by Joanne Yi
This morning, after I wipe the crust from my eyes and brush my teeth and scrub my face, I chop off my hair. The scissors are dull and meant for cutting construction paper—not waist-length hair full of day-old tangles. I force the blades through anyway and feel the hair pooling at my feet. My fingers ache.
I look at myself in the mirror and I’m still me. I don’t know what I expected. The right side of my hair reaches my earlobe, while the left side extends beyond my jaw line and sticks out at an angle. The scar, bumpy and pink, stretches from my ear to below my chin. A pimple glows at the tip of my nose.
Now I look how I feel. It’s not pretty, but it’s honest.
“Okay,” I say to the mirror.
I leave the mess for my mother to clean up and go down the stairs, trailing strands of black.
“What have you done?” Mom’s voice splinters the quiet. Some people appreciate noise. I’d rather have the silence.
I pour myself a glass of water and gulp it down.
“You’ve cut your hair off!” she answers herself. Her own hair is like a helmet, sleek and unmoving.
Coffee escapes her mug and seeps into the ivory of her blouse, but my lack of hair is more important. She grabs a lock and pulls it this way and that, as if trying to figure out how to make it grow. Maybe if she yanks hard enough.
“It was heavy,” I say.
I grab the loaf of bread and a knife. Peanut butter is always hard to spread evenly, and chunky peanut butter is the ultimate challenge. The bread rips. I smooth it down carefully with my pinky. The honey is easier; I just drizzle it on.
Yesterday, it was peanut butter and marshmallow fluff.
“You’re not even going to eat that,” Mom says.
“It’s the thought that counts.” I place the sandwich in a plastic bag and slip it into my backpack. I add a small bag of gummy worms from the cupboard.
“What does that even mean?” She tugs on my hair again. “Why on earth would you do this to yourself?”
If I told you, would you listen? I pull free of her grasp and leave the kitchen.
“Your hair was beautiful,” she tells my back. “It made you beautiful. Without it—”
“It doesn’t matter.” None of that superficial shit is relevant if the inside feels like something that died in a corner and wasn’t recovered for months.
I’m out the door. But I can still hear her through the window.
“Ivy, we need to talk about this.”
But talking doesn’t mean we’ll actually say anything.
The door opens, and I hear the jingling of keys. “It’s raining. At least take the car. I’m working from home today.”
I don’t turn around. I haven’t driven in a year.
“Or an umbrella!”
I keep walking. Down the driveway, across the street, around the corner. I haven’t been able to find my umbrella in ages, and there’s been no need for it, anyway. It hasn’t rained in months. But today, raindrops pepper my face. I shiver as a breeze hits the back of my neck. There is no hair to cover it.
School is eight blocks away. Eight blocks of cookie-cutter houses and rows of identical shrubs and flat, even sidewalks. I pass yet another house that looks exactly like mine. I feel like I’m walking in circles. A maze with no progress.
These hallways are too narrow, and the lockers are too orange. I’ve walked the peeling, puke-brown carpets of this building hundreds of times. Everything is familiar. I know whose locker is where. I know which bathroom sink has been out of order for two years. I know exactly when the vice principal will round the corner to make sure everyone gets to class.
The familiarity is suffocating. I can’t walk two feet without bumping into someone I know. Eyes follow me, everywhere I go.
I stand in front of my locker. What am I looking for? My textbooks, with their ragged grocery-sack covers, are gathered in uneven stacks. Mini chocolate bars litter the bottom—insurance for when the craving hits. A sticker picture of Alder and me, taken in a photo booth, stuck on the inside of the door—
I seize a corner and rip it off. I had put it there in September and left it alone for days, weeks, months. But today, I can’t stand to look at it. The sticker tears halfway, taking our heads with it and leaving our bodies stuck to the metal. Good enough. I crumple the sticky bits in my fingers, rolling them into a ball.
It’s been one year. I try to breathe, but the air is too stale. Out of nowhere, a lump swells in my throat, and it hurts to swallow. Then there are tears. Not here. Not now. I thought I was over that. I press my palms into my eyes, and this helps a little.
I still don’t know what I came here for. Standing there in the stuffy hallway, I want nothing more than a drink of water.
I’m so thirsty.
Five years ago, Mom and I took Alder to the Orange County Fair for the first time. He managed to get cotton candy all over his face, even up his nose. He asked for deep-fried Oreos and proclaimed it the best thing he had ever eaten. He grew close to tears upon discovering he wasn’t tall enough to play any of the games.
At Mom’s pleading look, I tossed darts at balloons for almost half an hour. I finally popped three in a row and received a purple penguin for my efforts. I handed it to Alder. The penguin was more than half his size.
“When I’m bigger, I’ll win you that,” he said, pointing at the giant stuffed donut dangling over our heads. “I promise.”
“I look forward to it.” I gave him a thumbs up. He mimicked me and pressed his thumb to mine. Our version of a pinky promise. “Hey, Al, there’s a photo booth.”
We took a series of pictures, our poses becoming increasingly ridiculous. In the last one, where we stretched our faces into the most grotesque expressions we could think of, the penguin made an appearance.
“This is my favorite,” Alder said. “But you can have it.”
Lunchtime. An eternity has passed since I left home this morning. I’m back at my locker, staring at its contents.
“So it’s true.” Quinn appears next to me. She clamps a hand on the top of my head and studies my hair from all angles. “You’ve officially lost it.”
“Lost what?” I swat her away.
“Your hair, what else?”
“Among other things, right?” I slam the locker shut. We walk to the end of the hall and down the stairs.
“No,” she says, too forcefully. I raise an eyebrow. “You said it, not me.”
In the cafeteria, students stare when they think I’m not looking. Some don’t stare; they do everything but. Which means they’ve looked at least once and decided they don’t want to anymore. People don’t like ugliness. They don’t like damaged. They like shiny and pretty, unharmed.
“It’s just hair,” I say. I tuck it behind each ear. I down half a bottle of water before coming up for air. It doesn’t help. The thirst remains.
“You used to be so obsessed with your hair being perfect.” She spits on her fingers and smooths her bangs down, in a poor imitation of me.
“Things change,” I say. “Besides, yours is shorter than mine.”
Except Quinn’s is professionally cropped and shaped and dyed platinum blond.
“Your scar.” She points at it. As if I don’t know where it is.
“Yes, I have a scar.”
“I mean, I’ve never seen it exposed like this.” She studies it. “It kind of looks like the California coastline.”
“That’s exactly what I was going for.” I show all of my teeth. But it’s not a smile. “I’ve always wanted the outline of our state on my face.”
“Put those teeth away. You’ll scare someone.” She takes a bite of her pita wrap. Hummus, sprouts, and avocado. Nothing else. “You’re acting strange, even for you.”
This is how Quinn and I work. We run on sarcasm and insults, barbed comments that have others cringing. But I am out of words to throw back at her. Strange doesn’t begin to describe me.
“Today is…” I trail off. I take the peanut butter and honey sandwich out of my bag. “The day. It’s today.”
“I knew it was coming up. I wasn’t sure if I should say anything.” We look at each other for a silent moment. Her eyes are charcoal gray. Anyone else would drop their gaze and mumble an apology. Not Quinn. “That sucks. I can’t imagine what it’s like.”
“Yeah.” I can’t think of anything more to say. But her honesty helps, for about half a second.
“It sucks major balls.” She picks out a single sprout and chews on it.
“Thank you, Quinn.” My throat closes again. I fiddle with the plastic covering the sandwich.
“You never eat that,” she says.
“It’s to keep the routine going.” I open the bag of gummy worms. I take one and try to see how far I can stretch it before it rips. Not very far.
“The routine of wasting bread?” Quinn takes her food very seriously.
“No. Alder would appreciate my efforts.”
Four Christmases ago, I bought a jumbo-sized container of chunky peanut butter. I wrapped it in shiny gold paper and presented it to Alder. It was meant to be a joke. His real gift, a Marvel Lego set, was hidden behind the tree.
“This is my favorite,” he told me, hugging the jar to his chest. “I’m going to eat it with bananas, apples, carrot sticks, graham crackers, and pickles.”
“Peanut butter and pickles? Gross.” I stuck my tongue out. “What happened to good old jelly?”
“Don’t knock it till you’ve tried it,” he said, looking at me so solemnly I snorted.
“Where did you learn that expression?” I reached out and smoothed his sleep-rumpled hair.
“Trust me. It’s good.”
I finally tried the combination last month. It was salty and sweet and creamy and crunchy. I finished two pickles in no time.
I wished I could tell him he was right.
Spring feels like winter today. It rains enough to soak through my sweater and the soles of my sneakers. I step in a puddle, just to see what it feels like. Wet. And cold. Of course.
There are no kids at the park. I can sit in the third swing from the left and stay there for as long as I want. The rain on the seat seeps through my jeans. But it’s okay. What’s a little more water? I take another worm from the bag and split it into two.
“One for you,” I say. “And one for me.”
I put both pieces into my mouth and let them dissolve. The sweetness ebbs. I look around at the jungle gym, the monkey bars, and the colorful play fort with the three slides. I used to come here all the time when I was younger. And beyond that, too, long after I had outgrown the playground and was more into boys and glittery lip gloss.
My phone buzzes. Mom. I slide it back into my pocket and grasp the chains. I kick my legs out, stretching them upward until they almost hurt. If I tilt my body way back, I can pretend I’m flying. My hair used to brush the sand when I did this. Not anymore. But I feel lighter without the weight at the back of my neck.
At the highest point, I release the chains and jump. Now I’m flying; I don’t have to pretend. It ends all too quickly as I land on the tips of my toes, then lurch forward onto all fours. There I stay, fingers digging into the clumps of wet sand. I curl up onto my side, arms wrapped around my middle. I hold myself together.
When Alder was six, he leaped off that very swing in an attempt to imitate me. I hadn’t wanted to go to the playground that day. We’d gone almost every day that summer. I was fifteen.
“Ivy, can you push me?”
“You’re old enough to swing by yourself, Alder.” I didn’t glance up from my phone. Quinn had invited me to watch a movie in the evening, along with her boyfriend, Steve. I hesitated until she added, Theo will be there. I’d had a crush on Theo for months.
“Hold on, Al.”
Sure! I typed to Quinn. After I take Alder home.
“Ivy, look! I’m standing on the swing!” The chains squeaked, and I jerked my head up in surprise. He was still sitting down, grinning at me.
“Very funny. Don’t stand up, okay?” I returned my attention to the phone. What would I wear later? Maybe the black blouse with the cut-out shoulders.
“I’m going to jump,” Alder called. “I’m flying!”
I refused to fall for it, until I heard his yelp and saw him crumpled on the dirt.
“Are you okay?” I stumbled in my haste and landed on my knees beside him. He stared in fascination at the odd angle of his wrist. Then his face twisted like I had never seen before. I panicked and suppressed a sob and tried to pull him onto my back.
“You’re hurting me more!” he cried, batting me away. “I want Mom.”
She came within minutes. Once she had taken a look at his arm, she turned on me with a terrifying expression: a mixture of fury and worry and disappointment that made me take several steps back.
“How did this happen?” Without pausing to let me explain, she continued, “You were to watch him at all times. You were supposed to protect him!”
“I know.” Snot dripped from my nose and into my mouth. “I know. It was an accident, I swear. It just happened.”
“Accidents can be prevented, Ivy.”
I roll over onto my back. The sky is an endless stretch of cold gray. Raindrops fall into my eyes, and I drag my sleeve across my face. I can’t tell if I’m wiping away tears or water. It’s all just wetness, anyway. I’m sodden and shivering—a sponge that hasn’t been wrung out.
You were supposed to protect him.
I open my mouth and drink some rain.
It was an accident, I swear.
I swear, I swear. But I can’t make myself believe it. I trace my scar with my thumb. It doesn’t hurt anymore, but it feels different from the surrounding skin. More sensitive, tender. It will always be there.
Accidents can be prevented.
I peel myself off the ground and search through my backpack. I leave the sandwich and gummy worms on the swing. The third one from the left. His favorite.
“Shit,” I say to my reflection. A leaf is stuck to my hair, a ragged green barrette. My black sweater and jeans are coated with damp sand. I brush some off the back of my neck and swipe at a smudge on my cheek. My socks make squish-squish noises when I move. “You look like shit.”
“Ivy, please come out here.” Mom knocks after she speaks, as usual. One sharp knock, which hangs in the silence after.
“Later,” I say. I lean down and slurp some water from the faucet.
“I’m not asking you to come out. I’m telling you.” Another thump, like an admonition. My ears ring.
I open the door. She surveys me with those dark eyes. My eyes. Alder’s eyes. Pools of the deepest brown.
“What is going on with you today?”
I blink. Today is the day.
“You chop a foot of your hair off. You don’t come home until late, doing…” She waves a hand at me, over my crusty clothes and squishy shoes. “Doing God knows what. Tracking dirt and water all over the wood.”
“The floor can be cleaned. I’ll do it myself.” I move past her into the hallway. She pinches my sleeve with two manicured fingers and stops me.
“The floor is not the priority.”
“Then why mention it?” I push my hair back, away from my face. “Do you know what today is?”
“Of course I do,” she shoots back, much more quickly than I expected.
“Okay.” My fingers tremble. I turn toward the staircase. I turn back. I can’t decide. “Then why are you like this?”
“It’s just another day for you.” I find a loose thread on my sleeve and wind it around my thumb. “Do you even know I haven’t driven since—since then?”
“I was hoping it was a phase.” She reaches up to smooth her hair, though it hasn’t budged. “You have to get back into it—”
“A phase,” I repeat. “How can you be so oblivious? So unfeeling?”
“Unfeeling?” Her head snaps back, as if a door has been slammed in her face. “I may not act out like you, but I do remember.”
“You never talk about it. You never talk about him.” My voice quakes. I stare at my thumb. It’s purple. “Sometimes I need—”
“Who would want to talk about what happened? Do you want to relive it?”
But I do. I do, every night. My hand flies to the scar again. Am I imagining it? It stings this time.
“Do you want me to relive it?” Her fingers tighten around the ruby pendant she always wears. “That phone call I received last year. My worst fear coming true. You can’t imagine what I went through.”
What about what I went through? What Alder went through?
“You aren’t the victim here.” There was a victim. It wasn’t her.
“When will you stop blaming me for this?” she says.
“No one’s blaming you.” There was only one person to blame. It wasn’t her.
“Then what? What do you need?”
I need her to be my mother. The momentary lightness I felt at the swings is long gone. I feel like I’m underwater. Waterlogged. I want someone to tell me it’ll be okay—that this weight will be lifted, someday.
I open my mouth. Silence escapes. I walk away.
I find an abandoned lock of hair in the corner of the bathroom.
Alder loved my hair. He would grab handfuls of it and tell me to giddy up. He would secure a lock of it between his nose and upper lip and call it the world’s most magnificent mustache. He would try to braid it and get it hopelessly tangled. When I had brushed out all of the knots, he would come back and mess it up again. He told me to never, ever cut it because he would never, ever forgive me.
I bind the hair with a rubber band and place it in the bottom drawer of my desk.
Alder. Please forgive me.
I change into a faded gray T-shirt that hangs to my knees. I slide beneath the covers and cocoon myself in their warmth. I close my eyes.
I smell like rain.
The first day of spring break, last year.
“You’re not trying, Ivy.” Quinn tossed another potato chip my way. “You haven’t caught a single one.”
“Maybe if you actually aimed for my mouth.” I leaned over as she lobbed one more and nearly fell into the pool. “Okay, we’re done.”
I watched the chip sink into the depths. My feet had been dangling in the water for so long, I imagined my toes resembled raisins. I tapped my fingers along to the jaunty beat of “Mr. Blue Sky.” Quinn had selected an “Oldies” playlist, an eclectic mix of Madonna and ELO and the Beatles. Around the pool, our classmates swilled beers and shuffled to the music.
“Are they drunk or just horrible at dancing?” I said, watching as two girls flailed their arms and wiggled their hips. One of them stumbled into the other.
“Probably both. In their minds, they’re Beyoncé.” Quinn wiggled a bottle at me. “Sure you don’t want one?”
“No, thanks. How can you stand the taste?” My phone rang. I sighed as I glanced at the screen. Mom.
“Ivy, you need to pick Alder up from Jeremy’s.” No hello, no preamble. As always, her tone was brusque.
“Aren’t they having a sleepover?” I said.
“He had a nightmare and wants to come home. Jeremy’s mom just called.”
“But I’m at Quinn’s.” I held my breath, already knowing what she would say.
“Please go. I would, but you have the car.” Before she hung up, she added, “You know, he’s missed you lately. You should spend more time with him.”
I jammed the phone into my pocket and pulled my feet out of the pool. I was right—raisins.
“You really have to go?” Quinn stood up, too. “Can you come back after?”
“Who knows?” I slung an arm around her neck. “Don’t drink too much. Only I can handle Drunk Quinn.”
When I turned into the driveway, Alder was already waiting for me. He was tiny at eight years old; his shorts nearly reached his ankles. He ran over and pulled the door open before I had even stopped the car.
“Don’t do that, Alder. It’s dangerous.”
“Stop nagging.” He heaved his sleeping bag into the back. He was quiet until the end of the block. Then, “I had a nightmare.”
“I heard,” I said, glancing at him. His dark brown hair hung over his eyes. I detected a trace of peanut butter around his lips.
“It was really scary,” he said. “Lots of bright lights and loud noises. And a weird smell. Can you smell in dreams?”
“I wouldn’t know.” The clock read 10:07. Maybe I would have time to go back to Quinn’s.
It started to drizzle, the raindrops forming intricate patterns on the glass. I squinted. Streetlights were scarce in this neighborhood. I turned on the windshield wipers and drove at a crawl until I reached the main street.
“Are you mad?” I could hear him picking at the worn leather of his seat.
“No.” It wasn’t his fault he slept better at home. “No worries, Al.”
“If you say so.” He tugged at the neckline of his striped T-shirt, which was already stretched out. “I had peanut butter. Jeremy’s mom gave me a big spoonful.”
“I can tell.” Grinning, I wiped the corner of his lips with my thumb.
“Stop.” He pulled away. “You’re just like Mom.”
“Not my fault you’re a messy eater,” I said, before turning left onto Harbor.
“Can we get ice cream?”
“It’s getting late. Tomorrow?” I slowed behind a bicyclist, who was zigzagging slowly in front of me. When I changed lanes, he did, too. “What is this guy doing?”
“It’s only ten,” Alder whined. “And it’s spring break.”
“We’ll see, all right?” I finally maneuvered my way around the bicycle and sped up.
“I want mint chocolate chip,” he said. “Maybe a double scoop.”
“The ice cream places are closed now, Al.” The rain began to fall more heavily, drumming on the roof to its own rhythm.
“There’s McDonald’s.” He pointed. “Vanilla cone?”
“We’ll see,” I said again.
“You’re passing it. Ivy, come on.” I heard the slap of his hand against the window.
“There’s another one closer to home. We’ll go there. Sound good?” I raised my thumb. He did the same and pressed his thumb to mine.
“Sounds very, very good.”
There weren’t many cars out. We hit a string of green lights and went four, five, six blocks without pausing. “Looks like we’ll get there faster than we thought.”
“Yes!” Alder whooped.
We finally came to a stop at a red light, behind a rusty Camry. The light changed, but the car didn’t budge. I tapped the horn with my fist. “Move.”
It slowly crossed the intersection. I took my foot off the brake and started forward.
“Hey, Ivy, I heard something really funny today—”
Bright light filled the inside of the car.
“Ivy!” His tone changed to one of raw terror. I tried to turn my head, but—
A sound unlike any I’d heard before: the deafening screech of metal against metal. The horrible jarring of my body, as if it were being ripped into two. The splintering of glass. The blur of lights through the windshield; the endless kaleidoscope of colors. The impact of my chin against the steering wheel; the crack of my head on the window. A pole, rising up to greet me. The pain in my left side, a monster consuming me whole. And running through my mind, what’s happening what’s happening what’s happening?.
The patter of rain in the silence after.
“Al—” My throat was in flames. I coughed and tried again. “Alder.”
My left eye wouldn’t open. I drew in a shallow breath. My throat was a desert. Something warm slid down my cheek.
“Alder.” Was I actually moving my arm, or was I imagining it? There was the worn cotton of his shirt under my fingertips. The scar on his elbow from falling off his bike. The smooth, warm underside of his arm. “Alder?”
I tried to turn my head, but the immediate pain made me sob. I stared out the windshield, tears burning trails down my face. My hand traveled up to his neck, to the silkiness of his hair. To his cheek. To his nose.
I wipe my eyes and look at the clock. 2:23 in the morning. I blink up at the ceiling. It presses down on me. Every night, that dream. Or nightmare. Or memory. They’re one and the same.
I go to the room next to mine. The floor in here is dusty; I can feel it under my bare toes. I sink onto the Iron Man blanket covering the bed and grab the purple penguin from the nightstand. He’d named it Mr. Ives.
It’s just as suffocating in here. I don’t know why I thought it would be different. I sit there, inhaling and inhaling but not exhaling. I’m so hollow. I wish there were a way to stave off this emptiness.
If I had been more careful. If I had picked him up a few minutes sooner or later. If I hadn’t honked so impatiently at the car in front of me. If I had stopped at the first McDonald’s for ice cream, like he wanted. The other driver would have been drunk and would have run the red light, all the same. But we wouldn’t have been there to collide with.
He would have hit another car. I shove the thought away.
I bury my face into Mr. Ives and breathe in a year’s worth of mustiness. The same brutal thoughts rampage through my mind. If only I had spent more time with him over those last months, instead of ignoring him in favor of parties and studying and coffee dates.
I always thought we’d have more time.
Hey, Ivy, I heard something really funny today. Now I’ll never know. I’ll wonder, for the rest of my life, what on earth was so funny. I squeeze the penguin to my chest.
I can’t stay here. I need to feel something other than this sensation of drowning. I go to the bathroom and stare at myself for a while. The shadows under my eyes are like bruises. The scar is bright against the white of my skin.
Next to the sink stands a container of Mom’s sleeping pills. She takes them occasionally—more so in the past year. A tremor of regret snakes through me as I recall the words I flung at her earlier. I roll the bottle in my palm. I’ve picked it up and put it down more times than I can count.
Alder. I want to visit Alder. I return to my room, pull on a jacket and pair of leggings, and stumble down the stairs. The keys are on the kitchen counter. I snatch them up. I put them back. My hand hovers over them again. Can I? I haven’t driven in so long. I can’t. What if I don’t remember how? I shouldn’t.
But Alder. I think of how lonely he must be.
I’m in the car. I try to fit the key into the ignition. My hands are shaking so hard, the keys fall to the floor. I try once more, but I can’t do it. I’ve failed him yet again. My heart is loud in my ears. I slam my hand against the wheel and let the pain echo through my arm.
I get out. Maybe I can call a cab, or an Uber. But the thought of climbing into a car with a stranger and carrying a conversation makes me nauseous. I fumble with the phone and call the only person I can think of. She answers on the fourth ring.
“Quinn? Can you—can you pick me up?” The words emerge in a raspy whisper.
I start walking down the block, just for something to do. Residual rain drips on me from the trees overhead. I turn abruptly at the end and head back the way I came. Back and forth. The movement is numbing.
All this time, I’ve been trying to feel something other than the weight of losing him. Maybe the trick is to not feel anything at all.
“The cemetery is closed, Ivy.” Quinn gazes at me, unblinking. She’s wearing her teddy bear pajamas, with a hoodie thrown on top. “There’s no way we can climb over the gate.”
“But Alder,” I say. “He needs me.”
“I’ll take you tomorrow, okay? We’ll take flowers and peanut butter and just hang out with him.”
I stare at the multitude of smiling bears on her pants. They look deranged.
“Ivy,” Quinn says. “Where do you want to go now?”
“The park.” I lean my forehead against the window. The cold is comforting. “I want to feel close to him.”
We’re on the hill with the biggest oak tree. I’m sweating, in spite of the cool air. I think I can make out the sandwich from here, where I left it on the swing earlier. Beside me, Quinn gathers fallen leaves into a pile.
I run my hands over the blades of grass and think of Alder’s hair when he was a few months old. The fuzziness of his head, like the softest down. The way he fit right into my arms, dark eyes gazing up at me. The surprising strength with which he gripped my index finger, in those initial months. The way he pronounced my name, “Ah-bee,” when he began talking. The way he toddled over to me first, when he started walking. He had the smuggest look on his face.
Eight years old. A whole lifetime ahead of him, unlived. And me, getting older every year, experiencing everything he can’t.
“It’s freezing,” Quinn says. She abandons the leaves and scoots closer to me. “Should we go to the diner? Talk over some coffee?”
“I’m not cold. Maybe later.”
Something moves on the other side of the playground. My body jolts in surprise. A small figure. A child? A dog? I push myself to my feet and waver for a moment. I stumble down the hill, the ground rocking beneath my shoes.
“Ivy, wait.” Quinn crunches through the grass behind me. “What are you doing?”
It’s moving toward the sidewalk, getting farther away by the second. I try to run, but my body refuses to obey.
I finally reach the curb, squinting at the figure, now on the other side of the street. A striped T-shirt. Baggy shorts. The colors are hazy, like they had been the night of the accident.
“It’s Alder,” I say. It doesn’t make sense. How can he be here when he’s not here?
“It can’t be,” Quinn says, shivering. She scans the street. “I don’t see anything.”
“I see him. Look, he’s getting away.” I flap my hands at her. My voice rises, becomes frantic. I step off the sidewalk.
A deafening honk. A blinding light. The screech of tires.
“Ivy, stop!” Quinn jerks me back. Her face folds into itself as she clings to my arm.
The car halts a few feet away.
“What the hell is wrong with you?” The driver yells out the window. “You could’ve died. Consider yourself lucky.”
I don’t miss the irony. Am I lucky? The car is gone before I can decide how to respond.
“Let’s go back to the car. Please.” Quinn tries to pull me away. Her fingers are icy on my own.
The figure has disappeared, but I continue into the darkness, dragging Quinn with me. Suddenly, I remember what awaits me there.
The neighborhood across the street is full of large houses—the kind with manicured front yards and imported plants and gardeners to maintain them. During the holidays, the owners haul out their collections of multicolored lights and inflatable snowmen, determined to one-up each other in decorations.
There are no lights now, no leering Santa Clauses to guide the way. The windows are shadowed eyes gazing upon the street. Our footsteps are muffled against the damp concrete, but even they are loud in the stillness.
“Can you please tell me what’s going on?” Quinn has her arm linked tightly through mine, as if to keep me from escaping.
“You’ll see when we get there.” Every few seconds, I swivel around, keeping an eye out for a striped T-shirt. Floppy hair. But I only see houses and gleaming cars and the expanse of the sky.
At the center of the neighborhood is a man-made lake, surrounded by a winding dirt path. Lining the path are clusters of trees, where joggers pause for breath and families have picnics.
I find the trio of slim birch trees, curved toward one another as if sharing a secret. The ground has been softened by the rain. Under the light of a flickering lamppost, I begin to dig.
Two years ago, Alder insisted we bury a time capsule.
“We’re doing one at school,” he said, brandishing a sticker-covered shoebox. “I made this for us.”
“I have a paper due tomorrow.” I turned from the computer. Below the title, I had written two paragraphs. “Can’t this wait?”
“It won’t take long. Please?” He waved the box in my face, nearly hitting me in the eye. “Maybe we can go to the lake.”
“Can I put this in there?” I showed him my copy of Lord of the Flies.
“It has to be important,” he said, rolling his eyes. “What is that book about? Flies?”
“Something like that.” I set it back down on the desktop. “Fine. What are you putting in the capsule?”
“It’s a secret.” He cradled the box in his arms. “You can’t see it until ten years have passed.”
“A decade is a long time, Al. I’ll be twenty-six,” I said. “I might be married by then. Maybe even have kids.”
“They can help us dig the box up. We’ll be like pirates, finding treasure.”
My hands are filthy. Surprisingly, the box is intact, despite being made of cardboard. I brush a layer of dirt away, revealing a Spider-Man sticker next to a masking-tape label. “Alder and Ivy,” it reads, in crooked letters.
Here is the friendship bracelet Quinn gave me as a joke, made of bright pink and green threads. My least favorite colors.
“It took me an hour to make that,” Quinn says when I hand it to her. “And you never wore it.”
Here is my diary from middle school, plastered with pictures of the Twilight cast.
“I’m still Team Jacob.” She flips through the pages. “You’d better not have written anything bad about me in here.”
Here is one of the photos from the fair, with Alder putting a finger up my nose.
Here is an Iron Man action figure, resplendent in red and gold plastic. How Alder managed without it, I can’t imagine.
I find the first Valentine’s card I made for him, after he learned to read. A lopsided paper heart, edged with lace. “Roses are red, violets are blue. Alder is stinky, pee-yew!”
He ran around the house for hours, singing the words at the top of his lungs. Mom hadn’t been too happy.
Next up is the blanket Mom used to swaddle him with, a square of cotton printed with whales. The blue has faded into gray.
At the bottom of the box is a folded piece of paper. The words “My Hero” march across the top. I hold it up to the light and begin to read, expecting to see a description of his favorite superhero.
“My hero is my sister.” I choke on my own breath. Quinn laces her fingers through mine and squeezes.
“Ivy lets me have two bowls of cereal on weekends. She catches the monsters under the bed and throws them away outside.” I trace the slanting letters with my thumb.
“She builds Legos and watches cartoons with me. I know she hates it.” A giggle explodes from my throat. It feels like a sob.
“She protects me when Mom is mad. This happens a lot. I will be a better brother. I will protect her when I grow up. I hope she will always be happy.”
At the bottom of the paper, his teacher has written, Wonderful! Ivy sounds like a great sister! Next to this is his grade, a glowing red A-plus.
I clutch the paper to my chest. I draw my knees up and burrow my face into them. Quinn wraps herself around me.
For once, I don’t stop the tears. They are overwhelming, searing my throat, suffocating me. I am a monster, howling at the trees and the black of the night. Nobody told me grief itself is a wound, a physical affliction. It burns through me, tearing me into fragments. I grab fistfuls of dirt and fling them away. I kick wildly at the box, scattering its contents across the ground. Still, Quinn hangs on. Her weight anchors me.
I hope she will always be happy.
After a time, the sobs subside. My breathing slows. I rub at the damp spots on the paper. I imagine Alder watching me from wherever he is: from the sky, the stars, the falling rain. Mourning not only the loss of himself, but also the loss of me. His sister.
“I’m broken,” I tell Quinn.
“It’s okay,” she says. Her cheeks are blotchy. Tears hover on her lashes. “We’ll figure it out. I’m sorry I didn’t—I couldn’t—”
I shake my head. I have lost myself. But buried within me is the person I used to be. Slivers of the past, shards of memories, waiting for me to recover them, one by one. I will never be whole. The empty space where Alder used to be is too vast. A boundless crater, forever gaping.
But here is what I know now: I can’t drown any longer.
“He wanted me to be happy.” I think of the tiny figure in the familiar clothes. Wherever he is now, he led me here. I gather up the bracelet, the photo, the card—the pieces of me. Of us.
I will go home and show Mom the box. I will press the blanket into her hands and let her read what Alder wrote about me.
Someday, I will breathe again.