The following morning I woke involuntarily a minute or two before my alarm would go off for school. I was disoriented at first, not sure why I was right on the edge of my bed without the comforter over me, or why the first thing I saw was a mass of red hair. But then I remembered, and felt the ache in my chest that I knew would be constant for some time. I didn’t move, not wanting to disturb my sister though she’d probably wake soon anyway, wondering if I could make it through the school day with grief weighing on me—however distant it seemed at the moment—only growing more painful as time passed.
A few minutes later my alarm went off with its obnoxious beeping, and I felt Carmandy stir against me. She seemed disoriented at first, too, then her hands twisted in the fabric of my t-shirt again. With one arm still sort of draped over her, I felt her trembling. After turning off my alarm I sat up, as did she, then squeezed her shoulders gently, trying to give her reassurance.
“Morning, sleepyhead,” I teased lightly, and earned a slight smile for my efforts. “Were you planning on attending school today?” I asked her softly, hiding my concern with more teasing. She seemed to hesitate a moment, then, to my slight surprise, she nodded. At my enquiring expression, she explained.
“If I don’t, I’ll have nothing to do but brood. I want to at least pretend things are normal,” Carmandy answered me, her voice soft and not quite steady. I pushed her hair over her shoulder so it was easier to see her face, coaxing her to look up.
“Can you make it through the day?” I asked, all teasing gone from my voice. But she brought it back with her reply.
“Can you?” She countered, clearly trying to lighten the mood, and a smile crept onto my face. I nodded.
“No reason not to,” I answered, still trying to keep the mood light. “Plus, everyone will want to know why we left so suddenly yesterday. The sooner they know, the sooner they’ll leave us alone.”
Reluctantly, it seemed, my sister nodded. “Right,” she said, sliding off the bed. I did the same and followed her to the door, though I made her pause before she left.
“I’m sure we can get permission to leave at any time. Plus, I’ll be there, whenever you need me. I’ll even ditch class if you need me to,” I said gently, but with a touch of teasing.
Carmandy gave me a small smile of gratitude and kissed my cheek playfully. I made a face in protest. “Thank you,” she said softly. Then her smile grew a little more. “The same goes for you.”
I smiled in answer. “Thanks.” Carmandy nodded, then with a last smile she left for her room to get ready. Once she was gone, the control I’d managed for her sake started crumbling, and I knew it was going to be a long day.
Breathing a ragged sigh and dragging my fingers through my hair, I grabbed something random from my closet. I knocked a few other things down in the process, but I didn’t care. I donned the clothing I’d grabbed, barely taking the time to look at what I was wearing. I then headed to the bathroom to try to make myself look presentable. Facing myself in the mirror, it took a moment for me to register what I was seeing. My hair stuck up everywhere, and my eyes were barely open, but that was normal for mornings. Today, though, there was a marked difference in my appearance. My usually tanned face was paler than usual, scattered freckles standing out in stark relief. The black t-shirt I wore only made it more obvious. There were bags under my eyes, but that wasn’t the biggest thing. Usually glinting with mirth, my eyes themselves were duller, deeper, a testament to anyone who cared to look close enough of the grief I felt.
I closed my eyes and took a deep, steadying breath. After a moment, I opened my eyes again and finished getting ready. Once I’d shaved and run a comb through my hair, I spiked up my bangs with a bit of gel like usual, and I looked almost normal. But though I tried I couldn’t hide the pain in my eyes. Trying not to sigh, I left the bathroom and returned to my bedroom to retrieve my school bag. Then I headed downstairs to discover that Mom hadn’t cooked a breakfast for us like usual. Instead there was a box of Cheerios and a carton of milk. It was my first hint that things would be very different from now on.
I sighed and retrieved a bowl and spoon and served up the cold cereal for myself. Just as I was sitting down, Carmandy appeared in the doorway to the kitchen. The first thing I noticed was that she wore more makeup than usual—her smoky eye shadow, more obvious than I’d ever seen it except on special occasions, was the only reason I noticed. However, I could see that she faced the same problem I had—she could neutralize her facial expression, but not the expression in her eyes. It didn’t help that her eyes were red-rimmed. There were bags under her eyes that she seemed to have attempted to cover up with excessive makeup, but with limited success. Aside from that, though, she seemed to have gone out of her way to seem normal. She wore a blouse and a pair of capris that I only occasionally saw her wear to school as she claimed they were “too nice”. Plus, she was wearing heeled sandals. And she rarely wore anything aside from flats and sneakers. I stood as she drew even with me, and playfully flipped her hair off her shoulder.
“You’re trying too hard,” I said, struggling to summon a teasing smile.
“You’re not trying at all,” she answered with a disapproving look, clearly trying to tease me. I had to admit she was right, at least for the most part—I wore an old t-shirt and torn jeans, and had spent all of ten seconds with my hair. But I smiled in response to her teasing, the offered her the box of cereal. She nodded her thanks and sat down beside me, pouring her own serving into the bowl I’d gotten out for her before.
When we’d both finished and had brushed our teeth, I called into the house that we were leaving—Mom had yet to make an appearance. I heard a muffled reply, but that was it. No “have a good day” or “I love you” or some other sappy thing that mothers say. Ignoring the increased ache in my chest as I realized Dad wouldn’t be seeing us off either, I steered my sister out of the house and to the car, automatically taking the driver’s seat. It only took a glance to tell me that Carmandy was having trouble just containing her emotions; having to concentrate on driving would probably only make things harder. I was only slightly in better control myself, but I trusted that I could manage getting us to school. Leaving, however, might be a different story.
The two of us arrived at school in good time, both of us in control, at least for the time being. I gave my sister a brief one-armed hug for encouragement before we split for our classes.
Everything went fine until about lunchtime. I pretended nothing had happened, and so far nobody had noticed anything amiss but my best friend, Byron. However, he knew that I’d tell him in my own time if I wanted him to know, so he didn’t say anything. At lunch, though, with all my friends gathered, I was bombarded with questions as to why I’d left early the day before.
“So, exactly what happened yesterday that allowed you to skip half a day of class?” one of my friends, Zackary, inquired. His tone was light, teasing, with a hint of playful jealousy. I rolled my eyes—everyone else who’d been in class with me or in one of my afternoon classes that I’d missed asked practically the same question, almost with the same tone.
“You remember that day we all skipped school to go to the movies?” I began, smirking as Zack, Curtis, and Will exchanged confused glances.
“We never skipped school to go to the movies. We went surfing, remember?” Byron, who was sitting next to me, nudged me with his elbow, grinning. I shrugged.
“Whatever. They found me out.”
“You know you’re an awful liar, right?” Will pointed out.
“Okay, you got me. It was a family emergency.” I answered, shrugging, not elaborating further. “Mom wanted the family together for the afternoon.” The others seemed to accept it, but Byron gave me a look—he was not convinced. I tried not to sigh and told him to meet me after school once the others started talking again.
The rest of lunch and the rest of the day went by all right. Finally, the last bell rang, and I was looking forward to going home more than I was to telling Byron the real reason why I’d gone home early the previous day. But I’d promised, and the sooner I got it over with the sooner I could go. I didn’t see Byron right away, so I headed to the library where I sometimes went to do homework if I didn’t have to worry about getting my sister home. I figured he’d find me there before long. I set my backpack down on a chair and then began idly scanning the shelves so I would look occupied when he got there.
“Hey, Jon.” The voice came from my right. I closed the book whose summary I was reading—or pretending to read, anyway—and replaced it on the shelf, then turned to see my best friend standing a few feet away. Aside from my mom and my twin sister, he knew me the best of anyone—understandably, since we’d known each other since we were toddlers and spent practically every day together until we entered high school. In fact, he was basically the brother I never had. I knew I wouldn’t be able to get away with downplaying anything—he knew me too well. At least he was considerate enough not to point it out—too often.
“Hey, Byron,” I answered, forcing a smile. “How’s it going?”
Byron shrugged. “Fine. Nothing interesting has happened—aside from you disappearing from class yesterday without an explanation,” he answered, smirking a little at the end. I tried to smile back. “What do you think of Mrs. Hunt’s essay homework?”
I managed a real smile of gratitude this time, and answered while Byron put his bag down near mine, then returned to the bookcase he’d found me at. “Not looking forward to it. In fact, I might just not do it at all. I barely even understand the reason she’s making us do it.”
“Well, I would assume it’s for practice,” Byron answered, grinning. I just rolled my eyes. “But really, Jon. What happened? And don’t try to lie—I’m surprised the others bought that. That day you said we skipped school? Classes were cancelled because the earthquake damaged the pipes—we weren’t skipping. And you don’t have family emergencies without it being a big deal.”
I sighed for real this time, slumping against the bookcase and not looking at him. “I was summoned to the front office yesterday, along with Carmandy. That alone was enough to raise my suspicions, since I knew neither of us had committed any offenses. When we arrived, Mom was present. She chauffeured us to the hospital—my father had suffered a myocardial infarction at work. He was admitted by one of his coworkers.” I paused, sort of bracing myself for what I would have to say next. “I…watched him get weaker, then he…he went into cardiac arrest. There was nothing they could do. He…he was gone.” I said, my voice growing slightly softer. For those who knew me well enough—well, really Byron was the only one who ever noticed, aside from my sister—it wasn’t my voice or tone that showed when I was upset and trying to hide it, but rather my word choice. I’d unconsciously used far too many unusual words and phrasings for it to be coincidence.
For several moments, Byron didn’t speak, trying to absorb what I’d said. Finally, though, he answered me. “Are you all right?” he asked.
I nodded. “Yeah, I’ll be okay,” I answered. Byron gave me a funny look.
“You don’t seem nearly as upset as I would have thought,” he observed.
I shrugged. “It hasn’t really sunk in yet, I guess,” I answered. “Don’t get me wrong; I—I miss him, a lot. I guess I just haven’t realized it’s going to be permanent,” I added, my voice a little softer.
“When’s the funeral?” Byron asked, his voice touched with concern. I breathed a heavy sigh.
“Tomorrow at noon. If you can get away, you’re welcome to come, but…” I trailed off with a slight shrug.
Byron nodded. “I’ll drop by after school then.”
I nodded. “I appreciate it,” I said. Byron smiled slightly, touching my shoulder, then, surprising me, he pulled me into a brief embrace.
“Hang in there,” Byron said, his voice quieter than usual as he released me, though he tried to counter it with a playful whack to my shoulder. I just nodded, not wanting to risk losing my composure if I could help it.
“Thanks,” I replied with a nod. Byron squeezed my shoulder again, as though he knew I was more upset than even I realized. “I told Carmandy I’d meet her at the front entrance. I’d better go.”
“My car’s in the front lot today. I’ll walk with you,” Byron said. He clapped me on the shoulder, then we both picked up our backpacks and walked side by side toward the front entrance. Neither of us spoke, but his presence was reassuring, and I was grateful to him. It was nice to know I had his support, even if I doubted I’d ever tell him. He probably already knew anyway.
When we got to the front doors, I glanced around and saw that my sister wasn’t there yet. Though I encouraged him to go on home, that I’d be fine, Byron stayed beside me, talking casually in an attempt to distract me. I appreciated the effort, and obliged as best I could. It wasn’t long before Carmandy emerged from the crowd flooding the lobby and out the front doors, alone, which was odd in and of itself. Even from that distance I could see how hard she was trying not to cry. I said a brief thanks and farewell to Byron, who simply clapped me on the shoulder before leaving. Once he was gone, I pushed through the crowd to my sister. As soon as she saw me she flung her arms around me, taking me by surprise. I could feel her body trembling, could sense how close she was to losing control. But the middle of the main lobby was not a place to linger, especially now when it was crowded with people heading home. I hugged her tightly for a brief moment, then released her and grasped her wrist instead, leading her outside. Once through the doors I put my arm around her shoulders, and she put her hand over mine as if to assure herself I was still there.
When we reached the car, I touched her shoulder, and when she looked up, I saw there were tears streaking her face. “Why don’t I drive?” I offered, my voice gentle, a touch teasing. My sister nodded dumbly, and so I unlocked the car and let her in, then got in behind the wheel. I gunned the engine and shut off the radio—I didn’t need dumb love songs about loss, even if it wasn’t the same kind, making things worse than it was. I pulled out of the parking lot and the two of us drove home in silence except for one or two quickly stifled sobs from my sister that only made it harder for me.
I parked in the driveway when we got home and let my sister out, knowing that she needed more reassurance than just words. I kept a tight but still gentle hold on her wrist as I led her to the house and inside. We were halfway up the stairs, both of us longing for just a few minutes of solitude, when Mom called up the stairway:
“Put your things away and then come back down; I need to talk to you both.” Her voice was stern, clipped, and utterly foreign. It was completely different from her naturally carefree manner, and I’d never heard her sound that way before. Carmandy and I exchanged a glance, then did as she said; her voice had left no room for argument.
We met her in the living room just off the kitchen. She wasn’t sitting, so neither did Carmandy or I. “What is it, Mom?” I asked, confused. “Does it have to do with the funeral or something?”
Mom shook her head briskly. “With Dad gone, we don’t have the money to keep this house. I’ve been offered a promotion in my job, and the raise will give us more than enough to live. The job is in Trenton, Nevada. So, we’re moving,” Mom stated, more than bluntly.
“What?” The question exploded out of me; I couldn’t believe it. My sister said it at the exact same time, though instead of anger, her voice was filled with disbelief.
“You heard me. We’re moving to Nevada. This will be your last week here; I plan to leave either Friday or Saturday, depending on how quickly we get the house packed,” Mom said firmly. “I’ve already spoken with a realtor; he will sell the house for us.”
“You can’t do that!” I exclaimed, more in disbelief than in anger. “We may not have the money to stay here, but why can’t we just downsize? Stay in the district? After everything, you’re just going to uproot us, without even asking for an opinion?” My voice was heated, though not loud. I rarely yelled when I was angry.
“Jonathan, I will not have you speak to me like that,” Mom retorted, anger in her voice now. She seemed to be gearing up for a scolding, but I cut her off.
“Yeah? What if I said I wasn’t going to move with you?”
“Jon…” Carmandy’s voice was soft. As such, I ignored it.
“Jonathan. I already warned you, you will not speak to me that way.”
“And that gives you the right to speak to me that way?” I countered. Her voice had been cold and accusing. “We’ve just started our senior year of high school. We’ve lived here our entire lives. And you’re just going to throw it all away? And for what? A desert? Just because of one promotion? You’ve turned down dozens of those so we could stay here. Why is that changing now?” My voice cracked twice, but more with stress than grief.
“Jonathan, I am your mother, and as such, what I say goes. No matter what protests you come up with. We’re moving and that’s final. We won’t stay here any longer,” Mom said heatedly.
“You won’t stay here? You won’t? Or is it can’t?” I retorted. “You’re willing to leave behind Dad’s grave before there’s even time for a few flowers to bloom over it?”
Mom opened her mouth as if to respond, then closed it again. Her eyes closed as well. A flicker of emotion crossed her face too quickly for me to identify it. It confused me enough to keep me silent for the moment. In the wake of my silence Mom spoke again. There was nothing but anger in her voice. “I will not stand to listen to this any longer. You and your sister start packing, now. If I hear another word of protest…” She let the threat trail off, probably because she couldn’t think of anything severe enough to convince me to shut up. Then she spun on her heel and walked away from me. There were so many different ways the action could be interpreted, but my mind latched on to the most obvious one.
“You’re running,” I said, finding my voice and my anger once again. “You’re running!” I said louder, knowing Mom could hear. “That’s why you’re taking this promotion. You don’t want any of the memories. But you know what? Without the memories, what’s left?” I called after her, raising my voice the loudest it’d been since the beginning of the confrontation. “And what about us? Do you even care about how this affects Carmandy and I? If you’re trying leave behind his memories, you’re abandoning Dad. Acting as if he never existed!” Anger bled into indignation, but unbeknownst to me the pain I was unconsciously repressing was lending fuel to the fire. “You’re abandoning us, when we need you most!” I called, but I got no response, even though I knew Mom could hear me despite the study door that had slammed shut a moment before. “It’s not fair.” I said quietly, my voice cracking, and I had no idea what I was even referring to—whether it was Mom’s actions, Dad, or just everything. I fought to stay in control with limited success. Had I been close enough, I would have punched the wall. I bit my lip hard enough I was surprised I didn’t taste blood, shaking my head as though the action could force back the sobs trapped in my chest. I tried to resist the urge to run away, maybe fall apart.
A moment later I felt an arm around my shoulders, and I raised my head to see my sister beside me. Tears streaked her face and she was biting her lip, but behind the pain was an expression of concern. “How can she do this to us?” I asked rhetorically, lowering my gaze. My voice cracked. “How can she think this is a good idea?”
“I don’t know, Jon,” Carmandy answered, her voice just as soft. I nodded in acknowledgment, then turned away, fighting for control of my rampant emotions. My twin sister took my hand, gently coaxed my fingers to unclench from the fist, then pulled me into a hug. I didn’t respond, struggling to get a hold of myself. Finally, after what felt like a long time but was only a few moments, I pulled away. I was still unable to meet her eyes. My twin sister squeezed my shoulder in reassurance.
“Thanks,” I said softly, managing a small smile that Carmandy returned. “Well, since we don’t seem to have a choice, we’d better start packing,” I added, a touch of bitterness in my voice. My sister nodded, and we headed upstairs. After getting a handful of boxes each from Mom’s room, we parted to go to our own rooms.
Once I entered my room, I sank onto the edge of my bed, looking around my room and picturing it empty, without anything left to claim it as mine. Without warning my throat constricted, making it difficult to breathe. In an effort to overrule the pain, I faked anger and threw a pillow across the room. It was quickly followed by a number of other objects, some of them thudding or crashing to the floor. I didn’t even care if something broke. I was silently cussing quite fluently, and in more than one language, but was unsure exactly what I was cursing. At the very least, it was in injustice for having a sudden move thrust upon me by Mom’s poorly concealed efforts to escape painful memories.
After a while I finally started to calm down, though tears were stabbing behind my eyes. With a heavy, unsteady sigh, I started picking up the things I’d thrown and putting them in boxes. It wasn’t out of any real desire, though; it was a distraction, something to keep my mind off the pain. I kept at it for hours, until there was nothing left but clothes and shoes, my bedspread and a few other blankets, and a pile of miscellaneous things I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to keep or throw away, and if the former where to put them. Just as I sealed one of the last boxes, I heard Mom calling for dinner. So I left my room and started downstairs, nearly running into my sister as she did the same. She gave me a smile and playfully shoved me aside so she could get ahead of me, though it seemed forced. I let her take the lead and followed her to the kitchen.
As we passed through the living room, I realized that there were boxes everywhere, some of them sealed, some only partway full, but clearly Mom had been busy for the last few hours. The kitchen was the same. In fact, nearly all the dishes but for the ones on the table and a few others seemed to be packed away. On the table were two boxes of pizza, both of them the meat supreme. But I wasn’t in the mood to eat, despite my stomach growling. I doubted Carmandy did, either. But we both did anyway, eating enough to satisfy our mother. Though there were few words exchanged in the first place, it seemed that Mom was deliberately ignoring my presence. I tried to pretend I didn’t notice or care, and once I was finished I just went straight back upstairs, where I fell face-down on my bed. I wasn’t about to cry, but I was thoroughly depressed and not in the mood to do anything. Instead, I mused about Mom’s strange behavior. I didn’t understand it. She’d been through hard times before, but she never completely shut down like I’d witnessed that day. Quite the contrary—she’d force herself to be happy for our benefit. I didn’t get why things were different this time. I understood that the loss of her husband was harder than anything else she’d experienced, but it was like her entire personality had changed overnight, completely flipped to its polar opposite. It bothered me, and it hurt me. But I couldn’t figure anything out and so when it was late enough, I showered and got ready for bed, briefly saying goodnight to my sister, then I laid face-down again, eventually falling into sleep.