In Her Wake
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But all that has changed.
Silence hangs between Madison and me. I wait for the break in it. I know it’s coming. She’s picking at her fingernails. She only does that when she’s about to do something uncomfortable.
“My grief counselor said she could fit you in, if you’re interested in talking to someone.”
“I have talked to someone.” I slide out the bottle from my pocket and give it a shake. The small green-and-white Prozac capsules rattle like a maraca. Apparently they take three to four weeks to take effect. They should be kicking in any time now.
“But you’re not getting better.”
“Not everyone can forget as easily as you can.” The second the words are out of my mouth, the second I see her face crumble, I’m hit with a wave of regret.
“Who are you?” she cries out, tears streaming down her cheeks. Madison’s never been good with confrontation. “I want my Cole back. I can’t deal with this one anymore! You’re not the only one who lost Sasha!” I don’t have a chance to apologize before she’s running up the stairs.
I should get up, should chase after her, should apologize over and over again.
But I open my computer up and continue staring at sixteen-year-old Kacey Cleary’s bottomless blue eyes instead.
I hit “replay” for the tenth time, on an old video of a fifteen-year-old Kacey. Her grin is wide as her team’s rugby coach gets drenched with a bucket of water. I thought only guys did that sort of thing. That’s certainly not the case here, not with her as the team captain, anyway.
It seems like Kacey was a bit of a prankster—the water bucket incident just one of many practical jokes I’ve found evidence of—which means she must have a wicked sense of humor. I can tell that her teammates really like her. At any given time, she has at least four of them flocking around her. Every time her lips move, they’re laughing. An easy, pleasant confidence swirls about her that is so rare around girls, at least any that I’ve known. Madison sure never had it. She’s always been shy and rather oblivious to her appeal. While I adore her charm, there’s something decidedly sexy about a girl who’s comfortable with herself.
But has that all changed for Kacey?
I feel like someone slammed the sign into my gut.
“I never imagined they’d sell. Susan loves that house.” My mom sidles up behind me and wraps her arm around my waist as I look out on the Daniels property from our step. “Up one day and the agent already has multiple offers.”
I search for the right words but there are none, so I settle on trying to clear the lump in my throat.
“It’s nice to see you out here, Cole. You could use some sun.” Her hand reaches up to touch my cheek. “And a shave.”
The sound of my own name irritates me. At first, it just earned a few raised hairs. Then a prickle. Then a wince. Now, though, I hear “Cole” and I feel like I’m being reprimanded for something horrible that I’ve done. In my head, that paramedic’s voice still says it over and over again, as she tends to me while my friends lie dead mere feet away. While Kacey sits trapped in that car.
When I hear my name, a fresh wave of guilt flows through me.
I wish she’d stop using it.
“I saw Madison earlier. She was asking about you. She said you had a fight?”
Aside from a few check-in texts, I haven’t talked to her since she ran out of the rec room almost three weeks ago. She’s heading back to Washington next Thursday.
Two days before I leave for Michigan State.
There’s no physical reason why I shouldn’t go back to school. My ribs and my collarbone have set, based on the latest doctor’s appointment and X-rays. The doctor even mandated weights to build my muscle back up. He’s cleared me for football practice.
Too bad I’ve already quit the team.
Coach had been sending me emails periodically over the summer, checking in. I finally told him two weeks ago. I don’t think he was too surprised. Of course, I haven’t told anyone else yet. It doesn’t really matter, in the grand scheme of things. I’d just rather forget about football and move on.
I have been studying, though. If I took the exams today, I could probably get by with C’s.
“Why don’t you go over there and talk to her? Apologize,” my mom says with a gentle push against my back.
I sigh, knowing it’s time that I got this over with.
I remember the last time I actually knocked on this door. I was seven and had just had a huge fight with my dad. Naturally, I snuck out my bedroom window with a bag of clothes and my G.I. Joe figurines, intent on running away. Even more naturally, I headed straight for my second home. I figured knocking on the door was the best opener before I pled my case about why Sasha’s parents should let me move in with them. How I didn’t eat much and Sasha and I could share a room.
It’s the exact same door, only now it’s painted black instead of forest green.
It takes a few minutes for it to open and, when it does, it’s not Madison standing before me. It’s the woman who knows me as well as my own mom does.
“Hello, Cole,” Susan Daniels says. I always used to tease Sasha, saying that his mom may “stay at home” but she had a side profession working as a phone sex operator. Pissed him off something fierce. I don’t hear the sultriness in her voice now, though.
Her sadness must have stifled it.
Without meaning to, I count the seconds of awkwardness. Three. They feel like thirty.
But then she steps forward and wraps her arms around my neck, forcing me to stoop as she pulls me down into her short body, her grip tightening around my recently healed collarbone.
“I’m so happy to see you,” she whispers as she shifts away, her hands stalling on my scruffy cheeks, holding my face in place as she stares up at me, searching. As if those eyes that both of her children inherited are trying to communicate silently to me.
I wonder if she can read the apology within mine.
I don’t think I’ll ever stop saying I’m sorry.
She smoothes her shirt down over her hips as she backs up, making room for me to walk in. I have to hold my breath as I step over the threshold, as if I can’t possibly handle breathing and striding into Sasha’s home simultaneously.
She must sense it because she quickly takes my hand and leads me forward, down the hall, past the living room that I hung out in almost every Saturday night of high school, before heading out to a party or a movie or general teenage boy shenanigans. Gone are the stacks of DVD cases and clutter of family photos sitting on the mantel. Gone are the collections of knickknacks and trophies from the bookshelf. The “office” in the corner—a desk normally buried with stacks of papers and stationery, where Cyril does the bulk of his accounting work—is missing. The Daniels home now sits tidy and coordinated and void of its personality, hiding its pain, ready to welcome an oblivious new family.
“Aren’t you going to miss it here?” The breath I’ve been holding escapes with my words, making me sound all husky and emotional.
Her fingers clamp around mine. “I think we could all use a change,” is all she says.
Even though I have a damn good idea where she’s leading me, my feet still stall as we step into Sasha’s room.
Or, what was Sasha’s room. “It looks different in here.” My gaze absorbs the light gray walls, once army green and mottled with dents from the tennis ball Sasha liked to bounce off them, both to relieve stress and to drive his sister—her headboard just on the other side—nuts. The TV and Nintendo, the sports posters, the blue-and-green plaid bedding that he’s had in his room since we were thirteen . . . gone.
I don’t even recognize the room.
Sasha has been erased. I’m not sure if I have a right to be upset by this, but I am. I bite my tongue against the urge to spew accusations that would be both hurtful and untrue.
Susan opens up the closet and points to a sizeable cardboard box with my name scrawled in black marker on the side. “I was cleaning out his room and I thought these things should go to you. You know . . .” Her lips press together in a tight smile. “A way to remember your friendship. You meant everything to him, Cole.”
I know her words are intended to be kind, but she might as well have driven a railroad tie into my throat. Forgetting our friendship will never be a problem for me.
I can’t manage a response besides, “Thanks.”
“It’s heavy. If you need Cyril to carry it over for you, I can—”
“No, I’m good.” I’m moving fast, diving down to wrap my fingers around the base of the box and lifting. Because, suddenly, I just want to get the hell out of here.
I step into the hallway, box loaded in my arms, and find Madison in the doorway of her room. Now I remember why I came here in the first place. “Hey, Mads.”
“Hey.” She dips her head to the side, her eyes meeting her mom’s in a silent exchange.
“Well, the open house starts in two hours. I should go and get those cookies in the oven. I read that prospective buyers like that sort of thing.” Susan gives my arm one more rub before quietly trailing down the hall.
I make my way into Madison’s room, also freshly painted but not as drastically changed. There are still the same floral sheets that she had on that very bed the night she gave me her virginity three years ago.
Madison’s throat bobs with a hard swallow as she pushes the door closed behind her. “I didn’t mean—”
I cut her off. “I’m sorry about what I said.” I’m sorry about so much more. Especially, what I’m about to do. My weak arm is starting to ache with the weight of the box. I set it down on the bed and then take a seat next to it. “I know you miss him and you’re hurting. Just as much as I am.” I rest my elbows onto my knees and lean forward, dipping my head down to stare at the wood grain in the floor, so I don’t have to face her with my next words. “I don’t know how long it’s going to take to get my shit together, Mads. I’m only going to drag you down with me while I figure it out.”
Soft footfalls approach and she leans in. Her stomach presses against my head and soothing fingertips begin sliding along the back of my neck. “It’s okay. I know you didn’t mean it. It’s just . . . it’s so hard to see you like this. I don’t know what to do or say. I don’t know how to make it better.”
“That’s the problem, though, isn’t it?” I swallow the bile rising as I reach up to take her hands in mine. I lift my head and tip it back to meet her gaze. Those eyes. Dammit. I’ve always thought they were beautiful, and yet now they haunt me. “We should be there for each other through this. But I’m not here for you. I can’t be here for you. Not right now.”
Her bottom lip starts to wobble and a watery film forms over her eyes. She’s trying her hardest not to cry. Just like when she was twelve and she tripped on the sidewalk and scraped her knee so badly, she still has a scar from the fall. She admitted years later, after we started dating, that she didn’t want me to see her cry because it would remind me that she was just Sasha’s dumb little sister. The one who’d had a secret crush on me since she was seven years old.
“What are you saying?”
I pull her tiny, rigid frame into my lap so I can hold her tight. I’ve known this girl all my life. I’ve been in love with her for the better part of four years. I turned down countless “opportunities” in college for her. I’ve thought about our future—marriage, kids, the house. Right down to the cat and dog who would fight at first but eventually learn to cohabitate.
I always said I’d kill anyone who hurt her.
I guess that’s what I’m doing now. It definitely feels like another nail in the coffin I climbed into three months ago.
It’s been a slow, painful death.
“That I want you to head back to Washington and focus on you and only you. And . . . if you find someone who can be there for you, and who you can lean on, then,” I say, though just the idea of her with someone else makes me nauseous, “ . . . I’ll be happy for you.”
“Are you—” She chokes down a sob. “Are up breaking up with me?”
“You’ve only ever been with me and I don’t want you to regret that. To feel trapped with me because of what happened.” I say it as softly as I can. “I’m letting you go, Mads.”
Her jaw drops as tears begin to roll. “No. No . . . I didn’t mean it. I was just upset. We can work through this.” She twists her body and finds my cheeks with her hands, closing her mouth over mine, her salty tears coating my lips.