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“Two more miles,” my mom announces, glancing over at me. I stare stonily through the windshield, my eyes locked on the uneven dirt road ahead of us. Maple trees flank us on either sides, their leaves rustling in the summer breeze. I wish I could appreciate that the long car ride is nearly over, but my discomfort is nothing compared to the dread that’s been building up inside me all day.
I sigh. “Yeah, Mom?”
“This is hard for me. It’s hard for your father. It’s hard for Grandmom and Pop and the cousins, everyone. But that’s why we’re doing this. To be together. To help each other.”
“It’s too soon,” I mumble, leaning my head against the window.
My mom reaches over and places a hand on my knee. “I miss him, sweetie. God knows I miss him more than anything. But we have to go on with our lives.”
I brush her hand away. Maybe she’s ready to forget him, but I’m not.
The lakehouse looks just the same as it did two years ago. The burgundy bricks, the slate roof, the back porch with the white wicker rocker. My eyes stray down to the water, where the wooden dock juts out from the rocky beach. My stomach clenches at the sight of the raft, floating fifty feet offshore. I won’t be going out there. Not after everything. Not without Elijah.
After my grandparents have greeted me with a flurry of pine-scented hugs, and my aunts and uncles have remarked how much I’ve grown, I lug my duffle up to my room. It’s the small one overlooking the lake, the one Elijah and I used to share every summer. This time, though, there’s one bed missing.
My head turns at the creak of the door. My mom appears in the doorway, a small smile on her lips. “The place looks the same, huh?”
I don’t know if she’s talking about the room or the house. Either would make sense. “I guess.”
“Everyone’s going down to the lake before dinner. You coming?”
I shake my head.
“When you’re ready,” she says softly. “Whenever you’re ready.”
I turn away from the door, busying myself with pulling out clothes from my duffle. When I turn back, she’s gone.
I watch my family from my window. My cousins take turns jumping off the dock, then swim with strong strokes over to the raft, heaving themselves onto its surface. My mom and her sisters sit in lawn chairs, conversing, while Grandmom tends to the flowers beside them. My uncles are crouched by the shore with Grandpop, inspecting his new canoe.
I want to be with them. I do. But I can’t go back to the lake.
I move away from the window and lay down on the bedspread. My mind strays to memories from years passed, when Elijah and I would wriggle impatiently in the back seat of the car, barely able to wait another moment to see the house rise over the horizon. First thing, we’d jump out, race up to our room, and change into our swimsuits. Then down to the lake it was, to see who would be the first to reach the raft. We’d spend hours on that raft, daring each other to do cannonballs and flips, and sometimes just lying and talking. It’s the talking that I miss the most. Nobody gets me like Elijah did.
I’m startled out of my reverie by the appearance of my grandmother, her frizzy white hair clipped back against her head, her brightly-patterned sundress hanging at her knees. Her skin is tanned and leathery; she seems to add a new layer of wrinkles every time I see her.
“Hi, Grandmom,” I say, sitting up and leaning against the headboard.
She nods out the window. “Won’t you come join us?”
“I….” My voice falters. “I can’t.”
She steps across the threshold and walks over to the nightstand, reaching down to slide open the wooden drawer. Inside, tucked among boxes of stationery and paper clips, is a photo album. She sits down on the edge of my bed and brushes a layer of dust off its worn leather cover, then beckons me closer. I scoot to her side, curious.
She opens to the first page, and I feel my throat go dry. It’s a photo of Elijah and me; we look to be about ten, sitting on the edge of the dock, our legs dangling over the water. The photo was taken from behind, and I’m looking over my shoulder at the camera, grinning. Elijah, however, stares across the lake, his chin raised towards the sky.
Grandmom turns another page, revealing a shot of the two of us laughing as we wrestle in the grass. Page after page passes, the memories flooding back to me with each new photograph. Fourth of Julys. Blanket-and-couch-cushion forts. Barbeques on the back porch. So many times that will never be the same again.
The last photo is from two years ago. It’s Elijah alone, sitting on the raft, his legs tucked beneath him. His eyes are shielded by his hand, and he grins at the photographer. The sun hits him just so, making his skin seem almost luminescent. Angelic, even.
He looks so happy. He loved that raft, the lake, this house. In some strange way, it makes sense that he took his last breath here.
Grandmom carefully slides out the photograph and places it in my hands. “Here,” she says softly.
“Thank you.” The words barely escape my lips, and only then do I realize that I’m crying.
“He’s an angel,” Grandmom whispers, gently kissing the top of my head. “He was angel then, and he’s an angel now. Brothers are brothers forever, whether they are with each other in person or in spirit.”
I lift my head to stare out the window to the lake. The raft bobs on the water’s glassy surface, and for a moment I see Elijah standing atop it, his smile wide, beckoning for me to join him.