What happens when running from your past you crash straight into your future?
|Running is the only way Marissa knows how to escape. With each beat of her sneakers on the pavement, Marissa runs from the pain of the death of her mother. Runs from the abandonment of her older brother. Runs from the look of pity in people’s eyes. Marissa is always running.
By chance, Marissa is sidetracked by Brandon, who has suffered the loss of a younger brother. But unlike Marissa, he chooses to face his grief head-on. As their relationship deepens, Marissa realizes the value of letting someone in and not letting her grief destroy her. But when her denial-filled past catches up with her, Marissa is forced to tell Brandon her darkest secrets, or lose him forever. Can she realize the value of letting someone in before it's too late? Could Brandon be the one to stop her in her tracks?
What’s the only thing scarier than running from your life? Facing it.
Copyright © 2014 by Susan Soares and Clean Reads Press
All rights reserved.
No part of this book may be reproduced in any form without permission in writing from the author.
I held by breath as I ran past the cemetery. Stupid, I know. Regardless, it's one of those idiotic things that stick with you from your childhood. Like fragments of your being that imprint themselves on your chemical makeup. It was my older brother, Marc, who had told me that, once when we were in the back seat of mom’s old Toyota hatchback and started driving past the Sacred Path cemetery.
Marc poked me in my side. "Quick, hold your breath," he said before taking in a puff of air, and holding it in.
"What? Why?" I looked around from side to side.
He didn't answer me. He just kept motioning with his hands, pointing out the window, putting his hands around his neck like he was choking or something. Finally, when we turned left onto Harper Street he let out a big exhale.
"Oh man, now you're screwed." He pointed at me and laughed. That maniacal laugh only older brothers know how to do. I was seven at the time, and Marc was ten. "You probably have a ghost inside you now." He grinned like the Joker from Batman.
"A ghost?" I said.
"You didn't hold your breath while we drove past the cemetery. Again I state—you’re screwed." He began drumming on his lap with his hands.
I didn't really comprehend what he was telling me, but I knew I didn't like it. Tears started forming in my eyes, and I knew I had to rely on my failsafe. "Moooommm," I cried out, and immediately I felt Marc's sweaty hand over my mouth.
"Yes, Marissa?" Mom's sweet voice carried from the front of the car to the backseat.
"She's fine mom. I got it." Marc's tone was of the dutiful son. He unclamped his hand from my face. "Listen," he began, talking kind of slow. "You've got to remember this. I'm going to give you a life lesson here. Are you ready?"
His green eyes were sparkling, and I nodded my head in agreement.
"Okay," he crouched down a bit so he was eye-level with me. "You must always, and I mean always, hold your breath when you drive past a cemetery. And if you're walking past one, you must run—run and hold your breath until you're clear. Otherwise, the spirits of the undead could invade your body. And you don't want that to happen. Do you?" I almost couldn't tell if the last part was a question or a statement.
"But I didn't hold my breath back there, and all the times before. What if one's in me right now?" I began pawing at my body.
Marc threw his head back and laughed. "Nah, you're fine. Just be careful. Now that you know you have to do it, always do it. Understand?"
I again shook my head. Marc gave me a thumbs-up, and I begged mom to take Chester Street instead of Maple because I knew there was a big cemetery on Maple. Luckily she agreed.
So now, here I was ten years later, holding my breath as I ran past Sacred Path Cemetery. While I ran, my new Nike sneakers—the ones I had to work double shifts on Saturdays for three weeks to get—started rubbing the back of my left heel, and I knew I'd have a blister the size of a quarter later on. It's hard to keep your pace when you're holding your breath. Luckily Sacred Path Cemetery isn't that big. Just big enough. It's just big enough. That's what my grandmother said anyway. I was almost halfway through when I heard the clicking of the tips of my shoelace on the ground. I concentrated on what those tip things were called, anything to get my mind off of the cemetery. Aglets, I remembered! I could hear the aglets hitting the pavement, and I knew if I didn't stop and retie that lace, then I would land flat on my face. Grace has never been a character trait of mine. My mother yes, but not me. Marissa No-Grace McDonald should have been my legal name. How the heck my mother came up with Scranton for my middle name I'll never know.
The last thing I wanted to happen was to fall face first in front of the cemetery. Complete body invasion for sure then. I couldn't hold my breath that long. So I did what I had to do. I stopped, turned my face the opposite direction of the cemetery, and took one big breath in and held it. Next, I bent down and furiously retied that lace. Why is it that whenever you try doing something in a rush it never comes out right? Somehow I tied my finger into the knot. Then, I couldn't get the loops to line up right. Just as I was finally conquering the over-under shoelace tying technique that Marc had taught me when I was five, I heard muffled sounds coming from inside the cemetery. I turned my head to look, and near the big oak tree that lined the right hand side of the cemetery. I saw the profiles of a family. What I assumed was a family anyway. There was a woman, about my mom's age, a guy about my age and a younger boy, maybe six or seven. The little boy was holding a Mylar balloon, which was red and in the shape of a heart. The sun caught the corner of it, creating a glare that momentarily impaired my vision. When my eyes refocused, I was suddenly very aware of my body, and very aware of the fact that I was watching this family's private moment, in the cemetery, in this cemetery. I felt my heart beating frantically, and I became aware that my forehead was covered in perspiration. I stood up, held my breath again, and ran the next half a block without stopping, my aglets clicking against the pavement all the way.
When I crossed over onto Brenton Street, I finally slowed down. I felt like I could breathe again. My pace was back to a more conservative speed, and after one more break to retie that shoelace-triple-knot, I was able to refocus. The spring air felt good on my skin. My face embraced the warmth that the sun was pouring down on me. The lilacs were blooming everywhere, and I made a special detour down Hazel Street to run past the six lilac bushes Mr. Brockwell planted a few years ago. He said it was just because he wanted to add some color to his front yard, but I knew better. I knew they were for my mom.
I inhaled the heavy floral scent of the freshly bloomed lilac bushes, and I could picture my mom smiling. As I ran past the last bush, the little blue house finally came into view. I saw Mr. Brockwell picking up his newspaper from his front step. I wished at the moment I had magical powers to turn myself invisible.
"Marissa? Hey Marissa!" he shouted while making his way over to the fence.
Damn it. "Oh, hey Mr. Brockwell," I slowed down and began jogging in place hoping the gesture would let him know I couldn't stay to chat.
"It's been a long time since you've run this route, hasn't it?" He synched his blue terrycloth robe a little tighter.
I kept jogging in place. "Yeah, I guess. I wanted to run past the lilacs." I wasn't sure if it was the sun or my nerves, but I felt like my body was going into heat shock or something.
Mr. Brockwell stared at me, and then I saw his eyes get glassy. He began to speak but then ran his hand over his mouth like he was muffling down what he wanted to say. His hands fumbled with his paper, and he cleared his throat. "It's good to see-" he paused; it was like the words were getting caught in his throat like tuna inside a fisherman's net.
I realized I was standing still. I could feel my legs start to spasm. He caught my eye one more time, but just for a moment before he had to look away. I knew why. It was the reason I never ran past his house anymore. The reason why we couldn't have a conversation anymore. Everyone used to tell me I was so lucky to look so much like my mom. She was gorgeous. High cheek bones, perfect heart-shaped mouth, sparkling blue eyes that sat perfectly on her oval face. Besides her hair being a stunning ash blond and mine being mouse brown, we did look very similar. Except that while her features seemed to make her look like Grace Kelly mine seemed to make me look like, well, not Grace Kelly.
But it was moments like this—Mr. Brockwell unable to look at me for more than a minute without having to look away—that I wished I looked less like her. I felt like my face was betraying him. Like my cheekbones and lips were baiting him with memories of he and my mom together. Although now, each memory was served with a side of sorrow instead of a side of joy. I'll never forget when I saw him two days after the funeral. We bumped into each other at Have Another Cup Coffee Shop on Main Street. First he hugged me and asked how I was doing; then he had to look away and he told me why.
"It hurts to look at you Marissa. You look so much like her." I knew how much he loved my mom, and Marc and I really enjoyed having him around, but after that moment I made sure to keep my distance. So he went from being Hank to back to being Mr. Brockwell.
Now, I stood there—uncomfortable from sweat that covered me head to toe—wondering how much longer I needed to stand there while he avoided my face. "So, I gotta go or my pace is gonna be all messed up."
Hank, I mean Mr. Brockwell took one final look at me. "Sure, sure." He started to walk backwards then stopped. "Marissa, just so you know. Any time you want to see the lilacs you can."
The lump in my throat was holding back any words I could have gotten out so I just waved, and made a beeline for the next street so I could start my way back home. The incident with Mr. Brockwell had put me into a fog. I wasn't able to concentrate on my pace or on my footing, and I began to get a shin splint pain on my left hand side. The same side as the blister. I was only running six miles but my body was starting to feel like I was at mile thirteen. I couldn't relax my breathing, and the back of my throat felt like it was on fire every time I inhaled. In my fog, I didn't realize I forgot to cross Parker Street, and now the only way to get back was to take Fletcher Street again. And run past Sacred Path cemetery, again. Now, I ran past that cemetery every day on my jog, but only once. Once was all I needed. To let me get it out of my system. And it's not like my mom's grave is right where I run past. She's way on the other side, the Cranville Street side. I never run that side. But now, in all the confusion, I have to go past it again. I felt the back of my neck get itchy as the street sign came into view. Like always I stopped for a moment, took a few deep breaths in and out, then grabbed one big breath of air, and held it as I started my way past the cemetery.
My focus was way up ahead to the stop sign at the other end. I kept my eyes on that sign and kept my feet stepping under me, quick and steady. I wasn't even halfway across when I caught sight of some sort of string frantically whipping in the wind, and I was running straight towards it. I turned my head to follow the line of the string, trying to see what it was attached to, and that’s when I saw it, caught in the big tree right by the fence. The red, heart-shaped Mylar balloon, and my heart hit the ground.
I was standing still. My feet were glued to the ground. I stared at the balloon caught in the clutches of the trees branches—maple I think—and I wanted to melt into the earth. It was as if the world was happening in slow motion around me. Everything was frozen, all sound, all movement. Every color evaporated from the scenery, except for the bright, shiny red of that heart-shaped balloon. I watched it appear to twist and turn in the tree, trying to find someway to free itself and continue its assent to heaven where it belonged. I moved my feet, they felt like lead, and walked over, closer to the tree. I was so close that the string was now thrashing in the wind just inches from my face. I had to free that balloon. It was as if it was calling to me. The crackling sound of the Mylar against the branches, it was begging me to free it. But it was so high up I didn't know how I could manage. From its placement in the tree, I knew that if I went through the gates into the cemetery that I could easily climb to the spot where it was and retrieve it safely. But that would require going into the cemetery, and I didn't do that. For the past two years and three months, I hadn't stepped inside there. And even with my growing anxiety about getting that balloon out, I knew I still couldn't step on that ground.
I frantically looked around for some other option. But there was nothing. I tried tugging on the string but the more I tugged the more the balloon got entangled in the branches. I would have to get as close to the balloon as possible so it could safely be removed. Portions of the large tree hung over the surrounding gate. I positioned myself near the gate and proceeded to climb up on it. When my footing was near the top I was able to grab onto a thick portion of one of the branches. I was almost dangling from the branch as I tried to keep my balance on the top of the gate. But my right hand slipped, causing my right shin to scrape against the tip of the wrought iron gate. I got my hold again, and pulled my legs up swiftly so I was hanging like a monkey from the branch. I felt the warm blood dripping off my shin. From my position, I could clearly see the balloon about three branches up. Without thinking of the consequence,s I looked down, and immediately my head began to swim. I was now hanging over the cemetery. My heart felt like it was beating not just in my chest but in my throat as well, and my temples began to throb. I'll save you. I promise I'll get you free.
With some momentum, I was able to travel myself up two more branches. The balloon was well within my reach but I really needed to get a tad higher. I couldn't figure out how to maneuver myself from where I was though. So I took a chance, I grabbed the string and started to pull. The shiny Mylar crinkled against the branches, and as it twisted slightly I could clearly see an envelope taped to the outside. The weight of the envelope must have caused it not to fly straight up but sideways, causing it to crash into the tree. My breath was caught deep in my lungs and my eyes were getting hazy. I tugged again, and part of the balloon seemed to twist free, and with a few more gentle, guided tugs I had managed to free it. When I saw my distorted reflection in the Mylar, I finally exhaled.
It wasn't until I started my descent that I realized, that climbing up the tree might have been the easier part of the rescue. Trying to manage my slight fear of heights, keeping the balloon intact, along with the rest of me, I managed to scrape up most of my legs and I wrapped myself for dear life around each tree limb I could grab. When I was back where I had started, I realized that there was no way I could easily swing myself over the gate. The tips of the gate looked like daggers just waiting for me to fall on top of them so they could impale me. I thought maybe if I could propel myself over to the gate, I could grab onto it from the side and then work myself back over it and onto the sidewalk. In my head, I pictured my body flowing like a cat, but in reality I hurled my body off the tree and landed with an audible thud onto the ground about a foot before the fence. My hands and knees were scrapped up. Luckily the drop was only about five feet so no broken bones, but I'd need a heck of a lot of rubbing alcohol and cotton balls when I got home. As I returned myself to standing, my brain suddenly clicked into the moment. Um, hi, Marissa? You're IN the cemetery!
I quickly scanned to my left to see the balloon bobbing happily at the end of the string. Within half a second I began running for the exit. Even though it wasn't far, maybe twenty feet, I felt like it was miles away. It was like in those horrible nightmares you sometimes have where a monster is chasing you. In your dream the monster is running at jet speed, but for all your efforts, you are simply trotting along at a snail’s pace trying to get to freedom. The exit was my freedom, and the monster was this cemetery. "It's called Sacred Path Cemetery, not Scary Path Cemetery." My grandmother would try to joke with me in her (failed) attempts to get me to visit my mom's grave.
All the blood felt like it was draining from my body. I felt my skeleton collapse inside me. My body was equal to limbs made from spaghetti, and I ran with every last drop of energy I had to get to that exit. After what seemed like forever, I was out on the sidewalk on my hands and knees. To anyone passing by, I must have looked like a freak, on all fours, frantically panting for air, while I held onto a balloon. The balloon. As I jerked my head to look behind me I felt a pinch in my neck, and then I saw it. The once full, Mylar heart was now slowly deflating on the ground behind me. Inside my head I was screaming, Nnnnooooooooooooo!
I pulled it closer to me with its white string, and I felt the heat forming behind my eyes. I was kneeling on the sidewalk now with the deflated balloon sticking to my thighs. Tears were flooding down my face. I slowly turned the balloon over and saw the envelope starting back at me. To Bobby, was written across it in blue crayon. The little boy. He had written a note, to Bobby, and attached it to this balloon to let it go at the grave. He was sending this heart to Heaven. The same way I had done, for my mom.
Without thought, I walked back into the cemetery towards the big oak tree. Over to the grave the family had been standing at before. I read the tombstone.
Bobby Lee Carter
February 12, 2001-April 6, 2012
Son, brother and incredible kid
I walked the rest of the way home. As I clutched the letter in my hand I sobbed gently. The deflated balloon dragged behind me for the next mile until I reached my house. With its weight amounting to mere ounces, it felt like I was pulling a cement block.
"Maybe you could buy another balloon and bring it back to the cemetery and let it go." Zoe was sitting on the end of my bed handing me yet another tissue.
Zoe and I became best friends in the third grade. She sat down near me during lunch and took this thermos out of her Barbie lunch bag. My eyes widened as I watched her eat these very long noodles.
"Ew, worms!" Justin Crumble yelled from a few seats over. Suddenly, the entire lunch table where we were sitting began to giggle and point at her. I'll never forget how she shot me this maniacal smile before she said, "What? You don't eat worms? Man, you don't know what you're missing!" Then she shoved a way too large portion of the crazy noodles into her mouth. She let them dangle from her lips as she spun her head from side to side so they looked like they were alive and wiggling. The laughter quieted, and most of the kids went back to their previous chitchat.
"I'm Marissa," I said to her.
"I'm Zoe. Oh and just so you know, these aren't worms. It’s lo-mien noodles. You wanna try?" She held out a fork full for me. I cautiously took a bite, and was in love—with the noodles and with Zoe.
"Oh Zoe," I paused to blow my nose. "I can't just get another balloon. It's not that...simple." I blew again, this time my nose sounding like a trumpet.
I could tell by Zoe's facial expression that she was frantically trying to come up with a plan to make it better. Zoe was always trying to make it better. She hates when curveballs are thrown at her, or at me. "What if I got the new balloon, and I went with you. That way you wouldn't have to, you know, step into the cemetery."
My hands started to shake a little when she said that last word. "I already did."
"You WHAT?" Her voice was so loud I threw my hand over her mouth to quiet her.
"Shhh, I don't want Gram to come up here."
She removed my hand, and gave me an apologetic nod. Keeping her voice even, she asked again. "You what?" she leaned her body into me. "Rissa, you haven't like stepped in there since...forever. Like two and a half years right?"
I felt the heat behind my eyes again as Zoe's face started to blur from my tears. "I had to see the grave. I wanted to know who the balloon was for. Who the note was for. That way maybe I could…I could-"
"Marissa, you could what?"
I had to look away from her. "I could return it."
In her most dramatic fashion, Zoe threw herself backwards on my bed and landed on my fluffy Hello Kitty pillow. "I can't believe you just said what you said."
I knew why she couldn't believe it. I never did things outside the box. I never went outside my comfort zone. I never wore clothing that may be considered off beat. That's why I love Zoe so much. She's everything I wasn’t. I also most certainly didn’t bring letters intended to Heaven back to the family that lost them. Who did that? But I had to. There was no way around it. My gut was on fire with the thought of this family. The woman, the guy, the young boy. That young boy who wrote this letter. Maybe to his brother? Whoever he was to him, he deserved to have that letter back so he could give it a proper send off. So he could get it to where it belonged.
Zoe was still staring at my ceiling. "Are you ever going to take those plastic stars down?" She wrinkled her nose.
"My mom put them up." I felt a twinge in my heart.
Zoe sat up again. "Right, sorry. So anyway, the letter. What do think you're going to do? I mean, just find this family somehow, knock on their door and be like 'Hi, here's your letter for Heaven! Don't ask how I got it.' And the person on the other side will say, 'Oh great, thanks so much! Come back again if you ever want to intrude on our lives again!' I mean, really Marissa, I just don't feel like you've thought this through."
She was right; I hadn't thought about what the confrontation at the door might seem like. But I didn't care. I knew that if I had lost a letter, I would want it back. I can't let this kid think his letter safely traveled off to the heavens when in fact it was sitting in my bedroom. Along with the torn balloon. I crushed the Mylar between my hands. "I don't care," I said softly enough that I felt I had to repeat it. "I don't care."
Zoe positioned herself so she was facing me directly. Her brown eyes peered at me. They twinkled in the corners the same as they always did right before she was going to say something that would surprise me. She blew the section of black bangs that had fallen into her eyes out her way, and then she took in a deep breath. "Then I'm going to help you. What was the name on the grave."
"Bobby Carter." My heart skipped at least two beats when his name fell from my lips.
The color in Zoe's face began to drain, "Oh. My. God." Her hands flew over her mouth.
"What?" Now the twinkle in her eyes was almost glowing. I was afraid of what she would say next.
She closed her eyes briefly, and then spoke, "I know him."
I knew I had heard her but wasn't sure my brain processed the words correctly. I mean there was no way she actually just said that. Was there?
"What do you mean you know him?" I asked.
Zoe pulled her shoulder-length black hair into a high ponytail. "I don't like 'know him' but I think I know him. Okay I mean his story. You know?"
Again, I could hear her speaking, but I wasn't following. "Can you please explain yourself in English? Clearly this time."
She bounced off my bed and went to my desk, grabbing my laptop. "Okay," she said, returning to sit close to me, and opened up the laptop. "Put your password in, and I'll show you."
I typed in my password, which was kind of stupid because she could've done it herself. Best friends—no secrets. Then I proceeded to watch her open up the Internet and type in the search bar: BOBBY CARTER ACCIDENT MOUNT VIEW NEW HAMPSHIRE. Within half a second, we were staring at several links that matched our search criteria. I started to feel itchy all over as she clicked open the top hit, and I read along as she read out loud.
Young boy dies after freak motorcycle accident
Mount View, New Hampshire—On Monday April 6th, 2012, eleven-year-old Robert (Bobby) Carter was pronounced dead after sustaining injuries from a motorcycle accident. Bobby had been riding dirt bikes with some family and friends. The group took some trails found in the wooded area boarded by Country and Wilton Streets. This is a well-known area for off roaders and dirt bikers to ride. There is a street, Kramer Street, that the bikes will cross to access the other wooded area. Kramer Street hardly sees any traffic as it is a dead end and there are no houses on the surrounding areas. According to reports, Bobby crossed Kramer without stopping to look and was unaware of a car heading at him from the west side. He was struck and propelled off the bike. Even with a helmet, he suffered serious head wounds, as well as a punctured lung. After two days at Brigham and Women's hospital in Boston, MA, Bobby was pronounced dead on the 6th of April from complications due to his internal injuries. Memorial information can be found below. Bobby's mother and two brothers would like to ask everyone to please email at email@example.com for information about donations.
I had finished reading a minute before Zoe did. My hands and feet felt numb, and I was having trouble swallowing. Tears streaked down my face. Zoe handed me a tissue and took one for herself.
"How did you hear about this?" I asked while trying to clean my face off.
"He went to the same school as Zack." She paused for a moment. "I remember he came home from school, and he looked all like, weird. So I grabbed his backpack from him and threatened to pour paint all over his books—you know to mess with him, normal sister stuff—and he didn't even flinch. That's when he told me about the principal making the announcement to everyone. They had an assembly about it." She had a far off look in her eyes. "I've never seen Zacky look so scared."
The sound of the knock on my bedroom door made us both jump. I closed the laptop and shoved the limp balloon and envelope under my pillow. "Come in."
Gram opened the door slowly. "Marissa, oh, hi Zoe how are you?"
"Good. How are you?"
My grandmother stretched her back out a bit. "Oh, I'm getting along, I suppose. Rissa, I came to ask if you want chicken or fish for dinner." Neither, I thought to myself.
"Would it be okay if we ordered a pizza?" I asked.
"Oh yum, I'll pitch in a few bucks." Zoe said.
My grandmother tucked a few silver loose strands that had fallen out of her braid behind her ears. "Pizza?" her hands went to her hips. "I can't tell you the last time I ate pizza. Probably only when Rose would request it." Her eyes immediately got glassy, the way they always did at the mere mention of my mother's name. She shook her body as if to erase the memory that was haunting her before she said, "One cheese and one pepperoni sound good to you girls?"
"Perfect," we said in unison. Gram gave me a little wink before exiting my room.
"So, what now?" I pulled the envelope out from under my pillow.
Zoe got up off my bed. "Now, I'm going to go downstairs to make sure your grandmother orders the pizza from Pizza Express and not Pizza Pronto. I hate their sauce." She made a disgusted face and headed out of my room.
After she closed the door, I looked at the envelope again. I traced the lettering with my index finger. The crayon felt bumpy and the letters weren't perfectly, but formed but I could feel the love running through them. I wondered if the other family members that were out riding with him that day were his brothers. How incredibly horrible it would be to see your brother get hit by a car and thrown across the road. I thought about how many times the family has already been to the grave. Early April was just about a month ago. I wonder if that was the first time the little boy had been there. Maybe he didn't go on the day of the funeral. I remembered how Marc didn't want to go to Mom’s and Gram had to practically disown him before he begrudgingly came along. He was so angry. I guess he still is. If he ever calls me back maybe I'll be able to find out.
"Okay, everything's good." Zoe said upon return.
I grabbed my pink blanket with the white stars, and wrapped it around my legs. "Everything is not good."
Zoe sat down at my desk. "Right, I know. I mean, the pizza. The pizza will be awesome. Now you, we need to work on. So okay, let me think." She picked a pencil up off my desk, and started gnawing on the end of it. "Oh wait! How old was the guy you saw?"
"The one with family? He looked like our age. Seventeen, eighteen, I don't know maybe a little older. Why?"
She stopped chewing the eraser. "If the boy who got killed went to Zack's middle school, maybe that guy who's our age goes to our school. There isn't any other high school near us. We live in the middle of nowhere." She put her arms up as if to indicate we were nowhere. She was right though. Our town was in what most people would refer to as "the boonies.” We boasted sixteen-hundred residents. So in that type of town you would think everyone knows everyone else's business right? That's pretty much right. But because we are a small town surrounded by small towns, there is a whole bunch of kids that go to the regional high school, three towns away. So we get bused in as far out as about fifteen miles away, making the high school we attend quite large. Now that I finally had my license (third time’s a charm), I loved being able to drive myself instead of sitting in that stinky bus with the other kids from our town, all of us annoyed at our living arrangements.
"Wait," I began, "how could he go to our school? We would've heard about something this major."
Zoe contemplated that for a minute while picking on her fuchsia nail polish. "Not necessarily. I mean what if he's a senior? And it's not like it happened to someone in our school. It happened to his brother. Hey wait a second, where's your sophomore yearbook?"
I rolled my eyes thinking of my photo from last year. I looked like a deer caught in headlights. My smile is all crooked, and the stupid photographer forced herself on me and tried to comb out my wavy hair. Comb plus wavy hair equals frizz! "It's in the second desk drawer."
I watched her toss out some papers and a box of paperclips as she dug to find the book. "A-ha, here is it!" She moved from the desk chair to beside me on the bed. "Okay, now let’s just look at last year’s sophomore class to see if we can find him. Carter, Carter, Carter, last name Carter." She scanned through the "C" names.
"I'm telling you he's not in our class. We would recognize the last name."
She waved her hand at me. "Yeah, yeah, shush. Nothing there. Let's check the juniors. Okay, Carter, Carter, Car-" her voice broke off. "Is this him?"
She pointed to a photo of a guy with dark, wavy hair. His eyes seemed to pierce through me. "I...I think so." I felt like someone had punched me in the gut. I only saw him briefly, and it was from the side but I knew in my heart that was him.
"Wow, really?" Zoe sounded impressed with herself. "So his name is Brandon, and so he'd be a senior this year. Wow. That's crazy. We found him. Now you can, you know." She cocked her head to the side.
"I can what?"
"Oh my gosh, Marissa! You can give him the letter."
The letter. I didn't even realize I was pressing it against my chest. I thought about what Zoe had said earlier. 'Hi, here's your letter for Heaven! Don't ask how I got it.' How could I just track down this Brandon guy at school, and pull out the letter his little brother wrote to his deceased brother, and have it be casual?
I asked Zoe if she wouldn't mind to drive to the local store to get us some sodas. I didn't really need soda, but I did need a few minutes alone. I lied back on my pillow and stared at the plastic stars on my ceiling. They were so old that they barely glowed in the dark anymore. I remembered when my mom first put them up. I was nine and thought I was going to be an astronomer. That was before I knew everything that went into it. Math and I didn’t get along. I just wanted a job where I could sit and stare at the stars and wonder who or what inhabited them.
When I was really young, my mom would tell me the story of the night fellows. They were a group of beings that lived on the brightest star in the universe. Their purpose was to light all the other stars from their power plant. They were only a group of three, but they were all powerful because they were filled with light and love. There was no star they couldn't light up because of the power of their love. She would say that’s how the three of us were. Mom, Marc and I. We had enough love between the three of us to light up the entire night sky. I believed her too. I believed we could get through anything together. We could solve any problem and conquer any obstacle as long as we stuck together. I tried to believe that even when she got cancer. I even tried to believe it when Marc took off. But now it was just me and Gram. The all-powerful vessel of love we had together had now sunk.
Later at dinner, I wiped some cheese from the corner of my mouth. The pepperoni pizza tasted really good. I was glad Zoe had been in charge of where we ordered from. Even Gram seemed to enjoy it. I had an English paper to write, and Zoe had to get home to watch Zack while her mom went to work at her second job.
"So what do you think you're gonna do?" she asked me as we walked outside to her car.
I shrugged my shoulders. “I really don’t know”
"I'll do some more brainstorming, and we'll come up with something tomorrow at school. Okay?" She gave me a quick hug, and popped into her Corolla.
I waved as she backed out of the driveway. Even though the sky wasn't pitch-black yet, I could make out the North Star. I wrapped my arms around myself, and wondered if my mom was there now, helping light up the night sky with her love.
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