March 28, 2011
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Nothing beats those last few glittering rays of gold that creep over the hill just before the sun burns down. They hang in the air like spider webs caught in a breeze. Shadows grow taller, ridges more defined. The mountains have a sharp face now, and the birds stick to the trees, hopping from branch to branch if they have to move at all. Cars creep sluggishly along the hot roads, stuck in the evening rush home.

The drivers’ faces tell it all. Just one more ant in an endless trail, you have nothing but time. As the minutes tick buy, some get anxious. They hunch over towards the dash, trying to nose their way home by any means possible, while treating the wheel like a stress ball. In next lane over, a car reverbs with a deep beat; the driver drums the steering wheel only in the brief pauses between air guitar solos. A few cars back the fashion connoisseur fixes her melting face for not the last time on the stifling trip home. She seriously considers several new makeup products before deciding to invest in a better AC system. A ways behind her, a driver decides to rest his eyes against the afternoon glare. The cars behind him honk frantically. The driver grudgingly sits up a little and slides forward the couple of feet to the next car.

Curled up on the couch, I’m surrounded by a 100-piece orchestra. The house around me disappears as the strong strokes of the melody swoops up and down, one second smooth, than startlingly jagged, bursting through my ear buds. I can see the conductor waving in one section, quieting another with a flattening gesture, and then raising them all back up again. He nearly dances off his little podium with excitement; his foot directs the cellos while his hands are busy directing the oboes and the clarinets. And really, who could blame him? You can’t help but move to this music. I sway back and forth on the couch, watching the light slowly sink over the hills.

My biology textbook waits at my feet like a loyal turtle. I wish I could learn by osmosis. It would make everything so much easier. No having to memorize the Krebs cycle. What a world that would be. Instead, I live in a world full of packets. By this point in the years, if I stacked all the papers I’ve printer, Tower Papercut would be taller than the explosion of branches in our yard we call a willow tree.

The world turned cold. The sun fades fast, reluctantly letting go of its hold on the earth. The last beams of light promise to return tomorrow. On a distant hillside, the grass is still bathed in light. A stucco house is still caught in the sun’s glow, but the darkness is racing up the hill toward it. Shadows sweep over the land before we’re ready to go to bed. Lights click on all across the valley, filling windows with a rosy glow.

A truck pulled up in the driveway. The engine shut off, and the long planter-pot silhouette cast by the headlights disappeared. A tall, willowy figure stepped out of the car. A bat swooped down over his thick head of curls, chasing unseen gnats. He leaned over the pickup bed to grab his bags.

The open door swung back into the wall, but I wasn’t there to catch it. I had already pelted out across the lawn, racing the hunting bats. He dropped his duffel and his thin lips broke into a wide smile. He lifted me off the ground in a hug so tight my bones creaked.
“You’ve stopped eating again, haven’t you?” he whispered in my ear.
“I eat plenty,” I protested, but only half-heartedly. We were both too happy to see each other to fight about it.

My older brother James and I had grown up likes twins, even though he was really two years older than me. We bickered occasionally, but only because it was the traditional thing to do. James and I were best friends. It wasn’t that blood was thicker than water, but that love is stronger than diamond. And then he went off to college and never came back.
At first, I couldn’t forget. It was omnipresent, flooding into every thought, every nerve ending. It blocked out everything else, too. I lived—if scraping the bottom of the barrel of humanity and still coming up short can really be called that—in the a fortress of fog for weeks, unable to see an end in sight. And then with time—an excruciatingly long, drawn-out time—as the weeks turned to months, the pain didn’t fade like every said it would, it just got buried deeper. The fog moved inward, and my brain grew into a high security prison, locking in all the bad, and keeping out all reminders of the past. As the mental paralysis set in, I could go entire days without a meltdown. Only now and then something springs the lock, and then the walls come tumbling down, and I melt faster than Frosty in July. And then the walls go back up and my mind goes blank, and I can focus on the next menial task, then the one after that. It’s been nearly six months now, and even though I tell myself every day he’s gone, not one little part of me believes it. He’s just still at college, dreaming, laughing, living.

Sam and James and I were the Three Amigos. We would stand like the AT&T Bars, Sam on one end and me on the other. When Sam’s parents divorced when we were little, our parents adopted him as one of their own. He shared a room with James, and the three of us grew up joined at the hip. Sam and James even went off to college together. And now Sam had finally come home. He had flown in for the funeral, of course, but this was different.

“You made it,” I said happily.
“I promised you I would.” He looked around at the empty driveway. “Is your dad home?”
“Not yet.”
“He isn’t going to miss it, is he?”
“We’ll see.” My face hardened. The mental walls shrank in a little closer; the barbed wire raised an extra foot. It hadn’t taken long to see that James’ love had been the glue that held the family together, and when that was gone, my dad saw nothing worth returning to.
Sam’s worried eye’s watched the lockdown in progress, his lips working furiously for a moment. But then he thought better of it and said nothing. He looked instead back toward the lamp lit porch. My mom and Keith were waiting there on the porch.

My mom came down to join us, and Keith trailed after like a puppy, uncharacteristically shy.
“So the Prodigal Son returns,” she said warmly, and gave him a big hug.
“Yes Ma’am,” he aid, hugging her back just as tightly.
“Aren’t your parents going to miss you? This is your spring break, after all.”
“Dad’s still down in Cali and mom’s up in Washington. Neither one is talking. Besides, it was long over due for me to spend some quality time with me real family.”
“We’re glad to have you,” she told him. Her voice was rough and her eyes were shining in the porch light.
I took her hand in the darkness and gave it a squeeze.
“Hey little man,” Sam cried, turning to Keith. He shook his hand very grown up and stately, and then picked up the five year old for a real hug. Sam had always been like an Uncle to Keith.
I waited for Keith to ask about James, but the question never came. Maybe it was because he’d been tasked with Sam’s bag—which was nearly twice Keith’s size, or maybe he was growing up.
“I thought guys were supposed to pack light,” I remarked as Keith struggled away.
“Yeah whatever, I have important stuff in there. Am I on the couch tonight?”
“No, we have a room for you.”
“It’s not His, is it?”
“No, but you can sleep there if you like.”

We lay down on James’ old bed, looking up at the green, glow-in-the-dark plastic stars glued to the ceiling. He took my hand in his and brought it to his lips. Then he dropped our joined arms back to the bed. We had dated for a little while back in the summer. In the fall I’d go visit the boys at college every other weekend, and James would take very long breaks to go buy a coffee or find tech support. He’d plod along very loudly outside his door, cough, and then come on in. He gave us plenty of time to separate. He was either very trusting, or very wise.
We kept up this pattern for weeks on end, right up until the end of the world. Straight out a scene from Inception, buildings folded in upon each other, and I lost my mind in the third layer of a dream. Suddenly, I didn’t need a boyfriend. I needed a brother. I needed someone to sit with me and watch Modern Family until I passed out mid-sentence. I needed someone to let me sleep in their lap and drool down their leg until I finally woke up at four in the morning. And I needed someone who would carry me to bed and kiss me on the forehead when I was still too tired to walk. And Sam seamlessly stepped up to fill that void.

“How’s college going?”
“I got A’s and B’s on all my finals.”
“That’s good!”
“Yeah, but not for me. They were easy classes. It’s just hard to focus anymore.”
“Then I’ll help you focus,” I said without skipping a beat. “I’ll harangue you until you drop dead from nagging and then focusing will be the only appealing option.”
“Sounds like a plan,” he said and chuckled. “How about you?”
“It’s… going,” I confessed. “I hate it half the time, but I still have my grades.”
“Good for you. Just wait to you get to college! Colorado State—it’s the place to be.”
“I promised James I’d try to get into an Ivy,” I told him quietly. “But CS can definitely be my fallback.
“Ouch.” He mimed being stabbed in the heart. “Nah, but if anyone can get into an Ivy, it’s you.”
“Thank you,” I said, feeling my cheeks glow in the darkness.
“How about little Keithie. How’s he doing?”
“He’s doing the best of all of us, I think. He’s too young to understand everything that happened. He asks every couple weeks where James is—just like he did when James was at college.” I paused, feeling sick.
“What do you tell him??”
“That-that he’s gone,” I said, failing to smother a sob. “Or that he’s in Heaven, like it’s his new dorm room or something.”
He held me in his long arms, and soon my hair was wet with tears that weren’t my own. I rolled away to wipe my cheeks of both our tears, while he carefully changed direction of the conversation.
“How old is Keith now?”
“He’s five, but he’ll be six in a month.”
“What have you gotten him?”
“Some new little toys he wanted, but we can’t decide what else to get him.”
“How about trucks? Little boys love trucks.”
“We got him that last year.”
“How about a Gameboy?”
“He already has that, too.”
“Dear god, just don’t get him a cell phone.”
I laughed. “It wouldn’t last a day. No, but Mom’s been eyeing some of the new little iPod shuffles. He really likes music since, especially since James was such a good singer. I think she’ll get him one of those.”
“That’ll be good. Easy to replace, and really special,” he said, thinking deeply. “It’s important to have special birthdays.”
“Hello, Sophocles.”
“Don’t mock,” he teased. “I just think it’s important that the kid has a great day. Want to go in on a gift with me?”
“Sure. I’m was going to get him an iTunes gift card, but we should add in a super strong case, too.”
“He’s going to need it.”
“I know! Did you see what happened to his last four square ball?”
“No, what happened?”
“Nobody knows! At least the last one he lost we could see up in the tree. This one he just brought back in shreds and he was so upset we didn’t make him tell what happened.”
“Maybe it’ll be a good for him to have some responsibility.”
“Yeah, hopefully his iPod will last longer than his hamster.”
“You mean Mr. Chubby Cheeks?”
“She was Mrs. Chubby Cheeks when we gave her back to the pet store,” I reminded him. “Along with the four little Cheekers.”

In the kitchen, Mom bustled around noisily. The hardest part of the evening was trying to cover up the silence. She clanked the pots, turned up the TV, and started chopping up garlic, but the haunting silence wouldn’t leave. It hovered in the room, watching her work, breathing in her ear, whispering the horrible truths she tried to ignore.
“Chloe!” she called finally, giving up.

Sam didn’t let go of my hand, so when I slid off of the bed, he came along too. I smiled at him gratefully and then led the way to the kitchen.
“Need a hand, Mom?” I asked cheerfully.
“If you could start the rice, that’d be great.”
Sam went to search the cupboards for the box of rice, while I started the water.
“How was work today?” I shouted over Tom Brokaw.
“Good, good,” she said, scooping the diced onions into a pan. “I wrote a piece about life being like a shoelace.”
“Life is full of knots?”
“And if you’re patient, you can work them all out.” She started chopping peppers with vigor.

My mom was a grief counselor and had her own advice column in newspapers across the state. We’d gotten her a brand new laptop the last time her column had been syndicated, and now it was her daily companion. She’d taken a brief hiatus from the counseling, but she never stopped writing.

Sam tossed me the faded orange box, and I poured it in the bubbling water.
“What’s next?”
“You could start pulling apart the chicken,” she pointed at the fridge warm, rotisserie chicken waiting on the counter.
“Mom, I don’t eat meat,” I reminded her.
“I know honey, but it’s for your father.”
“I can do it,” Sam said quickly. He rolled his sleeves up past the elbow and popped off the domed plastic lid. “Could you hand me a bowl Chloe?”
I grabbed him a white porcelain bowl out of the tawny wood cupboards.
“Here ya go,” I handed it over, wrinkling my noise at the smell of chicken fat. Don’t get me wrong—I used to love meat. It was the only thing I would eat for a major part of my life. But I’d had enough killing for one lifetime, so I stuck with food that didn’t have a face.

My mom set down the cheese grater and started whipping up the guacamole. “Could you feed the dog, Chloe?”

I whistled for JimmyDean, our rolly-polly lab. Out in the garage the temperature dropped. I quickly scooped some kibble into his bowl and then took him outside with it. From the deck, I could see headlights flash in and out of sight as a car made the rounds up our hilly driveway. The quiet car zoomed all the way up to the house and out of view. The doorbell rang.

With no enthusiasm, I opened the door. A medium height man with curly brown hair and dark eyes stood there, suitcase propped up beside him. I let him inside. This man, who bore a striking but unfortunate semblance to me (at least I have my mother’s eyes), carried in his things and then held out his arms, obviously expecting a hug.
“Hey, Devin,” I said evenly. “How was your flight?”
“It was good, Chlo-e.” He didn’t drop his arms. “Give your old man a hug.”
“When I see him, I’ll be sure to.”
I heard Mom drop the pan into the sink, and she and Sam rapidly materialized by my side.
“Watch your mouth, little lady,” he said coolly. “I may not live here anymore, but I’m still your father.”
“Actually—” I started, about to point out he had signed those rights away, when Sam cut in.
“It’s very nice to see you again, Mr. Eller.”
“Son of gun. Sam Richards. How the heck are you son?”
“Good, thanks.”
Devin greeted Sam like the son he’d never had—or, had once had.

Dinner was like a game of battleship. Devin continually missed my tastes and interests, but never failed to hit my nerves. Sam held my hand under the table. By the end of the evening his fingers were purple.
The only person who seemed genuinely happy to see Devin was Keith. His eyes lit up like giant blue balls of fire. Keith set the table, and insisted on sitting right next to Devin. No one put up a fight. Keith started the meal talking about Kindergarten, and by the time Sam and I started clearing dishes he had made it to his birthday wish list.
“You’re coming to my birthday, right?” he added, suddenly anxious.
“Of course I am! I wouldn’t miss it for the world.”
I muttered darkly under my breath and nearly threw the plates into the sink. Nothing broke, but it was close.
“Everything alright over there?” Devin asked.
“I slipped,” I said simply.
Sam and I excused ourselves after that and went back into James’s room to watch movies. After a while, there was a soft knock at the door.
“Come in,” I called. Keith stepped in, looking even smaller than normal. “What’s up bud?”
“Can I watch TV with you guys?”
“Of course! Hop up.”
Sam moved over and gave him a hand up onto the tall bed while I went to grab the DVD of Finding Nemo off of the shelf. I popped it in and then settled back beside Sam on the bed, and he took back up my hand. Keith curled up in my lap, his thumb drifting dangerously close to his mouth.
“Mom and Dad are fighting,” he said after a few minutes.
“I’m sorry Sweetie. They’ll work it out soon. You can stay and watch movies with us until bedtime.”
“Okay,” he said softly, his eyes glued to the screen.

Squishy hadn’t even made an appearance before Keith was out. I turned down volume and listened for the sound of my parents. Nothing.
“I think we ought to take him to bed.”
“I got it,” said Sam, and he gently scooped up the sleeping boy. I got the door, and Sam carried Keith down the hall and into his own little room.
“Should we put him in his pajamas?” asked Sam, hesitating about putting him down.
“No, he’ll be fine in what he’s in.” I pulled back the blankets on the bed so Sam could lay him down. The soft sheets were covered with images of star battles and Jedis. I made up the bed around him and then kissed him on the cheek. “Sleep tight.”

On the way back to James’s room we made a detour to the kitchen. Mom was sitting there alone, her eyes puffy and swollen.
“Hey Ma,” I said quietly. She looked, and a smile spread across her sad face. “Hey love.” She looked back down at her wrinkled hands, decades older than her forty-some years. “Devin decided to spend the night at a hotel.”
I wrapped my arms around her sagging shoulders. “Forget him,” I said decisively. “Sam and I are going to watch Community. You should come join us.”
“I don’t know.”
“That wasn’t a question. Come on.” I took her by the hand and the three of us meandered back down the hall. We squished onto the bed in James’s room, propped up against pillows and with mountains of blankets piled atop our legs. Every now and again Sam or I dug our way out for a popcorn run or to make some tea. Near to midnight, Mom finally drifted off, her face finally relaxing. I moved the food off the bed and leaned against Sam.
“You tired?” I asked him quietly.
“Nah, I’ll probably watch another episode. You ready to go to bed?”
I nodded against his arm.
“Then I’ll turn it off.”
“No, you can keep watching,” I protested. “I like listening to it.”
“Alright then. Good night.” He kissed the top of my head. “I’ll be here when you wake up,” he promised.

We got up early. Keith started screaming sometime around four in the morning, and Mom spent the rest of the night in his room.
Neither of us felt particularly inclined to sleeping, so I put Community back on.
“I had a dream about Him,” I told Sam softly.
“Yeah?” he said sleepily.
“We were sitting on a raft, floating for a long timedown some really wide, gentle river. Mom was there too. I told him how much I missed him, and he said he missed me too. Mom told him how Lina’s doing and—”
“How is Lina doing?” he interrupted. “Sorry,” he added quickly. “I don’t see her around campus anymore.”
“She’s fine, as far as I know. They only dated like a month. She said she’d come by for dinner tonight, if it was okay, and Mom would never think of turning her away.”
He nodded and I went back on with my dream.
“Anyway, so Mom told him how well Lina was doing and he was glad to hear that, and then he talked about taking care of us, and about how he was going to have to leave, even though he didn’t mean to.” I could feel my brow wrinkling up into my long bangs as I spoke.
“Then what?”
“Then Keith freaked out and I woke up.”
“Hmmm. Was it nice to see him again?”
“Yes,” I said, smiling at the memory. “It really felt like he was there, too.”

We finished another disk of the show before I got up to start the coffee. My brain felt like a rock.
“Want to help me make pancakes?”
“Sure,” he said. “Just give me a sec.”
The kitchen was empty. The glowing green clock on the microwave said it was nearly seven. I made a beeline for the coffee pot.
While the coffee brewed, I practiced my best waitering skills as I tottered across the kitchen with a stack of dirty dishes from dessert. I even perfected the landing this time when I set them gently in the sink. Sam drifted in and began to unload the dishwasher while I rinsed.
“Thank you,” I told him quietly, unsure if my mom was still asleep.
“For what?”
“For all the help.”
“We’re family,” he said simply, and left it at that.

The coffee maker chimed loudly in the quiet house. Sam waited at the table, resting his head on his arms, while I poured three large mug-fulls of steaming coffee. Suddenly, I was too weary to move. I set the mugs on the counter and then sank down to the cold tile floor. Mom walked in, drawn by the chime of the machine and the wafting draft of roasted coffee beans.
“Good morning.”
Sam looked up from his arms and realized I had disappeared. Encircled by the horseshoe of cupboards, I was invisible to him.
“Good morning Mrs. Johnson. Where’s Chloe?”
“Taking a little break.” She glanced meaningfully in my direction. “You made me coffee?” she asked, sounding pleased and impressed.
Head resting against the cupboard door, I nodded, my eyes closed. “Cream’s in the fridge,” I added quietly.
“Rough night?”
I shrugged. “Average.”
“Well let me finish fixing up your coffee and then you’ll feel better.”
She passed me the mug and I drank it all sitting there on the floor. Slowly, little by little, my brain woke up. My arms and legs started to tingle, and I felt normal enough to stand back up.
Sam was still sipping his coffee at the table.
“Welcome back,” he said with a smile.
“I’m going to make Keith some pancakes. Do we still have chocolate chips?” I asked my mom.
“Well that’s nice of you. Yeah, I think they’re still in the pantry. Check the date.”
“There fine!” I called, grabbing down the bag without giving it a second glance.

The sound of sizzling bacon and bubbling pancake batter filled the kitchen, covering the unnatural silence. Sam wandered in and out of the kitchen a couple times, finally returning with Keith in toe.
“Morning Keithie!” Mom called, and jumped up to give him a hug.
“Where’s Dad?” he asked, his voice small and anxious.
“He decided to eat breakfast at a hotel.”
“But look what we made you,” I interjected, adding a couple scoops of enthusiasm to my voice. I presented him with the smiley face flapjack and added a mustache of bacon. His eyes widened at the sight, and his little lips spread into a big smile. Mom helped me carry the rest of the plates to the table, while Sam snagged the syrup and OJ from the fridge.
“Let’s eat!” my mom cried, and settled beside me at the table. “Good coffee,” she added after taking a sip of her refill.
A flood of syrup rained down upon Sam’s stack of pancakes, making Keith looked on in envy.
“Can I do that?” he asked eagerly.
“No,” Mom said quickly. “You’re not eating three pancakes like Sam.” Then she turned a blind eye as he doused his plate anyway.
“Are Grandma and Grandpa coming in today?” I asked.
“They’re flying in this morning. They said they’d meet us at the cemetery.”

After breakfast, I slipped into a short black dress with small, pink polka dots, and paired it with my favorite rose flip-flops. My makeup went smoothly enough, but my hair wouldn’t cooperate. It was a toss up between breaking the brush and wearing a wig, so I just straightened it all. The curtain of brown fell straight as a pin down past my shoulders. Hearing a commotion in the communal bathroom, I went to help Keith get ready. He was struggling vehemently with his elf-sized suit.
“I don’t—want—to—wear—it!” he screamed, pulling at the cuffs and the high collar. “I don’t want to go back there. I just want to stay here,” he announced, stamping his foot decisively. “I won’t, I won’t, I won’t!”
I kneeled down, my light eyes just at the level of his dark ones.
“Keithie, what’s the matter?”
“I hate it! I can’t do it and I hate it and I won’t go!”
“Keithie, you look wonderful in that suit. But you know what I think you’d look even better in?”
“No, what?”
“That new red and gray sweatshirt Mom got your last week. The one with the soccer ball on the front. You look dashing in that one. You should wear it.”
“Can I wear shorts too?”
“Will that make you happy?”
“Then shorts it is.”
“But I can’t go!”
“Keith, we’re just going to go say hi to James and sing him happy birthday. He’ll be sad if you miss it.”
“But he can’t hear us, he’s dead. Dad said so.”
I gave him a hug. “He can always hear you, Sweetie,” I whispered in his ear. “Now go get changed, and afterwards I’ll take you out for ice cream.”
He ran out of the bathroom to get changed. I sat down against the mirror, fingering the heart shaped locket I always wore. Inside lay a picture of Sam and James at the ocean. We’d all gone to the Oregon coast for a week during the summer. Sam had asked me out on that trip, too. Even in July the water had been freezing. On a bet, the boys had swum out in the water for fifteen minutes straight before struggling back to shore. They were red as lobsters and covered in salt when they finally walked out of the waves, but smiling from ear to ear.
Mom popped her head in the doorway. “Keith says you told him he didn’t have to wear a suit.”
“That’s right.”
“He has to wear a suit, Chloe. And you aren’t wearing flip-flops.”
“Mom, the kid is having nightmares as it is. Just putting on the darned thing gave him a panic attack. Don’t make him wear it. He’s going to be miserable enough as it is. And James knows I love flip-flops.”
She gave me a hard look. “We need to do what’s expected.”
“James expects us to smile and sing him happy birthday like we’ve done every darned year of his life.”
“Your father won’t be very happy about it.”
“Then he can go fly a kite. Is that what you’re wearing?”
She had on a pale gray dress that fit her thin body like a glove.
“Too much?”
“No, it looks nice,” I reassured her. “Have you seen Sam?”
“Yes, he had me help him with his tie.”
“He’s wearing a tie?”
“Yeah, he even has a suit to go with it.”
She left then, and I stayed there on the floor, thinking about the only other time I had seen Sam in a suit. After a long moment of self-pity, I forced myself to get up. The others were waiting. I glanced at my face in the mirror, and then went back to my bathroom to reapply my makeup, this time with waterproof mascara.

The car seemed to have shrunk. When we stopped at the hotel we had a Chinese fire drill, and ended up with Sam, Keith, and I squished into the back seat so that Devin could sit in the front with Mom. Sam and I struggled to keep Keith busy with Twenty Questions for the entirety of the hour-long trip. We just barely made it. (There are only so many ways you can not guess Spongebob and still sound convincing). The cemetery was up in the hills, neighbored on the one side by country club with a pond loaded with ducks and lilies, and on the other side a golf course.
We pulled into the spacious parking lot, and our grandparents parked right beside us. We hugged and kissed, and commented lightly about the beautiful weather. When Grandma unloaded an armful of flowers from the back of our car, Sam took my hand, I took Keith’s, and he took my Mom’s. The chain of us four walked started off, and the three others followed. We drifted along in an aromatic cloud across the lush green grass. Birds sang out to each from the blooming cherry trees, occasionally swooping down to peck at the verdant lawn.

At the site, Mom helped Grandma pass out the flowers. She held onto Keith’s so that he couldn’t twist it apart while we waited.
We all sang a loud chorus of happy birthday together. Then it was my turn. I stepped forward with the flowers I had picked out, and the others scooted back a little ways. They looked down the valley at the cars that moved like ants, and then across the river to the blooming orchards full of apple trees.

I plopped down next to the tall, arched headstone. The black marble was warm in the sunlight. I leaned against it slightly and pulled at the grass. “Hey man,” I said quietly. “I don’t know if you can hear me, but you have a pretty good view from here. There’s a pond, and a nice little golf course. It’s high school golf season, so I bet you get plenty of good-looking girls strutting by. Not that you’d care. You always did have a thing for personality… Besides, you can have angels now. I bet they’ve been waiting to date you for centuries.” My wet cheeks began to drip down onto the flowers in my shaking hands. “I hope you did well at the Heavenly Choir tryouts. I know you made it in, but some of those high notes—” I trailed off, smiling faintly. “Here, I got you these.” I laid the pale, pink flowers against the black marble. “I know it’s a girly, but you could always pull of pink, and you gotta love a man who can do that.” I crouched there in silence as the minutes stretched on. “I miss you, so so much,” I said, my voice breaking. I couldn’t see the pond or the field anymore. “I love you, so much, and I always, always will.” I kissed my fingers and then pressed them against the headstone. “Happy Birthday bro. I’ll come see you again soon, and next year I’ll bring you a beer,” I promised. My voice dropped to a whisper, “I would have brought one for you this year too, but I don’t think Grandpa would’ve liked it.” I smiled at the memory of Grandpa catching Sam and James drinking in the backyard last summer. The boys nearly peed their pants. “Love you,” I repeated, and then slowly backed away from the grave.
Sam held me close while the others took their turn. The sun reached its zenith when Keith joined the group. His cheeks were red and splotchy from him rubbing away tears.

“Sam, he wants to hear from you too.”
He kissed the top of my head. He crossed the distance in a few quick strides.
“I can’t believe you made me sing. That was always your job,” he said in disbelief, and then chuckled. His voice dropped and I couldn’t hear him any more. He put a hand against the dark marble face and rubbed it slowly. Grandma took my hand while we waited.
“You look very nice Chloe,” she told me quietly. “Especially with the flip-flops.”
“Thank you. That’s what I bought him this year. Flip-flops with a beer can opener on the bottom.”
“He would have loved it.”

“I miss you man.” Sam’s voice was louder now. He stood up, but still addressed the headstone. “I had a word with the Big Man. A thousand hotties in heaven for you, just for your birthday.” He gave the stone a final pat, and then turned back to face us. His eyes were no longer blue, but red.

A tiger striped butterfly settled on top of the stone, the scales on its wings catching the light. We all watched it for a while, and then Grandma and Grandpa took Keith back to the car, and Devin followed. Mom lasted a little while longer. She kissed Sam and I before heading back to the car to comfort Keith. Sam and I stood together a long time watching it gently flap its wings up and down, up and down. The trees rustled and the grass arched its back as a breeze swirled across the pond. The shimmering wings caught the air and began to flap, lifting it higher and higher. It drifted, flapping more slowly now, toward us. I watched until I lost sight of it in the sun.
“Where did it go?” I asked Sam, trying to hide the disappointment in my voice.
“He’s in your hair,” he said, smiling.
“Hi, James.”

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