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Nate couldn’t stay in the apartment when she was gone. He couldn’t pay the rent alone, and besides, being there made him sadder--it was big without her, too big, empty and cold. When he woke up, now, the sheets were smooth, not twisted around the bed because she’d kicked them down at night when she got too warm. He would walk into the kitchen, and no scent of coffee would greet him. There was only one set of dishes to wash now--and her clothes, he hadn’t touched her clothes, not even to hang up the wrinkled unwashed t-shirts that lay crumpled on the floor of her closet.
She’d had a goldfish, a tiny thing with a stunted tail fin that she’d christened Oliver, that he’d laughed at when she carried the bowl into the apartment. She’d moved in three years ago, and for three years Nate had half expected that he’d find Oliver belly up in the water, that she’d forgotten to feed him one too many times. But it had never happened, and Oliver swam around his tiny space as energetically as ever.
Nate sat at the kitchen table and stared at the fish. He’d never fed him before, he realized as he sprinkled a pinch of the foul-smelling brown powder over the surface of the water. Was Oliver wondering where she was too? Stupid fish, he thought, not without some affection. And then the next thought: She was gone.
Anna. Now it had been five days since they’d buried her, seven since the accident, eight since Nate had seen her, since he’d talked to her. Eight days, or a hundred and seventy-nine hours, and-- the clock on the microwave turned to 6:57-- twenty-three minutes. The numbers were burned into his head; he could not forget them.
He was moving out today. Mrs. Blackwell had called him yesterday evening, her voice tearless but somewhat mechanical. John’s lung is acting up again, she’d told him. Probably the shock, and he wasn’t as young as he once was, you know. She was going to stay with him in the out-of-state hospital for a week or two, and would Nate be willing to drive up and watch Anna’s younger brother, Isaac, for the time being?
“I can’t pay you, not now at least.” She’d sounded tired over the phone, like the aging woman Nate knew she was. “But you can stay in our house. If you don’t want that apartment anymore. As long as you want.”
Nate had only seen Isaac a few times in the three years he and Anna had been together—when she’d brought him home for weekends over the summer, Thanksgiving dinners, and then at the funeral. Isaac was fourteen. He was slighter than his sister had been, and quieter. But he carried himself the same way—shoulders forward, chin up, full of quiet pride. His irises were the same hazel-shot green, and his mouth set in the same stubborn frown that Nate knew so very well. He’d found himself staring at the boy all through the service, staring at the familiar angle that his jaw and his throat made, identical to hers.
Nate scooped Oliver out of the water with a net and carefully transferred him to a Tupperware container filled with water, securing the lid on with tape to ensure that nothing would spill out during the three hour’s drive. With a thumbtack, he poked a few holes in the plastic and carried the fish out of the kitchen. He’d crammed everything else into the backseat of his station wagon, stripped the apartment bare. He felt like a ghost padding through the empty rooms.
Driving down the freeway between cornfields, he focused on how the road looked in the weak slanting light. It had stormed that night and the asphalt was slick with rainwater. He was glad for that; it gave him something to concentrate on. A stunted tree, twisted under the wind, went by outside the window.
When an unwelcome thought entered his head, he’d interrupt it halfway through, unable to push it out entirely, but fixating on one word, postponing the conclusion of the thought. A mental stutter. She—she—she—she—she—
But it never worked. She died.
He’d half feared that he wouldn’t be able to find the house, but it was still there, looking the same as ever. Gray walls, brown grass, a yellow door. That had been Anna’s idea. If we can’t have real sunshine, she said, why not? She was going to move to California when she graduated, she’d told him, and then added, winking, with or without you. Then she’d pulled his face down to hers.
He knocked on the yellow door.
Isaac pulled it open. He looked as if he hadn’t been sleeping—his long hair, which was usually artfully messy, was lank, and his skin and eyes were dull. But he still looked like her. “Hey,” he said, standing back to allow Nate into the house. Once he was inside, Isaac let the door fall shut and, turning his back, strode down the hall to his bedroom, leaving Nate standing alone in the foyer.
“Uh, Isaac,” Nate called after him, not knowing what to say, but feeling that something should be said. “How are you? Considering everything, I mean. Are you doing all right?”
Isaac turned around and looked into Nate’s face for a moment. “Yeah,” he said. “I’m all right.” He went into his room and shut the door behind him.
Nate found a note on the kitchen counter from Mrs. Blackwell, apologizing that he would have to use Anna’s old room. He dragged his luggage up the stairs, meeting the eyes of all the Annas in the photographs lining the stairwell—twelve school pictures, all in a row; her and her sunburnt friends all crowded into the frame; her with her parents, their arms around her; pictures of her and Isaac as children, sledding or hoisting jack-o-lanterns or blowing out candles on birthday cakes. Her room was to the left, and he stepped inside, feeling a vague ache in his stomach.
Her parents must have tidied up the room when Anna left for college. Nate, tidy himself, had come to accept her messy tendencies when they lived together. He’d learned to step around the textbooks lying open on the floor, or pick up the cold half-finished cups of coffee she left all around the apartment. Here, vacuum lines ran across the beige carpet, and all of Anna’s books were shelved neatly in a cabinet next to the bed. Everything was a little dusty. Still, he could tell it had been her place by the orange walls and the purple bedspread, and by the cheap Monet reprints on the walls—color everywhere. He trailed his fingers over her desk, creating a little clean circle of wood, and placed Oliver’s container there. Sitting on the edge of the bed, he closed his eyes and pictured her face, brought it up to the surface of his mind in all the perfect detail.
Then an odd drumming noise rumbled up through the floor, making Anna’s freckles swim and dissolve in his mind. He stood, listening. The noise came again from downstairs. He smoothed out the place where he had been sitting and followed the noise.
The door to Isaac’s bedroom was closed, but Nate could hear the television inside, fuzzy bursts of gunfire. It was far too loud; Nate could feel the floorboards vibrating beneath his bare feet. He pushed the door open, slowly, to ask Isaac to turn it down.
It looked as if he were watching documentary— black and white footage in the jerky filming style of the forties, and a smooth, British male voice overlaying the gunfire. The invasion of Normandy was the largest amphibious operation in history, he said. The camera panned over an empty, torn-up field, smoke drifting upward in so many shades of gray. The curtains in the tiny room were shut. The pallid light from the screen played across Isaac’s face as he sat on the bed, drinking from a bottle of beer. He looked up as Nate entered. His eyes widened, but he didn’t move to conceal the drink.
“What are you doing with that?” Nate blurted.
Isaac leaned back against the headboard, crossing his arms across his thin chest. “What does it look like I’m doing?”
“Isaac, please, give me that,” Nate said, moving in front of the TV. “Come on. You’re fourteen.”
Isaac didn’t move. “And?”
“And booze will mess with your head,” Nate said, grabbing the beer. “It’ll screw you up.” All his muscles were tensing up, and his heart was pounding fast, like his body expected him to have it out with this skinny little boy. That’s all he is, thought Nate. His wrists and cheekbones showed sharp beneath the skin.
“What are you, my health teacher?” Isaac looked up at Nate from beneath half-closed eyelids. “As if you don’t drink.” He stabbed at the remote control, turning up the volume so Nate had to shout to be heard.
“Look, Isaac.” Nate grabbed at the remote and turned off the TV, silencing the narrator’s pleasant baritone. “I don’t want to make your mom leave your dad at the hospital, but she would come back here in a second if she knew you were pulling crap like this.” He could hear his own voice rising in volume and pitch, rising towards hysteria.
“Fine,” Isaac said. “I won’t do it again.” He stared down at his hands, which were clutched on top of the bedspread, wound together, all slender fingers and white knuckles. “Don’t make her come back.”
Nate realized that his own free hand had been clenched into a fist, and he stretched it out slowly as he spoke. “I won’t call her. But don’t do that again.”
Isaac stared at him, his face wooden. “Can you leave? Please,” he added, closing his eyes for a moment, and then opening them and staring at the blank screen, right past Nate.
Nate turned to leave, and Isaac turned on the documentary again, bringing back the sounds of gunshots.
Nate paced in the kitchen, trying to decide what to do. Isaac’s parents were hundreds of miles away, at the only hospital that offered the heart surgery Mr. Blackwell needed. He didn’t doubt that Mrs. Blackwell would drive home should he call her. But. But she was needed where she was.
He could handle this. Isaac was fourteen, for God’s sake. Just a child.
Turning on his heel, he pulled a black trash bag from underneath the sink and went to the refrigerator. There wasn’t much in there—just some beer and mayonnaise and several lumpy casseroles wrapped in tinfoil. One by one, Nate took out the beers and placed them in the bag. When he had gotten the last of them, he tied the bag shut and hoisted it outside, dragging it to the end of the driveway for trash pickup. Suburban noise lay heavy on the summer air: growling lawnmowers, the tch-ch-ch of rotating sprinklers, and birdsong.
Nate set down the bag as gently as he could, but as it settled on the asphalt there was a clunk and a crunch and the sound of moving liquid. He watched, not knowing what to do, as beer trickled out of the mouth of the bag and ran in a little rivulet over the driveway and onto the green lawn.
After that, the last days of summer went by without incident. Nate had written in to the university saying that he wouldn’t be returning for the fall of his senior year, but Isaac was starting freshman year at the local high school. Numerous phone calls between the guidance counselor there and the Blackwells had determined that Isaac was stable enough to start school in September with the rest of the freshmen.
Isaac himself hadn’t disagreed, Nate thought, but as the days passed, as the first day of school approached and his parents remained at the faraway hospital, he seemed to get more and more listless. He took the bus that first day, although Nate offered to drive him. He wore a gray sweatshirt and didn’t brush his hair. Nate watched him through the kitchen window, watched him board the bus with his head down. He’d taken to walking everywhere with his arms folded over his thin chest, like he was trying to protect himself from something.
They talked, Nate and Isaac, but not much. Isaac seemed to be the archetypical teenage boy, answering Nate’s questions with a nod or a shake of the head whenever possible. Nate would try to fill in the silences as the two of them sat at the breakfast table, or in the car on the way to the Laundromat, or on separate ends of the couch to watch the History Channel.
He would talk about nothing, about the weather or the Yankees, but always—always—the talk would turn to Anna, as if he were in a maze with dozens of corridors but only one possible outcome. That movie? Anna and watched that years ago and I burnt the popcorn black. But she ate it anyway. Or Anna told me you play the cello or Anna would love the color of that sunset.
Once, when Nate had done this, Isaac had pushed his chair back and just looked at Nate, his mouth twisted. “Did you ever think,” Isaac said, “that maybe my sister wasn’t as fantastic as all that?”
Then he’d stalked down the hallway and turned on another documentary. Later, feeling juvenile but compelled, Nate had crept after him and pressed his ear to the door. Below the narrator’s ruminations on the mysteries of Easter Island, he thought he could hear ragged crying.
So when Isaac went to school, Nate didn’t know what to feel. He was, admittedly, relieved that the uncomfortable silence he shared with Isaac had given way to his own silence, at least from eight to three.
But the boy looked so much like Anna. When Nate saw him, it wasn’t difficult to imagine those pretty features turning bright, uplifted in a smile instead of a sullen stare. Her smile.
Nate worried, sometimes, that he was recalling his favorite memories too often—that they, like old photographs that had been handled too many times, would someday fall apart in his grasp. One afternoon he panicked because he couldn’t recall her laugh. He tore apart her bedroom, looking for something, anything that carried her voice, until he found some old homemade DVDs in a box in the closet. One was labeled “Friends.”
Anna, sixteen or seventeen maybe, had taped it with her friends at an amusement park, behind the camera, so he couldn’t see her. She narrated her friends’ actions under her breath to the camera: And this is Katie freaking out over the hot guy that sat next to her on the Dragon’s Dive, she whispered as her friend fluttered her hands in the air. Nate could hear the smile in her voice, and the affection for the others. Katie said something he couldn’t make out; Anna laughed, musical and infectious, and Nate wondered how he could have forgotten the sound. The camera shook as she laughed, blurring into a rush of bright color and noise, and then ended. Nate played and replayed the four-minute video on his laptop for over an hour, kneeling on her bed as if in prayer.
On Tuesday afternoon the second week of school, Isaac didn’t come home on the bus. Nate, trying to stay calm, told himself that he was at some activity, or maybe at a friend’s house, but as the hours slipped by with no news, Nate began to pace in the kitchen, where he could see the driveway from the window. Isaac didn’t answer his texts or calls or, later, his voice messages. The sun rolled down and still he went back and forth, back and forth across the floor, swearing to himself, more and more determined to call Isaac’s parents back.
At 10:17, a battered pickup truck braked in front of the house, and Isaac teetered out of the passenger seat. The pickup truck sped away down the dark street, miles above the speed limit, as he picked his way up the driveway. He saw Nate waiting in the doorframe, and a slow grin spread across his face. “What’s up?” he drawled. His pupils were enormous. He held up his hand to wave to Nate, and it was trembling.
“Where the hell have you been?” Nate was past shouting. His voice was cold and forbidding even to his own ears.
“Out,” Isaac said. “With friends.”
Isaac laughed freely. “You should try it sometime, man. It’ll chill you out.”
“Shut up,” Nate snapped. “Shut up. What are you trying to pull, Isaac? S*** like this is dangerous.”
Isaac, looking startled, stepped backward until he hit the front door. “It’s okay,” he said with a quaver in his voice, his chemical-induced breeziness slipping a little. “My friends, they’ve been doing this for years.” Something seemed to go out of him, and he slid down the door, hitting the floor hard. He stared at the ground. “Nothing’s happened to them.”
“You’re an idiot, Isaac.” Nate’s voice was shaking, and he felt a pressure building behind his eyes. “You’re not immortal—you of all people should understand that.”
Isaac’s head snapped up, and his gaze was bright and hard. Red spots rose in his cheeks and his lips trembled. “Do you think I don’t know?” he said.
Nate called Mrs. Blackwell that night after Isaac had gone to bed. He described what had happened as calmly as he could, under-exaggerating, but she cried just the same. He sat in the dark and listened to her tears over the wire.
“I’ll come as soon as I can,” she said thickly. “But John’s surgery is on Wednesday. I can’t leave before then, Nathan—I just can’t.”
“I understand,” Nate heard himself saying.
“Do whatever you have to do,” Mrs. Blackwell said. “Keep him home from school. Lock him in his room. But keep him safe.”
“I will,” he said. “I promise I will.”
There was a short silence on the other end. Then: “I’m so sorry about this, Nathan.”
“It’s all right,” Nathan said. “Stay with your husband. We’ll be all right.”
When he had hung up, he laid down on Anna’s bed and stared at the glow-in-the-dark star stickers on the ceiling and tried to listen for Isaac through the floor. He was tired. So tired.
He dreamed, of course, about Anna. She was there, laughing and smiling and lovely. The two of them sat together in her old bedroom, facing each other on the bed, cross-legged like children. She gazed steadily into his eyes as she spoke, her voice resonating long after her lips had stopped moving. It’s too late for me, she told him. Nate. I’m not coming back. But him, Isaac—he’s there; he’s safe. Keep him that way.
Nate tried to touch her hand, but she was just out of reach. Your brother is not my second chance. He’s not like you. No matter how much he looks like you. He’s not you.
Nate sat up in the dark, fully dressed, a sharp void pressing up beneath his collarbone. Except for his harsh breathing, there was no noise, none at all. Hysteria rose in his throat as the image of Anna blurred and faded. He looked around, seeing only silhouettes of things, black shapes all around him. Anna’s favorite colors had been obliterated by shadows and moonlight.
Raking the back of his hand across his eyes, he clattered down the stairs and stumbled into Isaac’s bedroom. The television was on but muted, and in the pale flickering light Nate could see an empty bed. Isaac wasn’t there.
As Nate’s station wagon crawled through the deserted streets, it began to rain. He had his cell phone pressed to his ear, his left hand on the wheel. He called Mrs. Blackwell with no answer. He called Isaac five times. He called Isaac’s friends, and when that failed, their parents. But it was two in the morning and so he left message after message, making less and less sense with each one until finally he was just yelling into the phone, yelling Isaac’s name.
He drove around all the neighborhoods, to the park and the vacant lot behind the strip mall, to the beach and to the high school, finding nothing. He had begun to make another circuit when he remembered something Anna had told him years ago: something about a church, closed from lack of congregants. Kids would break into it on dares. She’d pointed it out just once, when they passed it on their way back to school after Thanksgiving. It had had boarded-up windows and holes in the roof. He turned in what he thought was the right direction, accelerating straight through a red light, and was there in minutes. And sure enough, he glimpsed a light behind the church as he pulled into the parking lot, green and purple and sparkling. He heard laughter, and unfamiliar voices chanting something crude.
The shouts and laughter didn’t stop as Nate emerged from around the side of the building, keeping to the shadows, out of reach of the streetlamp’s glow. There were seven or eight boys there, all of whom looked old, eighteen to twenty, grouped in a loose circle around a firecracker that crackled and sputtered in the rain. They were dressed lightly despite the cold, and soaking wet. Some of them clutched cans of beer or energy drinks, or pipes, or funnels. Their pupils were all enlarged in the dark like so many black holes. The concrete around them was littered with their refuse lying among the early fallen leaves. The air smelled like beer and vomit and below all that, the sweeter hint of autumn.
Isaac lay on his back on the ground in the midst of them all, his head thrown back, rain running down his face and into his eyes. A hulking boy with greasy blond hair squatted over him, pouring beer into a funnel stuck into Isaac’s mouth. The others were laughing expansively, cheering them on with big intoxicated yells and gestures. Isaac looked tiny next to them.
Nate wasn’t aware of moving, but somehow, suddenly, he was, and then he was standing over Isaac, and then he had struck the blond in the face and the boy was reeling backwards, howling and clutching his nose and spilling beer everywhere, and Nate heard choking and he looked down and Isaac was gagging, rolling over and curling into a ball but then the blonde boy surged back to his feet, blood dripping from his nose, swinging at Nate, and the rest surrounded the three of them. Nate and the blonde and Isaac slumped between them, and drunken jeers assaulted Nate like bullets.
The blonde boy was bigger, stronger probably, but he was also extremely drunk. Although he hit hard, every blow Nate landed on him threatened to put him off his feet. Nate was more conscious of sound than sensation as the blows fell. He heard thuds and yelps and curses from the other boy and from himself, but he didn’t feel pain even as the boy’s fist connected with his mouth and he felt something hot and wet pooling behind his teeth and there was no anger or empathy behind his own punches. He thought only to move the others away from Isaac. Finally, one of Nate’s blows to the stomach landed the blond boy on the ground, and he didn’t get back up, but lay there whimpering and clutching his face.
Stepping away, Nate spat out a mouthful of blood. He felt stronger, physically, than he ever had before. And he wanted to turn his fists on the rest of them, make them hurt for destroying a child. He wanted to kill them all, but there was Isaac to think about.
They shrank back, avoiding his eyes as he turned back to Isaac. The boy was curled into a fetal position, shivering. When Nate touched his shoulder, his eyes opened. They were shot through with red and filled with something like hatred.
Nate yanked him to his feet. Isaac was soaked and cold to the touch, his t-shirt clinging to his skin. On the way to the car, he stumbled and almost fell before Nate caught him beneath the arms and half carried him the rest of the way. It seemed as if he weighed almost nothing. Nate tossed him in the backseat and slammed himself into the front, stabbing the keys into the ignition and swerved onto the road, heading towards the hospital. “Put your seatbelt on,” he ordered.
Isaac rolled over, grasped the back of Nate’s chair, and pulled himself upright with what looked like an enormous effort. His head hung down, his chin in his chest so that when he spoke, his words came out muffled.
“Hey, Nate,” he said, slurring. “Nate. Why’d—why’d you—find me?”
Nate ignored him. He stared resolutely at the wet black asphalt, at the yellow lines glowing under his headlights, flying by at twenty miles over the speed limit. It was after three and the roads were deserted.
He realized Isaac’s teeth were chattering and turned on the heat. The car began to smell of musty warm air as well as alcohol and sweat. Despite the dark world going by outside, it was almost silent in the car, except for the whirring of the heater and Isaac’s ragged breath.
He clutched Nate’s shoulder, his sharp fingers digging in. He leaned forward until he was speaking right into Nate’s ear. “Why did you come?” he hissed. Nate could feel him shaking, could see his wide bloodshot eyes in the rearview mirror.
“Because I—” Nate’s voice broke, and he had to stop and take a long, dragging breath before he went on. “Because you’re going to die if you keep this up.” He was beginning to hurt now that the adrenaline had faded. His face stung, and his head was pounding, and he could feel bruises forming on his face and torso.
Isaac’s hand contracted on his shoulder, sending a twinge of pain down his arm. “Die—just like Anna,” Isaac hissed. “Is that why you’re so obsessed with me? Because I look like her?”
Nate turned the car sharply to the left, sharply enough that Isaac lost his grip and tumbled sideways into the seat. Looking back, Nate saw that despite the heat, he was shaking worse than ever, and his face was chalky. He didn’t sit up, but stayed sprawled there, rolling limply with the motion of the car, his chest rising and falling fast and shallow like a bird’s.
Nate swore, knowing the hospital was still at least thirty minutes away. He pulled to the roadside and killed the engine. Isaac didn’t look up as he got out of the car, dialed nine-one-one, gave the drowsy dispatcher the name of the nearest intersection, and sprinted around to the trunk for the blanket he kept there. There was no light except for the headlights of the station wagon and the moon through the clouds. It had stopped raining, and the air was bitingly cold.
The back door opened, and Isaac crawled out of the backseat. Leaving the door wide, he staggered a few feet away from the road, then stumbled and fell face down into the grass.
Nate knelt beside him and turned him over. “Isaac,” he said. “Isaac, what were you taking back there? Tell me.”
Isaac didn’t say anything for a moment. He just looked up at Nate with no emotion in his face, as if he no longer had any energy to feel anything. “Why,” he said, his voice barely audible, “do you care what happens to me?”
A sudden wave of rage and despair went over Nate, more painful than all the bruises, because it was deep and dark and inescapable, and he thought maybe he hated Isaac: hated him for living when she couldn’t, hated him for dying when he didn’t have to, hated him for not caring. He missed Anna; he wanted Anna; he loved Anna. But Anna was dead.
“Because she would have given anything to be alive right now!” His scream echoed off the trees and then dissipated into the night. “Anything! And you have this—this chance—and you don’t even f***ing care. You’re wasting it.”
“That has nothing to do with me,” Isaac said, his eyes closed. “I know you wish it had been me instead of her. I do too. But it’s not my problem.”
“I don’t wish—that’s not—” Nate choked on his words. He was crying now, tears that mixed with the blood on his face and tasted like iron.
“Shut up, Nate,” Isaac said. “I don’t care. She didn’t have a choice, but I do, and this is what I—” He shuddered, and then gathered himself. “What I want.” He lay still, white against the black-looking grass.
He didn’t protest as Nate picked him up, but his eyes opened a little, into wet red slits. Nate put him into the backseat and snapped in the seatbelt. Isaac was limp, breathing shallowly but evenly.
They drove in silence through the cold.
When morning came, he woke up in Anna’s bed. Winter was coming early, and there hadn’t been so much a sunrise as a slight lifting of darkness. He sat up, pulling the purple blanket around his shoulders and plunging his face into the cloth. His mother had washed it. There was nothing of Anna or Nate, only the false-clean tang of fabric softener. Shivering, he crawled to the bedside table and dropped a pinch of salty-smelling flakes into the fishbowl there.
He didn’t remember much from the other night. He’d woken up to faces floating above him, feeling wretched, pain pounding his head and stomach. Then he was home and his tear-streaked parents were somehow there, touching his face and crying, and Nate had been there as well, but always in the background, on the periphery. When Isaac had woken properly for the first time, at home in his own bed, his mother told him that Nate was gone. He’d started packing when Isaac was discharged from the hospital, and left before he was conscious enough to realize it.
All he’d left was the goldfish with the funny tail fin. And, tucked under the edge of the bowl, a note, hastily written on a torn sheet of notebook paper.
Take care of him.