Bang, bang, bang.
I sat up in bed with a start. Coated in a thin layer of sweat, I patted the bed around me to get my bearings. There was always a blissful moment of ignorance following a deep sleep—an instant when I could believe everything was just as it should be. Sometimes, in that flash of time, I smelled bacon and pictured my mom at the stove frying eggs and hash browns. I could hear the clanging of the pots, the crackle of the oil. But instead of the easy Saturday feeling, grief was there to drape its bony arms over my shoulders once more.
The room was dark except for a sliver of light that leaked in through a crack in the blackout curtains. It had to be nearing midday, which didn’t matter. I no longer adhered to the schedule of a normal teen, because, well, I would never be a normal anything ever again.
Bang, Bang, Bang.
I got up and walked into the bathroom to splash water on my face. I turned the faucet, which squealed and sputtered. I remember my dad peeking his head into the bathroom.
“That thing needs some WD-40.”
“I’ll get to it,” I say with an eye roll.
“Not to worry, son,” he says patting me on the back, “I’ll take care of it.” And I know he will. That’s the kind of Dad he is.
I stared at myself in the mirror for a moment. My brown hair flopped over my swollen, sunken eyes, my skin was pale, my lips dry. I looked exactly how I felt. Exhausted, weighed down, yet filled with fire that was stoked each day by swells of sadness and grief—in my worst moments—fits of “why me…why them?” which I shouted into the night air, hoping my words would reach beyond the place I know, above this earth, into space, swirling stardust into a tornado so powerful it could reverse time. I leaned forward and brushed the hair out of my face, rubbed my eyes and left the bathroom, turning the water off. The squeal of the faucet pierced my heart.
Bang, bang, bang.
“Gosh, chill out. I’m coming!” I whispered, slowly approaching the door. I looked through the peephole carefully—something I hadn’t done the night it happened. There, on my porch, which was overcome by creeping weeds, was Marlowe with her sunglasses propped on her head. I winced as the floor creaked beneath my feet.
“I know you’re in there, Gunner. Just open the door.” She held up a grease-stained paper bag and added, “You need to eat.”
I opened the door slowly, motioning for her to enter.
“Geez,” she said, “You’ve really still been living in it. Maybe we should freshen up a little?
“What’d you bring?” I asked, ignoring her question.
We made our way to the dining table where we sat down across from one another. I sat in my dad’s seat, she in my mom’s. She pushed the bag toward me, and I rifled through it, pulling out a burger and a large order of fries. I placed them in front of me but felt no hunger.
“Sweetie, you need to eat your broccoli,” my mom says, disapproval dancing in her blue eyes.
“But I hate broccoli,” I say, wrinkling my nose.
“Just pretend it’s a tree and you’re a giant taking a big ole bite.”
I lift the broccoli to my mouth in a fist, I snarl and bite into it saying, “Fee fie foe fumb.”
My mom’s face bursts into a bright, wide smile. She laughs.
I pushed the food away and looked at Marlowe. Her long, brown hair hung straight, grazing the table, her bright green eyes looking into mine. Her lips were puffy, eyes red. I could tell she was hurting too—this loss was ours. She was someone I’d known my entire life. We met in pre-school when I asked her what her favorite color was and she said, “dinosaur,” which I thought was brilliant. We were inseparable ever since, spending weekends splashing in puddles, building forts, running in fields, catching grasshoppers and making them elaborate homes. Although middle school and high school tested parts of our friendship, we’ve stayed strong through it all, making up quickly after fights, fiercely standing up for one another when we had to. Her eyes were soft, sympathetic, but she wasn’t doing that thing everyone seems to do to people who’ve experienced something awful. Her eyes weren’t full of sorrow, she wasn’t consoling me, she was showing up to sit in the pain with me—even for a time.
“Are you holding up okay?” she asked, breaking the silence.
“I guess so,” I said. I rubbed my fingers over the surface of the table, tracing an imprint left by my dad who’d pressed down too hard when writing a card to my mom on their last Valentine’s day. It said, “I’ve never believed in God, but I’ve always believed in love.” It was etched permanently into the table I’d eaten every meal at since I was born, and now it served as a steady reminder of the kind of love they shared.
Still running my fingers over the lettering, I breathed deep and said, “I dunno. Somedays I can’t shake what happened. I replay it again and and again, I hear the gunshots, see them on the floor, see him running, wounded, dropping to his knees on the lawn. I’m there, I’m in it, it’s happening. Then, other days, it feels like a dream.”
“I can’t imagine,” she said.
“And, I ca—,” I broke off, the words catching in my throat, “I can’t get back to real life. Because, if I do, it feels like I’d be admitting that it’s all over. And it’s not over. They should be here.”
“They should be. But, Gunner, you sitting in this house, blood stains still on the carpet, will not bring them back. And leaving here doesn’t mean you don’t love them and that you don’t still feel them here.”
“Forget it,” I said, rubbing my eyes, “You really can’t understand this. It’s stupid to even try.”
She nodded and stood up. We’d had this discussion before and she knew she wouldn’t get anywhere with me. She walked over to my dad’s desk, which was now clean. Detectives had ransacked the house looking for evidence and, knowing my dad was a lawyer dealing with a high-profile case, took every shred of paper he’d owned. His desk, previously brimming with books, files, and folders, looked wrong. She ran her hand along the wood and whispered, as if to herself, “I still smell them here.”
Eventually, Marlowe left with instructions to call, but my focus had shifted to the evening. I hadn’t told Marlowe that this was the anniversary of my parents’ marriage. I knew because my dad had scribbled it on a calendar that still hung on the wall. Today, if they had lived, they would be celebrating 25 years of life together. On special occasions, my mom always wore the same perfume, which smelled like fresh lilac, and dressed up in something I could tell made her feel good. She would dig in her jewelry box and put on her old charm bracelet—the one my dad gave her when they were teenagers.
She shakes her arm.
“See this?” she says, showing me a charm shaped like a moon, “Your dad gave me this after our first kiss. It was under a crescent moon at the lake.”
“You make that face now, silly boy, but one day, you’ll fall in love too. And I hope you’re sweet to the woman you love, just like your daddy always has been to me.”
She runs her hands through my hair.
I smell lilacs.
I made my way outside as the sun sank below the tree line. The yard was overgrown, grass knee height, weeds choking the life out of my mom’s prize-winning flowerbeds. Fireflies hovered in the air like tiny space ships exploring new terrain. I dragged a folding metal chair to the middle of the yard and sat down, facing the old oak tree. This was the spot where they used to dance alone in the twilight, my mom’s face buried in my dad’s shoulder. I never understood it, usually rolled my eyes and closed the window shades in my room. Now, every ounce of my being aches for their rhythmic swaying.
I closed my eyes and breathed in the thick, hot air. It was a smell that used to signal the start of summer fun; the precursor to popsicles, pool parties, and pink lemonade. As the long grass brushed my legs, tears burned my eyelids. I felt pangs of guilt for every time my dad asked me to mow the lawn and I refused, instead shaking my head and turning back to whatever video game I was playing that week. I’d give anything to go back for just one day. To tell myself to be more present and attentive, to say, “I love you,” over and over and over until my voice rasped.
As this thought washed over me, a small gust of wind brushed my face. On the breeze was the smell of fresh lilac. My brows knitted together as my body crumbled into itself. It was the smell of her. I let the tears come, heaving sobs causing my muscles to ache. Finally, I leaned back, rubbing my eyes, forcing myself breathing to slow. Through my tears, I caught sight of something strange. A ripple. Thinking I was about to start having a visual migraine, I closed my eyes and tried to will myself to calm down. I eased my eyes open, stared at the same spot, and there, clear as day, was a small wrinkle—almost as if I were looking at the garden through water and someone had thrown a stone into the middle. Feeling dizzy, I steadied myself on the chair. I breathed in through my nose counting the way I’d learned to in therapy. 5 in, hold for 5, 7 out. The ripples remained, even pulsed slightly.
I stood and walked gingerly to the spot where the curtain of nothing seemed to billow, then extended a hand in an attempt to touch it. I expected to reach my hand out and feel nothing, instead I made contact with something light and cool, like vapor. I ran my hand across it and it rolled over my hand like silk. Instinctively, I wrapped my hand around it and stared in awe as it bunched in my fist. I tugged. It moved. I tugged harder. It moved more. Before I could stop myself, I was pulling and tugging, running fast, trailing the swathe of airy something behind me. My legs were burning, my lungs screaming as I moved mile after mile after mile after mile after mile until my legs gave way and I fell to my knees, a blanket of nothing draped over my unconscious body.