Laughter pours out of me. I bounce up and down on my brother's shoulders as he runs toward the creaky bench. Mom and Dad sit on the old wooden bench, hidden in the tangle of willow limbs that swirl in the breeze. They laugh when my brother dumps me in their laps with an exaggerated grunt.
“Stop it!” My face aches from smiling. He tickles me before running into the open field, leaving me to chase him under the summer sun.
“Come on, Cassie. Come get me!” He laughs and sprints towards the lake.
“Wait up!” Spencer’s figure gets smaller and smaller as he continues to run farther than he ever has without waiting for me. My legs scream at me to stop and rest, but if I do then he’ll leave me behind; he promised to never leave.
The summer sky turns to a deep navy and the wind whips my hair towards my parents. Over my shoulder, they smile as if nothing has changed, but everything has.
Spencer is nowhere in sight as my eight-year-old legs give out and my knees pound into sharp gravel that was lush grass just seconds ago. The sun is gone now. There are no stars to light the world; to guide my way. Navy blue turns to blacktop highway with flying headlights on the road.
My legs are longer and I feel older, but now I know what’s coming. On the shoulder of the road I wait.
To my left I see Spencer sitting at the wheel of his red truck trying to get to my orchestra concert faster. My arms wave frantically, trying to get his attention. He glances at the clock and tries to switch lanes when a black SUV swerves in front of him. There’s no sound as the red mass is twisted into a fiery sculpture of glass and metal just ten feet from me.
For a moment, everything slows down so that it seems as if Spencer is looking at me one more time.
“Spencer,” his name is just a drop in the bucket of lost ones, but he was mine. He was my brother.
Sweat trickles slowly down my neck as I jerk upright in my bed. Rough carpet meets my feet when I stand and walk down the illuminated hallway. Spencer’s picture hangs on the wall at the top of the stairs, he’s smiling. He’ll never do that again. He’ll never do anything again.
My younger self sits on his shoulders, hugging his neck in the park. The picture shows the sun on our faces, and I have only joy, no sadness, in my eyes.
Could that really have been me?
The old wooden stairs creak beneath my cold feet. My mom sits at the breakfast table with a steaming cup of tea in her frail hands. To anyone watching through the window, it would have looked as if she woke up to get a drink and got lost in her ocean of thoughts.
“Mom, are you hungry?” My voice sounds small and weak in the big kitchen.
No answer. The lightswitch clicks under my fingers and a warm glow is cast into the space that was once so full of life and laughter. Dinners with the whole family once eating here seem like a dream that's blurred with a reality that doesn't seem like it should be mine.
“Do you have anything planned for today?” Mom continues to stare vacantly out the window in the breakfast nook. Her brown hair hangs limp down to her back and the laugh lines around her eyes that turned into frown lines seem more prominent than they did yesterday.
For two years, all she's done is sit in the same spot staring at the empty driveway, waiting for Spencer to pull up in his obnoxiously red truck, singing along to music that's blasting the whole street with beating drums and twanging guitars.
I would sit there everyday, all day, too, but I know that he's never going to rush in the door and lift my mother in a hug. Spencer is never going to laugh in my face after beating me in basketball or tease me about how long it takes me to do my hair. He's never going to sit with me on the porch swing on warm summer evenings and breathe in the calm, sweet scent of life with his eyes closed.
My brother is never coming back. Never again.
The mound of spicy cinnamon cereal in my bowl is bland as the grey summer sky looks today. Mom sips her tea once and I set a bowl of grapes on the table for her. She used to be all about health food, but now she doesn't care enough to try.
She doesn't care enough about me to try and wake up.
Silently, I walk out into the fresh air. The street outside is like a ghost town with no people to give it life. In the park, there are no kids playing tag. No one swinging as high as possible, and there are no parents chatting about the latest news or gossip.
But why would there be kids or squeaking hinges on the swings or dogs running in the field? It’s three in the morning.
I walk past the playground to the open field behind it with old benches hidden in the willow trees. The trees have a grey tint and sway in the early morning breeze and the field looks like a black and white photo. It's so different than in the picture from so long ago.
The bench from my childhood creaks under my weight. I still remember the secrets I whispered here; the times uncontrollable laughter poured out of me.
My sweatshirt is too big, but it was his. Memories surround me as I watch the lake shimmer with the first rays of light at the end of the field. I close my eyes.
“Come on! Faster!” I pump my legs faster and lake water sloshes behind us. Sunlight bounces off the lake from the afternoon sun. My brother laughs as Mom and Dad start to catch up in their green paddle boat.
“They're coming!” Pressure sets in and I burst out laughing at how my feet don’t reach the boat pedals, yet I'm the one telling him to go faster.
I don't cry anymore. I didn't cry when I found out he was gone. My body is numb when I see the shadow. It passes over me quickly to the other end of the bench.
The bench creaks again as the weight shifts. The boy has kind blue eyes and shaggy hair that looks exactly the same as it always has.
“Hey, Squirt,” he smiles at me.
“Hi, Spencer. What are you doing here?” I feel like something is off but I can't remember what it is.
“I came to see you, obviously. What are you doing here?” His easy smile makes me feel warm, loved.
“I came to remember. I came to remember something sad, but now I don't know what it is,” I lean my head back and a feeling of longing and loss settles around me.
The boy laughs as he says, “You're wearing my sweatshirt. Haven't I told you before that you're not allowed to wear my clothes?”
“Yeah,” I smile as I remember all the times he's kicked me out of his closet. “I just needed something familiar.”
“It's okay. I love you, always.” He smiles wide as he comes closer and squeezes me as tight as he can.
“I love you too, Spencer.” When I look at him again, he's gone.
He's not coming back, I tell myself. He's dead. My best friend for life promised to never leave; to never go, but now he's gone. He shouldn't have made a promise he couldn't keep.
My eyes refocus on the real world, and I feel more lost after that daydream. Vibrant colors spread through the clouds overhead. The heavy clouds dissipate as the sun rises on the horizon, bringing pinks and oranges to the mix.
It looks like hope. But I have nothing to hope for.
My feet kick gravel as I walk along the shaded path towards the lake. The wooden railing of the bridge feels warm through Spencer’s sweatshirt. Morning runners begin their workout; everything is as it should be except for the eyes that I feel watching me.
In the field, everyone stretches with their water bottles in hand. On the trails, gravel is overturned under runners’ shoes; everyone is getting ready for another day in a world of disappointments. Everyone, that is, except the man sitting on my bench. He's staring at me, practically begging me with his eyes to talk to him. He seems harmless enough, but aren't those the ones who are the most dangerous?
My legs start moving onto the trail that goes around the lake back to my street. Trees whisper in the breeze that's made of warnings. My feet quicken their pace as the trail weaves between trees that I've seen almost everyday of my life. Pounding footsteps approach me from behind along with a voice that was made for singing.
“Wait! I just want to talk. Please,” the voice has a melodic quality to it that brings up memories of the past; painful memories. “Please, Cassandra. I just want to apologize.”
I stop and gravel scatters from where my foot hit the ground, “What could you possibly say to me. It won't change anything.” His shoes are black sneakers with white stripes along the sides. My eyes practically bore holes into his feet with how hard I'm focusing on anything but his face.
“I know. But you will understand how guilty I feel,” the man takes takes a tentative step closer as if I'll run like a deer if he spooks me. “I was his best friend, and it's all my fault.”
In an instant, my eyes lift up to the face I haven't seen in two years, but it's a face I know almost as well as my own. I look into the blue eyes of the man who killed my brother, Liam.
3 months later
I've decided I will forgive Liam. He may have killed my brother, but they were best friends.
Slowly, my resentment has melted away and I realize we had something in common: he was our brother. He was part of us, and now we've both lost a part of our family.
For the first time in over two years, Liam came over to my house. He practically lived here before Spencer died. My mom looked up when we walked in and smiled. She hasn't smiled in years. Seeing her come back to life is more than anything I could have wished for. Her smile lit up her eyes with a vitality that has long been absent. Her eyes teared up when she hugged him.
“Liam,” she said. “We've missed you.” I sat at the table that had seemed so devoid of anything but despair just this morning.
We cried, laughed, and remembered Spencer all day. I looked at Liam to my left and saw the man who killed my brother, but glancing at the window, I caught a reflection of Spencer smiling along with us.
Perhaps someday I'll just see Liam as my brother. I don't know what the future holds, but as I sit here with my family, the mother who came back to life and the man who was in an accident with my brother, I see the sun rise through the window. Spencer winks at me and mouths, “I love you. Always.” In the next instant, he's gone. He has been gone for more than two years, but I just was not ready to let him go.
With their faces glowing, Liam and Mom look like new hope coming with the new day.