It’s the strangest thing, hearing the voice of someone who you know is dead. It’s like, for a split second, you forget they’re gone, you forget everything and it’s just a moment of complete happiness. But then your stomach drops and the entire world comes crashing down again just like it did the first time only it’s worse this time and it hurts more this time and you’re broken all over again. It’s a cruel one, this world, and I’m an idiot for forgetting that.
I’d gotten used to it, I guess, that feeling of my heart breaking. My mom cried all the time. She didn’t know I knew but I heard her when she thought I was asleep, gasping-for-breath sobs when she said that she was okay, but I heard her; I didn’t say anything but I heard her. I cried too, but not in secret. I cried loud, ugly things, sometimes in the middle of dinner and sometimes I had to leave class to run to the bathroom so I didn’t have an emotional breakdown in front of my history teacher. My dad gets uncomfortable, he’ll look at me like I’m some nuisance whenever I cry but I couldn’t help it and besides, it would’ve been nice if he showed a little emotion, and him most of all. Mom cried because she lost her son, I cried because I lost my big brother, and Dad should have been crying about something. People at school cried because they lost the star quarterback that they never knew, that they’d never get to know, and Dad should have been crying over the loss of his prodigal son while I was sobbing into my lasagna. I wonder if he knew he was allowed to go into his office and feel his chest rip open while Mom wailed into her pillow. But then again, maybe he was afraid to cry, afraid to acknowledge what the tears would be admitting. Crying for him would have meant admitting that he was driving the car that killed his oldest child, admitting that Charlie went flying through the windshield and my dad escaped with nothing more than a broken nose. Admitting guilt, admitting blame, admitting what we were all too afraid to say. After a while I understood why he doesn’t cry, but I still wished he would.
Every morning since the funeral had been the same. Our house was a mausoleum, silent and cold and unwelcoming. We barely spoke in the mornings, just grumbled how did you sleep’s and watery red eyes, hoarse voices and the smell of coffee grounds. The news usually played on the radio. Before Charlie was killed, my mom would put on an 80’s station in the morning and we would sing along, even me. I hated mornings but Charlie was always bright-eyed and cheerful and it killed me when I snapped at him for trying to shake me from my sleep-induced stupor. By the time we were having breakfast I was biting back smiles and swallowing laughs as my parents danced around the room, the sun filtering in through the blinds, their coffee mugs sloshing dangerously close to the rims. But they never spilled and eventually I gave in and I belted out every word while Charlie air-guitared.
But life’s weird like that, cruel like that, because on Tuesday morning we were dancing and on Wednesday morning we were sobbing beside my comatose brother, our eyes puffy but unwavering as we watched his chest move up and down with what would be his last breaths.
And on Thursday morning my dad was on the phone with the funeral home director, mumbling information about dates and times and my mom was bordering on hyperventilation as she wrote the obituary. On Friday morning there were casseroles and desserts everywhere, sympathy cards flooding the mailbox and the house was filled with the saccharine smell of flowers, like refrigerated roses could make up for the death of an eighteen year old boy.
There were lots of people at the funeral but that didn’t surprise me. Charlie was the golden boy and the wake was a blurred mess of condolences from people I’d never seen, my dad shaking their hands, nice and strong, three pumps, patting people on the back and he frowned at me when my mascara started running. It was sunny outside and the room was humid and so many times I felt like I couldn’t breathe, because of the tears, the tightness in my chest, because of the weather, too but when I started crying and my makeup intermittently trickled down my cheeks, I blamed Charlie. It was stupid of me, I know, it’s not like he wanted to die but he wasn’t there and it was the only way I could keep from screaming.
It was a little less than three months after his funeral; it was mid-October and golden when the Whitakers bought the house next door. It was one of those quiet mornings that I’d inadvertently become accustomed to, the meteorologist on the radio talking about the possibility of a thunderstorm that weekend, the coffeemaker fuming and my dad rustling through the finance section of the newspaper. I heard the moving truck over the clink of my mom putting dishes in the sink, the loud, intrusive roar cutting into the serene autumn morning. Our kitchen faced the back so I wandered to the front window, a big bay window in the living room, crisp air seeping in through a thin slit because it wasn’t cold, not yet; the same fall breeze from outside that swirled the red leaves on the lawn moved the curtains and I heard the driver of the truck cut the engine.
The house next door was just like ours, a little more Victorian to our Tudor but just as old and just as drafty. An older couple had lived there for my entire life, I hadn’t known them well but I knew that they’d raised a huge family there, but all of the kids moved away and had grandkids and eventually winters in a big, rickety house were too tiresome and last spring they’d moved to Texas. But it was a big house, modern enough and it had a nice flat lawn like ours, and I realized why the family had bought the home on our quiet little street when four kids came tumbling out of the SUV that was parked behind the moving van.
There were two boys and two girls, all younger than me, probably not even in high school yet. The smallest one, a little girl with curly blonde hair, squealed and rolled a somersault across the lawn, crunching leaves under her as she popped back up. “Mommy, look at this!”
A pretty woman around my mom’s age slid from the driver’s side of the moving van; she had the same hair that her daughter did.
“It’s beautiful, Elle,” and I knew it wasn’t directed at me, but my skin still prickled at the sound of my nickname from a stranger’s lips. Another woman stepped down from the SUV, this one older and more harried-looking, her thick auburn hair streaked with greys. She had a way about her, she exuded intelligence and kindness and she walked with a slight hitch in her step, like one leg was longer than the other. She wore a long emerald dress and she didn’t flinch when a frigid breeze sent all of the kids into shivering laughter.
The younger woman nodded, her eyes taking in the house, watching her kids chase each other through the leaves, little screams and giggles. The tallest one, a boy, picked up the little blonde girl and spun her around, her feet not touching the ground and her face frozen in pure happiness. He spun her two, three, four times around, and on the fifth time she told him to stop and by the sixth turn they weren’t moving but she was pointing at me.
“Who’s that?” She pointed a tiny little finger at me, taking a step forward and I ducked away from the window, flustered and embarrassed to be caught watching. The other girl, willowy and pale, caught the little one’s arm as she made off toward my house and I breathed a sigh of relief as she knelt down to whisper something into her the younger girl’s ear.
“But Margo,” the girl whined, stomping her foot, sending her curls bouncing; but the older one gave her a stern look and the younger one pressed her pink lips together, an argument on her tongue and fire still in her eyes.
“Let’s go look inside, Maisy,” and without waiting for an answer, the older girl—Margo—hauled her little sister toward their new house but not before glancing back over her shoulder to look at me, a fleeting glance, just long enough for us to lock eyes and a small, grateful smile pulled up the corners of my mouth, and somehow it felt so weird and foreign, a smile, even a small one. It almost felt like a betrayal. But Margo didn’t know any of this, she just waved. She looked almost incandescent in the glow of the morning, straight white blonde hair and translucent skin. She had freckles though, so many freckles sprinkled across her nose and cheekbones, and they stood out so much against her complexion that I could almost count them. She wore an olive green field jacket and worn jeans, so simple in contrast to Maisy’s floral printed dress and maroon tights, but they looked like sisters when they walked away, and then the boys and the women joined them and then they looked like a family.
I could have stood there all day, reveling in the wholeness of their incomplete family. Maybe a father would be there tomorrow but it wouldn’t have mattered because they already seemed right. And I would have stood there but the grandfather clock in the hall chimed and it was 7:45 and I had to leave for school.
The drive to school was quiet, it always was. I never played music, it seemed wrong without Charlie in the car to argue about what station we’d listen to. I never admitted it and now I wish I had, there are so many things I wish I’d admitted, but I never said that I held off on getting my license because I loved driving places with Charlie. After the funeral, it was the first thing I did. His car was totaled in the crash so I drove my mom’s car, it was the oldest, and she got a new one a couple months ago. She didn’t drive it much, so it was kind of a waste, sitting clean and brand-new in the garage, but no one did anything about it.
New Windsor was always beautiful in the fall, aged trees lining the streets, their leaves red and yellow and orange, brownish and purple and still a few green ones left, and I could hear my tires crunching over them on the pavement. I was driving slowly and I watched them fall, twisting and turning from the branch to the ground, piling with a hundred other mismatched ones. I watched Mr. Caffrey walk down the steps of his house. He’d lost his wife about a year ago to cancer, a long, ugly battle, and so I think we were all more than a little relieved when she died in peace. He missed her, you could see it in his face, but he’d adopted a puppy a few months later, and that puppy was growing fast and I snickered as the lab strained against the leash and Mr. Caffrey noticeably strained back, trying to get the dog from taking him for a walk. And just like the smile, the laugh felt foreign and new, and I guess it had been a while since anything happy had actually happened and I felt something in me change. It was slight, it was subtle, but for the first time in four months, I turned on the radio.
When the school year had started, it was all condolences and syllabuses, new notebooks, new faces, new sympathies. But that had died down and now I just got looks, looks that said, That’s Charlie’s sister. She’s the sister of the dead quarterback, and for a while the quiet had been nice but now I wanted the people in my face saying how sorry they were because it sure as hell was better than people looking at me in the pitiful way they did.
It was a Monday and I had a history test that I forgot to study for but I was at the top of my class and I did fine, better than fine actually but I don’t think I would’ve cared either way. Charlie and I always used to compete for the best grades and I usually beat him but it was never a fair fight because he had football and student council and all of those Charlie things and I wouldn’t have had an excuse if he did better than me. He didn’t use them as an excuse though, he just congratulated me and told me how all the Ivies would be fighting for me in a couple years.
It rained during French and I sat by the window; I was supposed to be conjugating verbs and but I was just watching the little raindrops slide down the glass, pooling on the sill outside until one drop too many fell and the little puddle dissipated, spilling over the edge and into the grass. The teacher looked at me, I know she did at least twice, and anyone else she would have yelled at, but I was Charlie’s sister, my big brother had just died and I was only seventeen and what kind of person would she be if she yelled at me? So she didn’t, but I wish she would have because I was suddenly sick of being treated like porcelain and I realized that I was sick of crying, too.
Rays of sun slid through the clouds on the drive home and the waterlogged leaves didn’t crunch under my tires. It was an uneventful trip, I didn’t see a single other driver off the main road and it was serene and I found myself humming along to the radio until I turned onto my street when I saw the chaos ensuing on the Whitakers’ front lawn.
I didn’t know their last name at the time of course, so at the time they were just the new family; I hadn’t really thought about them since that morning. I slowed my car as I got closer and saw the youngest one, Maisy, I think, red in the face, screaming, her face slick with tears, holding her arm and before I knew what I was doing, I stopped in front of their sidewalk. Margo waved like we knew each other and it felt natural to wave back, and then the smile that formed on my lips felt strange, like when you talk after you haven’t for a while, raspy and unpracticed, a self-conscious feeling creeping through my veins but Margo walked up and I pushed it all away.
“You live next door, right? I saw you this morning in the window?” And I blushed, felt the blood rush to my cheeks, but Margo didn’t seem to notice. Her voice matched her appearance, light and airy and soft, and she wore the same jacket and jeans from the morning but she had red rain boots on, half of them brown with mud, loose blades of grass intermittently sprinkled across the toes. I nodded after a moment. I had to look up because the curb made her taller than my car and the sun almost shone through her, her freckles the only relief. “I’m Ellen.”
“Margo,” she returned with a smile, and I almost said that I already knew that but I didn’t because she didn’t need to know that I was eavesdropping on top of watching them from my house like some creepy old man so I just smiled back, exchanged nice to meet you’s, which it was. Nice to meet her, I mean.
I looked around her at Maisy, still bawling, her mom on the phone beside her, looking around checking her watch and Margo followed my gaze.
“We’re waiting on my grandma. She went into town with the car but she isn’t picking up her phone.” Her voice wavered a little as she looked over her shoulder, concern etched in her delicate features.
“Maisy slipped in the mud and fell on her arm,” and I noticed the drying mud on Maisy’s dress, caked on dark in some places and lighter in others, flicked my eyes back up to her face and I remembered when I was six and I fell off my bike and I broke my wrist, fractured it actually, nothing major, but I was screaming my lungs out, long and loud yowls, and Charlie picked me up and carried me half a mile home and held my hand in the ER.
I looked at Maisy and Margo’s brothers, eying her worriedly, and before I could think about what I was doing, I opened the door to my car and stepped out onto the sidewalk, the keys dangling in the ignition and as Margo watched me in awe, I walked up to the woman on her phone and I could hear the panic in her voice as she left another message, her eyes alert and trained on Maisy. Up close there were delicate wrinkles around her eyes and mouth, all the grace and elegance of a ballerina at eighteen. She had green eyes, sad eyes, and she didn’t even notice me striding towards her, not until the heel of my boot snapped a branch and made her jump. She opened her mouth to speak but I’d already thought about what I was going to say.
“I’m Ellen, I live next door,” I announced in a tone and matter-of-factness what was not my own. “Margo told me what’s going on,” and I gestured over my shoulder, I could hear Margo catching up to me, but just barely over the rush of blood in my ears. “You’re welcome to take my car.” And somewhere deep down I must have sensed something loving about this woman because her face broke into a stunned smile of relief and she nodded.
The sigh was still on her lips as she spoke, “Thank you so much,” and she rushed off towards Maisy, who had stopped crying and was watching us with pained curiosity, her chest heaving to replace the air she’d screamed out. I watched the little girl follow the woman that she’d be the spitting image of in fifteen years, quiet whispers and comforting shushes, and Maisy sniffled as her mom buckled her into the back seat. The woman looked back at me with a grateful smile and mouthed a thank you, before getting into the front seat and putting the car into drive.
I heard Margo breathe loudly behind me and I jumped, the adrenaline rush slowing as my car disappeared around the block, and I felt warm and comforted somehow. “I guess I’m in charge until Grandma gets back,” and I turned towards her voice and the groans of the two boys, dark hair and deep eyes in contrast beside Margo. She introduced me to them, Ben and Connor, eight and ten, Maisy was four and she was thirteen. Their mom was named Noelle, Margo explained, and their grandmother—their father’s mother—she was Audrey.
I don’t know what made me so bold because I never would have asked the question under normal circumstances, but I asked where their father was, and as if it were the most casual thing in the world, Ben said that he died. And my heart stopped because I should have known not to ask something like that, not after what happened to Charlie. My breath was caught in my throat as I nodded and choked out an “I’m so sorry,” but they just shrugged, the boys at least. Margo was very still all of a sudden and the sun glinted off something around her neck. I fought back the tears springing to my eyes as I saw the outline of dog tags beneath her shirt and she followed my eyes, met them without saying a word. And as she held my gaze I felt my mouth open, heard words coming out but I didn’t remember thinking them.
Everything seemed so much easier though, I felt myself relax after Ben said it. My chest unclenched because most people would be uncomfortable, uncomfortable like they were when I had to tell someone we hadn’t seen for a while that Charlie was gone. I didn’t tell them that, not yet, I’d only met them and they didn’t ask, but telling them would be easier than it had been for me before. It was a sick kind of unity, but unity nonetheless.
I texted my mom and told her I was at a friend’s and helped clean up the yard. The grass was patchy because no one had cared for the lawn since the previous owners moved out, since May maybe. The summer sun had scorched it and it was yellow in places, completely bare in others, and the mud was starting to dry and harden but we just worked around it. Ben and Connor did most of the talking, Margo and I working silently together unless one of the boys asked us a question but it was an easy silence. It wasn’t one of those awkward silences you always seem to hit with someone new, when you both run out of ammunition, run out of interesting things to say and when you’re sick of asking the other the same boring question that they just asked you. It was that easy silence, Ben and Connor talking about football, red and orange and yellow and brown, slippery leaves laying slimy on the lawn, and I barely spoke but it was the first time I’d been out of the house for more than a couple hours. It was that easy silence and Connor questioning me on the best place to go sledding when the first snow hit, Margo muttering complaints about her brothers when they tried to show off, the easy silence slid in and out until we heard my car pull into the driveway.
Maisy came rushing out, her arm in a sling and a vibrant smile on her face, straight for me, just like she knew me and gave me a one-armed hug, her little body barely the length of my legs, warmth radiating from her and I realized how cold it had gotten, how quickly the sun had fell toward the horizon.
“Thank you, Ellen,” she whispered into the pocket of my jeans, as if it was the most natural thing in the world, and then she bounced back, practically luminescent. She lifted her arm slightly, the one in the sling, proudly looking down at it.
“I dislocated my shoulder,” and she winced as she tried to move it more but she kept on smiling, and just like nothing happened, she kept on talking,
“Promise you’ll come back and help us move in?” Noelle was looking on, waiting for a moment to interject and talk to me, but she smiled at Maisy’s question, smiled and shrugged at me, and I nodded back coyly. I laughed and I knelt down until we were eye level and she giggled and patted me on the head.
“Promise me you’ll be more careful and I’ll be back tomorrow after school and I’ll help you set up your room, how’s that sound?” It felt so good to talk to someone who didn’t know what happened, and someone who didn’t care, just a little girl who was looking at me like I’d hung the moon. At my reply, she squealed in excitement and turned to her mom.
“Hear that, Mommy? Ellie is coming back tomorrow!” And the way she said it, you would’ve thought I promised her a pony.
Noelle nodded and shooed Maisy inside to rest and as her blonde curls bounded into the house, Noelle turned kind eyes to me. “I can’t thank you enough,” she said as she extended her hand toward me.
“Ellen,” I reminded her as her fingers enveloped mine, and she nodded, a flicker in her eyes telling me that she remembered. “You must be Mrs. Whitaker.”
Her eyes widened, “Oh, god, please don’t call me that. Even my mother-in-law refuses to be called that. Noelle.” And she smiled and I smiled back and before I knew what was happening, she was ushering me into the house for dinner. It smelled like the trip to Italy we took when I was fourteen, fresh air and warm bread and there was so much laughter, the boys already excited for the first snow and Maisy chattering on about the ER nurse and Margo spoke more once their grandmother came in.
Audrey, that’s what Margo had said her name was, Audrey walked into the house with in a way so dramatic that it felt like a movie, felt like the camera should have zoomed into a close up to show the wild in her eyes, the tangle of her hair, flushed cheeks and a million things in her arms, a million things and I wasn’t really sure how she’d even opened the front door. Her eyes—not worried, not really, calmly frantic, businesslike frantic—landed on Maisy, still talking animatedly with one arm, everyone else still watching without so much as a glance toward the hall where Audrey stood. She didn’t notice me, didn’t notice anything but I watched as she registered the sling on Maisy, and she registered that her granddaughter was okay and then I watched her walk into the kitchen.
“Ellie, I’m so sorry, my phone was on silent, in the glove compartment, oh, you know how I always do that, and I found a farmer’s market,”—at that she raised her arms a little, full of bags that seemed impossible to hold simultaneously but Audrey already seemed to defy everything I’d thought possible—“and I didn’t think to check it, oh, Maisy baby I’m so sorry,” and it was all said quick and rushed but somehow I understood every word, a voice low and soothing, that weird frantic calm that was in her eyes but I saw the relief, too, and her eyes snapped to Noelle as she started to speak.
“Don’t worry, don’t worry, she’s fine, we’re all fine and we have a guest,” and I blushed because just like that the attention snapped to me, just like that apologies were over, the bags were on the counter and Audrey sidestepped unopened boxes to get to the table. She had an intensity in her eyes that made me feel like I felt when I was about to give an oral report, like there were thirty sets of eyes on me but there were just hers, a strange coppery color that I’d question in any other person but they were fiery and they fit her.
Ten minutes later it was the seven of us eating pizza straight from the box, no plates, just a few napkins and bottles of water, and it wasn’t until Noelle asked if I had any siblings that I realized my mind hadn’t fallen to Charlie for hours, not like it usually did.
I coughed when she asked me, I wasn’t expecting it and I wasn’t expecting to not be thinking about him after months of his absence being the only thing I could think of. But I remembered those dog tags around Margo’s neck, cold metal on porcelain skin, and for once, for the first time, tears didn’t push at the backs of my eyes. I choked on my words a little, but I got it out more composed than I ever thought I could’ve.
“He, uh, Charlie was my older brother, he was killed in a car accident in July,” and the air didn’t get heavy like it usually did when I said something like that, maybe because I wasn’t fighting back tears, but the air seemed electric and then Audrey gasped.
“Oh, your poor mother,” but it wasn’t the useless sympathy that I was used to, it was empathy, unfiltered and unpracticed, because it was her son’s dog tags that sat beneath her granddaughter’s shirt and I felt myself breathing easier. I didn’t say anything, just nodded, and it was quiet for a second, we all were until Maisy spoke.
“Maybe Daddy’s teaching him how to play checkers.” She turned to me then, just me, “My daddy was really good at checkers, wasn’t he Gramma?” And tears flicked to my eyes then but I was laughing, just like Margo was tense behind me but her eyes held a real smile, and then we all laughed a little, the moment slipping by as a tear slid off my cheek.
I breathed in, long and ragged at the beginning but I was calm by the end of it, I breathed in and shook off the tears and Audrey reached for the lid to the pizza box at the same time I did. I snatched my hand back but she winked at me, nodded her head at the box. “You take it. My son would yell at me for eating this much salt anyway,” and my heartbeat had slowed as I grabbed the last piece of pepperoni.
I came back the next day. Maisy’s walls were pink and Margo’s window faced my bedroom.
When they were all moved in, both of our families sat down for dinner and Maisy made my mom smile just a few minutes before I heard her laugh at something Maisy said. It was the first time I’d heard it since before the funeral. That family, they were like magic.
A couple months later it was snowing and the lights were twinkling all up and down the street. There were footprints from Mr. Caffrey’s lab in our front yard and I’d taken the Whitaker kids sledding earlier in the day. There were fourteen days until Christmas and it was exactly five months that Charlie had died when we had the Whitakers over for dinner. My mom still cried but it wasn’t heartbreaking like it used to be, it wasn’t a sound that twisted my stomach, it was just the tears of a woman who lost her son too early. Maisy wore an old dress of mine, she’d seen it in a picture and her eyes widened in awe over it. On December 11, my mom showed the Whitakers pictures of Charlie, baby books and braces and unfortunate haircuts and then my favorite Charlie, wide smile and bright eyes with a football under his arm. My dad didn’t cry like my mom did but on December 11, I finally saw a tear slide down his face.