them to believe me, but they both did. After that, only daisies and yellow zinnias were allowed in my room.
None of us were perfect. I’d had a major breakdown the day I had tried to return to school. I don’t know what had set me off, but I know that I was crying inconsolably until Tanner had come over. He literally picked me up and carried me to the janitor’s office, where we sat for three periods. He hadn’t let me go once. He just sat there with his arms around me, as I cried for three hours.
Two days later, I had to walk Tanner home from a party, where he’d lost control. The bags under his eyes had stayed for weeks after that. It was at that point that Gina and I banned him from parties without one of us as supervisors. He’d refused to talk to us for a week, but he’d followed our rules.
Three weeks later Tanner and I caught Gina with a razor. She wouldn’t stop bleeding, until Tanner got the bandages from the garage and wrapped her wrists. I’d thrown out all of our razors. She said we were punishing her with hairy legs.
And now I stood here, at the sight of my brother’s grave, my heart sinking so fast that I couldn’t see it ever coming back up. The weight of the sky was still strapped to my shoulders, and I couldn’t breathe. I was failing.
Tanner grabbed my hand, his fingers entwined with mine. I took a deep breath, and my lungs inflated. I forced myself to remember that my heart was still there, in my chest. Gina joined us, her hand taking mine as well, and suddenly we all shared the weight of the sky.