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The Little Things
Author's note: Hi, I'm Erin, and I'm 14. I hope you guys enjoy "The Little Things," as I spent a lot of time on it. This book is important to me, because I relate to it so well. Jade is heavily inspired by myself. I hope you can connect to her and Ryan, as well.
The most annoying part about being a teenager is that everyone has such high expectations for you. Your relatives will come over for a holiday, or something, and they’ll stare at you for a really long time, a smile dancing on their faces. They will think of all the good times they had as a teenager. They’ll say, “Your teenage years are the best part of your life.” They’ll ask you how the parties are or which boy you were dating, as if there was a whole crowd of them waiting outside, and they couldn’t tell which one belonged to you. They will ask about your grades, and the college you planned on going to, like you needed some help sorting out your future. It frustrated me how teenagers were always stereotyped as these reckless people, flying down a hill with no idea where they were headed. If a mother tells one of her coworkers or friends that she has a teenager, they will automatically think of the star of one of those made-for-TV movies on ABC Family. The girls have perfect hair, and can get any boy they want. The guys are gorgeous, and spend their nights out finding trouble. It’s so ridiculous that, as a teenager, society creates you completely. We all have this image of a “perfect” teenage life set in our minds before we even reach the age of being one.
My wild nights consisted of my iPod blasting through my headphones and a good book cradled in my hands. I was satisfied with my social status. I was well-liked, but it didn’t mean a lot to me. I had a couple of acquaintances that I could partner up with for school projects, but nobody that I hung out with on weekends or could tell everything too. It wasn’t even like I was an outcast. I just kind of felt above most of the 11th graders at my school. I was decent looking; long dark locks, big green eyes, and a rather slim figure. I scrutinized my appearance, but more to make myself feel good, than to impress other people. I actually usually dressed up more than others would. I liked looking presentable and classy. It didn’t bother me that I wasn’t wearing the same clothes as all of the other girls. I wasn’t surrounded by a swarm of them, practically copy-cat versions of each other. I spent a lot of time alone, and that put me in better touch with myself. I didn’t have to like what the other girls liked, or go where the other girls go. I could sort out how I felt about things, and form my own opinions without them being tainted by the social norms we were expected to follow. It bothered me so much when people felt pity for me if they saw me sitting alone. It was a choice, and nothing more. It was redundant to fret about fitting in all of the time. Isolating myself only made me happier. I was part of a middle-class family. We always had enough money, but not a surplus of it. My house was nice looking, not that it mattered. I had absolutely no interest in having people over. I liked my house to be for myself only, and that was something I stood by. It meant so much to always have a place to go home to if the whole world turned their back on you. My house represented family, and family was one of the things I valued most, although mine had its flaws.
“Jade?” my Mom called to me, from downstairs. I finished slipping my feet into a pair of flats that went with the sundress I had already put on. The weather was still warm, which was good, for a day in late September. The weather felt light and free. It was one of those days where you just want to take a walk, and breath in all of the fresh air around you. I had felt the summertime weather slipping away, slowly, though, and I wanted to hold onto it while I could.
I did a quick mirror check, then yelled back a half-hearted, “Uh-huh?”
“The bus is here, you’re gonna be late!” a small voice chirped. I giggled. It was Maddie, my little sister, and also one of my favorite people. She was just 4 years old, but already a chatterbox. We’d go to the park and she would say hello to every single family that passed by the swing-set, our usual spot. Maddie loved the swings. Whenever I brought her to the park, she would sit on the red one and I would sit on the green one and we would swing for hours, just me and her. She would tilt her head back and let the breeze throw around her hair. Her tiny feet, hidden in prim pink shoes, would stick straight out, and then push back and forth, to keep her going. “Jadey! If you close your eyes, it feels like you’re flying!” she said to me one time. Then, she shut her eyes abruptly, and squealed. I just watched her for a minute or two. It was so adorable and precious how a simple thing such as a swing-set could make a child that happy. Well, kids were always happy. They didn’t learn about pain yet. They didn’t learn what sorrow was, or depression. They hadn’t experienced a heartbreak, or a loss. They weren’t stressed. A child’s happiness was the most pure thing. Maddie always made me smile.
“I’m coming, you guys!” I said, grabbing my school bag from my closet. I peered down the stairs at my Mom, who was busy making a bowl of cereal for Maddie, who was in the living room, sprawled out on the carpet with a bunch of markers and crayons, working on a picture in one of her many coloring books that filled our house. An episode of Blues Clues flickered on the screen of the TV before her, and her face lit up with delight, seeing her favorite characters. My Mom looked up, and smiled. Her blonde bangs fell in her face and she blew them away. I didn’t get my looks from her. Actually, I looked nothing like my Mom at all. Most people wouldn’t even guess that we were related. I’d get questions about it so much that I thought about just telling everyone I was adopted. It was a hard story to explain. My Dad looked exactly like me, same strong, pointy nose and full lips. We also had the same dark hair and olive colored skin. We were very similar in personality too. My Dad was a lawyer. He was brilliant. He was also creative and imaginative; a fantastic poet. He named me Jade because Jade was a rare stone to find, and he felt as if I was a rare baby. He thought I was different, something to watch out for. He wanted my name to let people know at first glance that I was someone who was going to change the world one day. I know what you’re thinking, it’s corny, but my Dad was that kind of person. He thought of life as one big poem. Everything should be a metaphor for something else. Life was more beautiful that way.
My parents are divorced. They bickered a lot when I was an elementary schooler. I thought nothing of it. One day, though, when I was about 10, I was sitting in my bed, ready to fall asleep, when I heard the front door fly open. I heard wobbly footsteps slapping the ground. It was my Dad’s work shoes. I could tell because I loved the way they squeaked when he walked in them. I jumped out of my bed and opened the door quietly, so my Mom wouldn’t hear me getting up to give him a hug goodnight. When I opened the door, I didn’t see what I was expecting. He still had his suit on, but his tie was undone and his jacket was off. His undershirt was untucked and altogether he just looked disheveled. His hair was sticking up, and his eyes were blood-shot and beat red. He stumbled right passed my door, not seeing me. He tripped and fell a little bit more down the hallway. I immediately went to go see what was wrong. I bent over him, and rubbed his back. “Daddy? Are you okay? What’s wrong, Daddy?” I said, my voice frantic and jittery.
He pressed his palms on the floor, and lifted himself up again. He stumbled around for a moment, then planted his feet firmly on the floor and threaded his thick eyebrows. “Why do you always need to get into my business?” He yelled, before his speech trailed off and he fell to the floor again. Several tears jerked from my eyes, but I wiped them away. I knew he was drunk. I had seen guys in movies get like this, all aggressive and weird, when they drank to much. I tried to lift him up again, but he pushed me off of him and against the wall all in one quick motion. “What the hell is wrong with you?” his voice boomed. My head banged hard against the wall and I blacked out for a second. When I could see again, he was still there, breathing heavily. I couldn’t move. I was frozen. My jaw was locked in place and I couldn’t say a word. I was stunned. He stood up and stumbled a few more steps before he stopped and threw up all over the ground. That was when my Mom finally came out of her room. Her tiny blue eyes grew bigger and the wrinkles on her forehead popped out, drastically. She slid past my Dad, grabbed me by the hand, pulled me out of the house and into our car. I was traumatized. Nothing I could say could explain how I felt.
She drove to my Grandma’s house, and we huddled inside. My Grandma tucked me into her bed, and kissed me on the cheek, like it was any other night. She rushed out of the room and shut the door tight behind her. I got up from the bed and pushed my ear up against the door, where I was able to hear my Grandma and my Mom cry. That was all they did; just cry. They cried all night long, and so did I. When morning arrived, and I heard my Grandma coming to the room I was sleeping in to wake me, I ran back to the bed and pretended I had been sleeping all night. She did the same thing, although we both knew that nobody could sleep that night. I came out of the room and my Mom gave me a big hug, as if to tell me that everything was going to be fine.
We stayed at my Grandma’s for a week or two more. It was summer, so I didn’t have to miss school or anything. The strange part was that we all pretended it never happened. My Mom and my Grandma would fake smiles every day, I could tell. They were forced and awkward, like when someone gives you a really bad Christmas present and you have to thank them to be polite. My Mom developed a terrible case of insomnia. She cried every single night, mostly right beside my Grandma. One night, however, she crept into my room and curled up on the bed next to me. She put her hands around me and squeezed me. I felt the tears run off of her face and onto my shoulder. A dark cave of unspoken feelings closed in on us. The mood was heavy and tense. “I’m sorry for this; for what you went through that night.” she said, finally.
I nodded, still not able to speak.
“Your Dad was stressed from work. He would drink. You know, to get his mind off the problems? It would shake him up a little, but he never got too bad. When I saw him like that, though, I knew that I couldn’t handle him any more.” she said, like she was placing down each word as gently as she possibly could.
I nodded, again.
“He hit me a few times before. I thought I could put up with it, because I loved him. I couldn’t stand to see him put a hand on you,” she admitted. It freaked me out to know that she had been vulnerable enough to let him hit her and not say anything about it. It made me petrified, actually.
I nodded a third time, with disdain for my father. I had never thought of him as such a bad person. “He really scared me. I’ve never seen him like that before,” I managed to get out. My body shivered.
“Honey, you’re gonna be okay. You’re safe with me,” she said, and then drifted off to sleep. I tried to sleep as well, but whoever was in my dreams kept throwing around words like ‘divorce’ and ‘drunk.’ Words like these would forever haunt me.
I was only 10, so I wasn’t really told too many of the details of what happened after that. They got divorced eventually, though. We got a new house, and my Dad stayed in the old one. My Mom got full custody of me. I had mixed feelings about it. I was so happy to be with her, in a way. I didn’t have to deal with my father at all if I didn’t want to. I couldn’t live like that though. He was such a big part in my life. He taught me how to ride my bike, helped me learn how to do multiplication, and drove me into my first day at high school. He had been there for everything. He was exactly like me, in so many ways. We both valued the beauty of life. We both believed words were the loveliest thing. We both enjoyed reading and creating things. We were so similar, yet at that moment, we felt so distant. I couldn’t remember the good times I shared with him, like when we used to sit in our den and read poetry books every friday night. I could only remember the last time I shared with him. It was all so confusing. I was so torn.
Plus, Mom remarried fast. Paul was my stepdad and he wasn’t anyone I could really connect with at all. I can sum up our relationship by saying that Paul was the one who named Maddie. There was no metaphor behind her name. There was no incredible story that went with it. He simply just wanted to name her Madison because he ‘liked it.’ From that time on, he didn’t even compare to my Dad, whom I never spoke to again, only really lived in the past with. Maybe it was better that way; to hold onto all the good memories instead of establishing new, bad ones.
Something drained from my life, though. The things I shared with my father became part of my past. I still enjoyed reading poetry from time to time, but I wasn’t able to find the connection with it that I had before. It didn’t enlighten me like it used to. It was just writing, not a way to live. I kept searching for something massive to take over everything and fix it. I wasn’t really ever truly happy, and I was getting sick of walking around without anything exciting me.
Anyway, I smiled back at my Mom and gave Maddie a hug. “Have fun in school!” she cheered, running around in circles, letting her blonde hair flutter in the air. I grabbed her hand and twirled her around. She came really close to me and hugged me again. “I love you so much, Jadey!” she said, softly.
“I love you, too,” I replied, and waved to my Mom, then marched out to the bus.
I once heard that all the faces you see in your dreams you have seen in real life. I couldn’t believe it at first. I couldn’t possibly have that many people in my life. I think I had thought this because everyone was just too similar. High School was such a joke. It may sound cliche, but it is all stereotypical. Everyone tries to follow what they think are trends. They all end up dressing the exact same way. They form cliques right away, on the very first day. It’s strange. Sometimes your clique is determined by the sport you play, or your nationality. Sometimes these cliques come together based on your grades. The nerds always end up together; so do the slackers. Then, there are the so-called “popular kids.” I think it’s funny how “popular kids” come to be “popular kids.” None of them are ever any different than anyone else. They just come in to school every day, and crush everyone else’s self esteem. That’s all there really is to it. They make everyone else in the school feel like they are below them on this non-existent social ladder.
I’m pretty sure this was why my dreams were so bland. Almost everyone fell into one of these categories. Students in cliques were usually so much like each other that they all just blended into one person in my head. I’d end up saying, “You know, Joe Roberts and his friends?” There is always that one leader of every clique that pretty much represents the rest of its members. Almost every High School is teeming with the exact same types of people.
You always have the jocks. You have the captain of the football team. That would be who Joe Roberts was in my school. He was a big guy, probably a little over 6 foot tall. He was muscular and always had on a jersey, like it was glued to him and he couldn’t take it off. The girls all fawned over him, like he was some god. He was much too conceited for my taste. Then, you have all of his friends, or the rest of the football team. They walked around the school like a cult. They showed off in Gym class and dozed off in History. They were just your typical sports people. All they cared about was the game. How many movies have you seen them in? Think about it. There were lots of girl jocks too. You know the type. They were these hugs girls who you would never want to get into a fight with. They usually had a manly haircut, or left it all shoved up into a sloppy bun. The other girls would try to befriend them, just to get in with the guy jocks, like Joe. Then, you have your wanna-be jocks. This was basically all of the cheerleaders. Why is it that cheerleaders need to contemplate whether or not cheerleading is considered a sport every five minutes? The burly girl jocks would make fun of them, saying that cheerleading is too easy to be considered a sport. All of the cheerleaders would toss their swingy ponytails over their shoulders and would reply by quoting the infamous bumper sticker that is on the back of almost all of their cars. “If cheerleading was easy, it would be called football!” they’d squeal, like they had just come up with the best comeback ever. These jocks made up half of every school’s population. If we are all born original, why are we all dying copies? Why couldn’t you just play a sport because you liked it? The vast majority of the people in these cliques only play the sport they do to gain popularity.
Another thing I hated about cliques is that some cliques weren’t well liked for no reason! Why is it that the smart kids always have a bad reputation? What is wrong with them? They are all different. Not every single one of them is really geeky and weird. There are some very nice people who are smart. Also, why is that if you’re smart, you can’t be anything else? Why couldn’t Joe Daniels go hang out with the smart kids? The whole school would have gone crazy if he did. I couldn’t even imagine Joe standing up there, next to Jessica Ying, a foreign exchange student from Japan. Jessica was a genius. She could speak in 8 different languages and could basically recite the entire dictionary. Why did everyone have to make such a big deal about staying with the group of people you “belonged” with? Isn’t the whole point of High School to mingle and mix with as many people as you can, so that you can decide where you want to end up in the future?
You know how it should be? Every kid should be able to do whatever they want to do as long as it makes them happy. Nobody should be put down for doing what they like. If those jocks really wanted to be playing sports, then they should have been! It’s disgusting that some of the students judge others based on what they like. Every school has a handful of those kids who are just absolutely ashamed of who they are. They bury their crying eyes in the too-long shocks of hair that cloud their faces. They huddle their scarred wrists from their last suicide attempt in their sweatshirt pockets. Everyone deserves a chance to feel good and confident about themselves, and high schoolers can be vicious to each other. Some people get eaten alive by it. Why can’t we all just let each other act the way we want to?
I could have done without everyone in my school. I felt like I was too mature. I had too many thoughts and opinions and experiences. All anyone wanted to talk about was the trashy cast of Jersey Shore or the fight that went on at the mall over the weekend. I couldn’t have a deep discussion with one kid there. I tried! I really did! Every year of my life, I tried to make a close friend. Nobody felt worthy enough of that to me. I was my own person, and if people didn’t respect who I was, why would I want them around me? The negative energy in my home life was endless, and school was one of my only escapes from that. I kept myself busy at school. I focused hard on my work. I got solid grades and was able to come out on the top of my class almost every year. I didn’t consider myself smart, I just tried unbelievably hard. I pushed myself really hard and was a little bit of a perfectionist. If everything else in my life was out of my control, I needed to keep my school work organized and orderly at all times. When I got a bad grade, I felt as if someone stepped all over a beautiful art piece I was working on. Everything was messed up and you couldn’t really touch it up with an eraser. Once things were messed up, they stayed like that.
I read a lot, and listened to a lot of music. I liked that, through both of them, emotions could be conveyed to me that I didn’t ever feel and I could experience things that I never did before. Reading and music added a splash of color to a rather black-and-white world that I lived in. As much as all of these things kept me content with my life, they never seemed to be good enough for anyone else. Whenever I told people that I wasn’t really into the whole “perfect” teenage life, they sneered and acted like I was in denial because I couldn’t have one. I could have been like everyone else if I wanted to, but I didn’t! Paul would always tell me that I wasn’t open-minded enough. He said that I closed myself off to people because I didn’t feel like they lived up to my standards. I had told him that that was exactly what I did. I didn’t understand what was wrong with that. Why would you want to be around people who you didn’t really care for? Was that just another thing people assumed teenagers to do? Why do most adults think all teenagers can relate to each other?
One day, though, everything changed. I was sitting in my science class, doing an experiment with my lab partner, Sara, who stopped every five minutes to re-apply her lipgloss in the bathroom. I was waiting for her to come back, glancing around the room at the many different pairs. To my right was Jessica Ying, who was performing an elaborate experiment. She was really into it, her lips pursed into a silent shout of victory. Her partner, Max Kalder, a football player, was turning around, talking to Joe Roberts, who’s partner was Mary Quick, another super smart girl. The two high-fived with grins on their faces when they saw that they were paired with the two smartest girls in school. They wouldn’t have to do anything that day.
I turned to my left, to examine the rows of students on that side when there was a knock at the door. Everyone’s head tilted up. Joe and Max sat up straight and pulled their safety goggles onto their heads so it would look like they were working. Our teacher made her way to the door from the back of the room, eyeing each pair along the way. She opened it up and I almost gasped. Right outside of my science classroom stood the most beautiful boy I had ever seen. From his light blonde hair down to his scuffed up, old-fashioned oxfords, he just looked perfect. He had blue eyes. I lost track of everything I was thinking just by looking at them. Actually, I lost everything I’ve ever thought about anything. His eyes were those kind of eyes. Those eyes were so powerful. They just made me want to stand there, smiling at him. He had perfect teeth, nice and white. They were slightly crooked, which added a certain flair to his smile. He had dimples, which automatically gave him points in my book. Boys with dimples were always the cutest.
Before I even heard him speak, I knew that this boy was something different. “Hi. I’m Ryan. I’m, uh, a new student here,” he said, finally, flashing a cute smile, right in my direction.
“Oh, Ryan! How nice to finally meet you! Welcome! Take a seat!” my teacher said. Her eyes looked dazed and I think she had fallen under his spell as well.
Then, when I thought that things couldn’t get any better, this new boy, Ryan, made his way right to the seat next to me, the one Sara usually sat in. He pulled the chair out a little bit and then smiled at me before he sat down. “Is this seat taken?” he said.
“Well...” I began to say.
“We can move Sara to the back of the classroom, with Abigail. Ryan, you can sit here with Jade!” my teacher said. I still can not thank her enough for doing this.
“Jade, huh? Like the stone? That’s beautiful,” he said. I felt like floating up into the sky and flying. From that moment on, there was one more character in the cast of my dreams, one that made them a whole lot more interesting.
Serendipity. This is what they call it when someone comes in to your life by accident, then stays on purpose. It could be a man you happen to be sitting next to on the train, or a group of people who are riding the same roller coaster as you. It could be anyone, really. That is why serendipity is such a great thing; such a huge feeling. Serendipity is something so mysterious, but incredible at the same time. You never really know when it happens. It just sneaks up on you, and years later you realize. Just meeting people in general is something so exciting. With every new person you meet, there is one more person for this whole “serendipity” thing to happen to. Anyone you come across can make an impact on your life, and you have no idea when you first see them. Except, something with Ryan was different. It was like I could feel serendipity calling to me when I laid my eyes on him.
It wasn’t like I instantly had a crush on him, like some 4th grade girl who fills up her school notebooks with the name of a boy in her class that she likes. Some people say they can feel love at first sight, but that wasn’t what I felt when I first saw him either. There was just something special, and different about Ryan. He was new. He had a million possibilities. It was like when you crack open a fortune cookie at a chinese restaurant and you have a weird feeling that whatever fortune is inside is going to be important.
We didn’t talk too much that first day in science. He sat there, for the remaining 10 minutes or so, and kept his blue eyes fixated on the board. Every once in a while he’d turn to me and catch me staring. I’d blush and look to the floor. He didn’t feel awkward about it, though. He’d simply smile and turn around again. He was probably used to getting stared at by girls. He was gorgeous. When the bell rang that day, and we were all allowed to go to our next class, he turned to me and said something really unexpected. “If you could have lunch with any 5 people, dead or alive, who would they be?” he questioned, laughing.
I stuttered. What kind of first conversation was that? I couldn’t tell if I liked it or hated it. I couldn’t tell if I thought it was dorky or completely thoughtful.
“I’d have lunch with Derek Jeter, Madonna, my grandpa, Michael Jackson, and Abraham Lincoln,” he said, after I didn’t answer. He kept his eyes on me.
“Is this how you always introduce yourself to girls?” I said, surprised of my boldness.
“How’d you know?” he said, jokingly.
“I’d eat with my little sister, Anne Hathaway, Audrey Hepburn, and Kate Middleton,” I said, finally.
“That’s only 4!”
“You need 5 people at this theoretical lunch. Who’s your last person?” he said, smiling.
“You.” I said, bewildered with the ease this came out with.
He replied without hesitation, so smoothly it was like his words were ice skating right after the Zamboni left the rink. “Well, I’m not friends with any big stars, or England’s royalty, but maybe you’d want to eat lunch with me today?”
I was floating again. My feet were still on the floor of our science classroom, a foot or two away from this new boy, but I was floating at the same time. I was floating right out of the school and through the sky. It was like a dream.
“Yes.” I said, and then I smiled and walked to my gym class, without saying another word.
So, we sat together that day at lunch. I didn’t mind being with someone, like I usually did. I wasn’t anxiously staring at the clock and waiting to get out of there. He’d usually just sit there, studying me, for the most part. He would take in every move. He would smile at me, like he was looking at something beautiful; something that he had to treasure just looking at. I was awestruck at the attention he gave me. It made me feel spoiled, actually; like I didn't deserve to be looked at like that. It was a good thing though. It made me feel things that I didn’t feel normally. The best part was that I didn’t have to be someone else around him. I was simply myself, which was the only thing that I would ever be. I wasn’t going to ever let anyone change me.
“It’s your turn,” he said, during that first day. I raised my eyebrows in confusion. He elaborated, “The question I gave you earlier? It’s part of a game. It’s how we used to get to know each other back in Maine. One would ask another a question and they’d answer. Then, that person would ask the other a question. That person could answer too. If someone doesn’t want to answer a question, then the other wins the game.”
“Oh. I was wondering what that was all about. I thought it was just some cheesy pick up line,” I said, laughing.
“Hey, you were the one that said you wanted me at your lunch!” he replied, quickly. We laughed for a while. It wasn’t like we were laughing at anything in particular. We were just laughing and laughing and it felt so good. I felt like Maddie on her swings at the park; that childhood happiness that I loved. It was such a change from the serious lifestyle I usually lived. Normally, my mouth wouldn’t open at lunch. My eyes would stay glued to my book the whole time I didn’t know where the witty banter was coming from either. I was better at conversations than I presumed myself to be. I could feel the stares of my classmates on my back. I thought at first that they were thinking about me talking. I wasn’t the type to be having full blown conversations in the middle of a school day. Then, I realized they were all staring because I was sitting there, having full blown conversations with the new cute guy from science!
“It’s your turn,” Ryan said, again. He stared right into my eyes. It was so rare getting looked at like that. Usually, people always avoid looking into the other person’s eyes when they have a conversation with them. You usually end up glancing around aimlessly. It was something different and new to me, much like Ryan himself.
I didn’t think at all. The question just rolled off my tongue, like when someone asks you your name or phone number; something you’ve known since you were a baby. “If you could go back and change anything you’ve ever done in your life, what would it be?” I asked. I leaned back and let my head fall against the cafeteria’s wall, as if I had to give him room to think about the question. It was deep, maybe too deep, to ask someone you just met. I felt that it fit the game, though. Wasn’t that the point? Weren’t you supposed to ask people things you really wanted to know about them?
It felt good when he didn’t feel weird about the question. He went right ahead and answered it, as if he answers this one every day. “I would go back and not have a huge argument with my brother, right before he died,” he said, cautiously, but confidently at the same time. He was testing me a little bit. I think he had the same feeling that I had. I think we shared the feeling that we were both special people, people who were different, who could talk about things you couldn’t talk about with anyone else. He had said these words like he wanted me to know them, but like he was ready to pull them back inside of him at any moment.
“I’m sorry about your brother,” I said, softly. He shrugged.
“We knew it was coming. He had cancer. He was sick all of his life,” he said, a little more tentatively than before.
“My last conversation with my Dad wasn’t good either. My parent’s split up after it, and I never talked to him again. I know how you feel,” I said.
“It was just a really big mistake, on my part. I was 12 years old, in 7th grade or something. He was 19 and in the hospital. My parents told me I had to visit him, and I was all pissed off because I was supposed to go on my first date that day. It was to the movies with some girl that I really liked. They dragged me, anyway. They said it was different this time, and that I had to go. I had to cancel my date and go. The doctors told us that he was in critical condition. The guy told us that anyone of these days could be his last. I went in there and started yelling at him. I yelled at the poor guy, laying on his hospital bed! I told him that it’s his fault so many things in my life were ruined; so many pointless things. I couldn’t go to this date, or the carnival with my friends the year before. I couldn’t have a few birthday parties, because we didn’t have money. I couldn’t get a freakin’ game system I wanted for Christmas, because my brother was about to die and we needed to pay for his treatments. I yelled at him, and stormed out of there. The very next day, he died,” Ryan said. I kept my lips shut through his story. I didn’t know why he was telling me all of this, but it confirmed what I thought. He was someone different. One person in my school who didn’t want to talk about football or lip-gloss. His life had a blanket of pain lying over it too. He could have felt trapped like I did. He could have felt stuck, like he couldn’t get rid of it. He could have felt like nobody was there to hear his story. Those were all ways that I felt, but I wasn’t brave enough to share those feelings then.
“It’s crazy how someone can be so present in your life, then one day just disappear,” I let myself say. This was something that was bundled inside of me for a while before I said it. It was a scary thought. It was scary that the next day, when I woke up, Maddie could have been gone, or my Mom. It was one of my biggest fears, actually.
“Right? The worst part is that you never know when it’s gonna happen! They could be there forever. You could know everything about them. Then, they just decide to leave, and you wouldn’t even be prepared for it!” he said, like he was so angry with himself.
“It’s frightening,” I said, a chill creeping up my spine. I could almost feel my Dad’s presence nearby. I had known where we was at all times, and I had known that we probably wouldn’t run into him. I knew where he went to work and where he got coffee in the morning. I avoided all of those places on purpose. It still worried me, though, that one day I could bump into him and not have any idea what to say. I could make awkward small talk or I could scream at him, blaming him for screwing everything up.
“If I could change anything in the world, that would be it. I would go back to that day when I was 12. I would go in that hospital room and tell my brother that I loved him. I loved when he used to give me piggy-back rides and helped me with girls. I loved when we had lemonade stands and never made any money, because we drank all the lemonade ourselves. I loved when we would sit in the hospital room and put Eminem's music videos on the TV, and rap all the words as loud as we could. I loved so many moments that we shared. There were so many good things. We went through everything together. All the stuff that I yelled at him about were such minor things that I shouldn’t have given a second thought to doing. Instead, I went in there, and ruined the last few moments I’d have with him, ever,” he said, solemnly.
“Thanks,” I breathed.
“Thanks for what?” he responded.
“Just... thanks. Thanks for telling me all of that. I know it might have been hard for you,” I mumbled.
“I don’t know why, but from the moment I saw you, I just wanted to have a conversation with you. You didn’t seem like other girls,” he said, meekly. A shade of red blotted his cheeks.
“You know what I said before, about someone being in your life, and one day just disappearing?” I asked.
“It can change your life a lot, when you loose someone,” I began.
He nodded in agreement.
“There’s something else crazy that can happen, though. It can change your life too. You might not know it right away, but you’ll realize it one day. It might actually change your life more than when you loose someone,” I said.
“When there is someone that can be completely out of your life, nowhere near you, like miles away in some town in Maine, and then one day enter your life. It’s something that’s amazing. New people have hundreds of possibilities; hundreds of ways to possibly change your whole life,” I paused.
He smiled at me, a big toothy smile. His dimples carved into his face.
“I have a feeling that your going to be one of those people,” I said, and then sighed. I was floating again.
He was wise, you could tell. He had wrinkles that crept over his skin. He had tiny eyes, ones that looked like he was always squinting. His glasses covered most of them, though. He was a little on the chubby side and moved in slow strides. His joints looked like they were in pain. His face looked hardened with many stories waiting to be told. He wore a pair of beige dress pants, with suspenders crossing over a white shirt. A red bow-tie was clipped to the top of it. He made his way over to the door of what I guessed was their house now, and reached inside, taking a woman by the hand. He helped her down the stairs.
She was older than him. She looked fragile, breakable, and sickly. She had thin lips and tired eyes. Her hair was grey. Her veins poked out from under her skin, so it looked like her arms and legs were made up of a hundred tiny rivers. She wore velour pants and a white t-shirt with a flower on it. Her outfit was such a contrast to his. He pulled her closer to him, once she reached the bottom of the stairs, and kissed her softly on the cheek. Then, he moved a few feet away from her, only reaching out to guide her with his hand. She tried to smile the best she could, but it looked like just smiling hurt her. I had seen them on my way home from school that first day that I met Ryan. I had noticed that they moved into the house next door to mine.
He had caught me staring. “Hello, there,” he said, his voice scruffy and deep. It reminded me of coffee and tousled bed sheets. It reminded me of a million things, actually. It was the kind of voice that you felt like you heard everywhere.
“Hi. Did you two move in here?” I said, flashing them a smile. I loved old people.
“Yes,” the woman said. She sounded like she was being strangled. She breathed heavily.
“Clara, did you take your medicine?” the man asked his wife.
“Yes,” she was able to say.
I reached my hand out uncomfortably to shake his. “I’m Jade. I live right next door,” I said.
“I’m Andrew. This is my wife, Clara. I’m sorry, though, this isn’t really a good time. Clara’s got to get to the doctor by 3,” he spoke slowly. He squeezed my hand tightly, then put his arm around his wife. She breathed heavily again. “I’m terribly sorry this was such an inconvenient time to meet,” he said, then got her into the passenger seat of the car. He gave me a wave, and then hopped into the car himself. I watched it drive away, until I could no longer see it, then turned toward my own house and continued to walk home.
Maddie was outside, on the front steps. She looked like she had just taken a bath, and her hair was done nicely into two braids, probably by my Mom. She held a small doll in her hand, and was laughing loudly to herself. She looked up and saw me then.
“Jade!” she called, her arms outstretched, ready for a big hug. I reached down and pulled her closer to me, breathing in the smell of the strawberry scented shampoo that she used.
“How was your day, Mad?” I said, taking a seat next to her, twirling one of her long braids around my finger. Her hair was so silky and smooth, the opposite of the waves in mine. It made me quite jealous actually. Her hair was so easy to manage, and I loved playing with it while I could. I thought back to Ryan’s blonde hair and swooned.
“Tommy came over!” she said, placing one of her tiny hands onto the railing, helping her to pull herself up.
My Mom’s best friend’s name was Heather. She and my Mom had been friends since high school. They were always together, as Heather and her husband lived about 5 minutes away from where we lived. Heather’s son was named Tommy. He was a year older than Maddie. They basically grew up together.
“Wanna know what Tommy told me?” she asked, running up and down the stairs as if she was trying to beat her own personal time.
I turned to her, and widened my eyes like I was really interested. “What did he tell you?”
“He told me that I’m his girlfriend,” she said, happily. Then, she threw her arms in the air and leaped around our front lawn. I giggled.
“You two are dating?”
“Uh-huh. We are getting married too, next time.”
Why was it that kids always wished they were older, and adults always wished that they were younger? It’s funny, because when you are Maddie’s age, you always play games with your friends that involve getting married, driving a car, having a baby, going to to work; all of the things your parents do. You wish so badly that you can do these things. Most teenagers want to grow up fast, too. They rush to start dating seriously. They end up pregnant super early, and everything goes downhill from there. Adults only wish they can get rid of all of the responsibility that they have, and go back to their carefree childhood years where if they wanted to have a baby for an hour or two, it would be okay, but they weren’t kept awake at night with it’s crying. The truth was that there was a time and place for everything.
Maddie discussed the details of her day, including a kiss with Tommy. I remembered when I was 5 years old, in kindergarten, and the girls would chase the boys around at recess trying to kiss them. I remembered other things, then, too. I remembered our class reading a book about dinosaurs, then thinking that there were fossils buried outside our school, spending day after day digging them up. I remembered drawing pictures all day long, only to have to draw more for homework. I remembered racing to the swings, so that I could get one before anyone else did, because the swings were where all the cool kids sat during recess. I remembered idolizing the 5th graders, thinking that they were the best people in the world. I remembered being as happy as Maddie was, for no reason at all. Life was so simple, the little things made me the happiest. I sat there thinking of this stuff, until a car pulled up in front of our house, and Maddie ran back to me, clutching my leg. I realized that I was starting to act like one of those old people who reminisce about their childhood, when I was only 16.
Maddie dug her nails into my leg, and I stood up, fixing my dress, as the window rolled down. I gasped when I saw him, then floated again. It was a strange feeling, but just by laying my eyes on him, every single time, I soared through the air, I could feel it. It was Ryan sitting there. The most shocking part, though, was who he was with. It was the old man from next door, Andrew.
“Jade? You live here?” he called. His voice was sexier than I remembered. I pried Maddie off of me and marched toward the car.
“Yeah! How do you know Andrew?” I said, for some reason, as if I knew Andrew my whole life, as if Andrew and I went way back.
“He’s my grandfather,” Ryan said.
That’s when I saw the resemblance. All of a sudden, it clicked. I looked back and forth at the two of them. There was just something about them that looked a lot alike. I couldn’t even place my finger on what it was, but I knew it was there. It made me wonder how many events happen in our life that are actually connected to each other. There is some theory that everyone can be connected within six degrees to someone else. I could be sort of, kind of related to Britney Spears; or at least as related to her as I was to Ryan. I wondered how many chain reaction events happened in my own life.
“Wait, are you living with them?” I asked, maybe a little too excited.
“No,” Ryan said, giggling, “I’m with my parents, and my other brother, we decided to move here at the same time as my grandparents so we could help out my grandmother, who is sick.”
“They met,” Andrew huffed from beside him. My mind flashed back to moments before as I laid my eyes on Clara, who kept breathing like someone had their hands around her neck. It was scary, really. It was something that I’d later have nightmares about.
“Wanna come over to my grandparents house and help them unpack?” Ryan asked me, looking excited. Then, he turned to Andrew and cocked his head slightly, as if he needed approval. Andrew nodded.
“You seem like a nice girl,” he said, then smiled.
Maddie crawled up behind me and gave them a cute stare. “Is this your little sister? Maybe she’d want to help us out too?” Ryan said. Maddie blushed. She was floating too; little Maddie. It was hard not too. Everything about the boy was adorable. She shook her head.
“I think she’s tired. Why don’t you go inside and find Mommy, okay?” I said to her, then watched her scamper off, back into the house. I hopped into the back of Andrew’s car and he continued to drive, right past my house and to the parking lot of his, where we stood earlier. I got out, as did Ryan. We followed Andrew inside. Ryan led me up to their bedroom, where there was many boxes and pieces of furniture scattered around. We had to set up the entire thing.
I ripped the tape off of the first box and pulled out a lamp from it. I kept forgetting that Ryan was next to me in the room. It was such a strange coincidence that Andrew and Clara were his grandparents. “Who is your best friend?” he asked, randomly.
“My best friend? Is this another part of the game?” I turned to him.
“Yep. It’s ongoing.”
“I don’t really have a best friend. I guess my little sister, maybe. Do 4 year olds count?” I answered, laughing. It was true, though. Maddie was really the closest person I had to a best friend. A best friend is someone you love to be around and someone you share secrets with. A best friend knows everything there is to know about you. Maddie was really the only person like that in my life. My Mom was there for me too, but I didn’t have the tight knit relationship with her that I did with Maddie. When I was younger, her, my father and I would always be together. We never left each other's sides. We did everything together. With her and Paul, it was different. They are always together, away from Maddie and I. Paul didn’t really like kids. Mom got pregnant with Maddie by accident. They’d never tell her that though, because Mom liked her just the same. Paul wanted my Mom all to himself. I found it selfish and frustrating. Everything Paul did bothered me, actually.
Paul was such a slimy, sketchy guy. I didn’t know what my Mom saw in him. I remembered the first night they went on a date, and he dropped her off at home at the end, I told my Mom to stay away from him. She ended up getting mad at me, saying that I couldn’t get over loosing my father. She thought that I wouldn’t let anyone else in, because she thought I didn’t want anyone to take my father’s place. I knew that that was secretly what she worried about most. She wasn’t ready to have someone else replacing Dad, but she knew that she had to move on eventually. She dumped her fears on me and pretended that I had them. I didn’t care that someone else was in Dad’s place, as long as it was a guy who was worth being there. I didn’t have a problem with any of my Mom’s other boyfriend’s. It was just Paul. He seemed so fake, so forced. If my Mom mentioned she liked sensitive guys, he’d pretend to be that way. If my Mom mentioned she wanted a tough guy, he would act that way as well. I really wanted her to get rid of him, but next thing I knew, they got married. I scowled my way though the whole ceremony. It wasn’t a happy thing for me, like it was for all of my Mom’s friends who attended. Her sister was crying in happiness. That was how happy she was! I know that they were all happy because she was able to overcome everything that happened with Dad, but they didn’t realize that everything with Paul could be even worse.
Still, I haven’t gotten used to Paul. I refused to call him ‘Dad’ since he wasn’t mine. He wasn’t anything to me. I didn’t even like him as my Mom’s boyfriend, much less her husband and Maddie’s father. That’s why I stood by her so much. I wanted her to have the childhood that she deserved and I didn’t believe that Paul was giving her one. I wanted to protect my Mom too, but Paul would never let me. He dismissed me as if I was some silly little kid with no thoughts and needs of my own.
“Of course 4 year olds count!” Ryan said, laughing.
Promises are dangerous; probably the most dangerous thing you can say to someone. There are simple promises, like a mother promising she will pick up her daughter from school on time. Those are short-term promises. They will be fulfilled in a matter of hours and that would be the end of them. The promise would stay a promise until the very end of it all, and then the promise will be gone. Nobody would ever worry about it again. There were other types of promises though. There were the complex ones, the ones that go on forever. Lifelong promises, I’d call these. A lot of times, these big promises aren’t able to be kept. That’s when the promises become dangerous. That’s when the promises turn into lies.
There was this one time when I was about 7 years old, and my Mom, Dad, and I were on vacation in Disney World. We were out all day long, going on all of the rides, meeting all of the characters. We had 3 big meals at the restaurants, and even went to see a show. It was one of the best days ever. We got home late, and my Dad automatically laid down in the hotel bed and clicked on the TV. I crawled up beside him, resting my head on his chest. He played with my hair as he flipped through channels and landed on the news. My Mom joined us, laying down on the other side of me.
The news station began to announce top stories for that day. One caught my attention, though. As a 7 year old, I hadn’t seen much. I didn’t know a lot about anything, actually. I was really naive. This one story in particular was mind-blowing to me. The news station told of a crazed father who murdered his own son, in their very own house. I will always remember it, because it was something that scared me a lot. They described in detail how the father took his son, and drowned him in their bathtub, then hid the boy’s dead body in the dumpster outside. I remember tearing up.
“Daddy, how could that man do that?” I said, petrified. My Mom pulled me closer to her, and my Dad leaned in to give me a kiss on the head. Then, he got up and turned off the TV for good, before sitting back down.
“There are bad people in this world. That’s why you don’t talk to strangers or get into anyone’s car!” my Mom said, basically reading out of one of her parenting books. That was my Mom, for sure. She always turned everything into a lesson. She would discuss every Wednesday with her Book Club friends the values of having these kind of lessons instilled in your child’s mind. I knew because I used to eavesdrop on their conversations from the top of the staircase. I was always so curious as to what they would talk about, since it was almost never about the book they were reading.
I cried a little, whimpering out things that I don’t even remember. My Dad then pulled me to him. He held me tightly in his arms, a firm grip across my back. That was the best place to be. It was where I felt safest, in my father’s arms. Nothing could happen to me when I was there. Nothing could possibly harm me when I was in his grasp. I didn’t want to move. “Listen, Jade. Nothing like that will ever happen to you,” he said, attempting to calm me down.
“How do you know, Daddy?”
“I know because you are safe here with me,” he replied.
I looked up into his eyes. They were the exact same ones as mine. It was strange, how I could look so much like him, but nothing at all like my Mom. “But, that guy on the news killed his own son!” I said to him.
“I would never, ever do something like that to you. I will never stop loving you, baby,” he said, pulling me ever tighter, so my nose was pressed up against him.
“Promise?” I said. That was it. Promise; the most dangerous thing someone could do.
“I promise,” he said. I will never forget that moment. I sat there in his arm for moments more, until my Mom slowly pulled me away. She led me to my hotel bed, pulling off my Disney World T-Shirt and putting on my pajamas. She laid me down, tucked me in, and kissed me on the cheek. It was the perfect day. For the following years, but before the incident with my Dad, I thought that my Dad had promised something. I thought he had promised to keep me safe, to never harm me, to never stop loving me.
That promise turned into a lie, just like a million others. It wasn’t just broken, and done with. It was always there, sitting with the other times I’ve been lied to in my mind. There was always that constant reminder in my thoughts. It could never go away, no matter how much I tried. I was so preoccupied with being safe, for all those years, that I didn’t notice anything wrong with my Mom. She had said that he would hit her before the time when he hit me. I didn’t even notice. It slipped right passed me, just like she intended it to. The saddest part was, the only person there to protect her was me, and I’d fallen right into his trap. I believed him when he told that promise-turned-into-lie. That was why I worried about my Mom now. I worried that something else would happen to her, and I’d assume nothing like it was happening. Whenever her and Paul were together, away from us, I’d always check on them periodically, making sure nothing happened. I was afraid he’d end up like Dad. He might have promised her that he’d be a good husband. He might have told her that he would keep Maddie safe. Those promises could easily be changed into lies. It was scary, the whole thing. After I learned to doubt my Dad’s promises, I came to doubting any man that came near my life.
It sounds stupid when you think of it this way, but when my Mom went on business trips, I’d be scared for her to go because a man would be flying the plane. What if that man made a promise that he would get everyone to the destination safely? What if he made this promise but didn’t intend on keeping it? What if that very man was drinking that night, like my father was, and went on that plane to fly a group of people across the Atlantic Ocean? What if that man was contemplating suicide at that moment, even though he promised his kid that we would be alive for her wedding? What if that man felt that the easiest way to take his life was to steer the plane straight into the ocean? What if that man was planning to murder everyone, unexpectedly, like the father on the news that one day in Disney World? There were too many opportunities to question a promise that you could never feel truly sure about that promise.
Paul thought I was crazy. He’d sneer at me when I said things like this. He’d say, “You’re stopping your Mom from reaching her full potential because of some irrational fears of yours!” He always said that, about Mom reaching her full potential. It was like he was her football coach or something, pushing her to get the touchdown he thought she could get if she tried hard enough. I personally thought that my Mom focused too much on work anyway. She didn’t need to travel to a different country for it. She didn’t have to risk it. There would be other chances to reach her full potential that were just a car ride away.
One day, during our game, Ryan asked me what I was most afraid of. I think he was expecting an answer like “spiders” or “clowns,” but I was thinking much deeper than that. There were so many things I feared. I was scared of my father coming back, I was scared that someone would hurt my Mom again, or that Maddie wouldn’t get the childhood that someone should. I was scared of rejection, criticism, and depression. The word that came out of my mouth as an answer surprised me. It was a fear that I didn’t even know I had until I spoke it. “I’m afraid of promises,” I said, softly.
“Promises,” he repeated.
“Yeah. They scare the hell out of me, actually. You never really know if someone’s going to keep their promise or if it will just change into a lie,” I said.
He pushed his science work away from him and dropped his pencil down on top of it. He turned and looked straight at me again. “I know exactly what you mean,” he said, nodding. I tilted my head, suggesting that I wanted to know more. He continued. “When I first found out that my brother had Cancer, I wasn’t all angry, like I told you about before. I hadn’t yet missed anything important because of it, so I didn’t really know that aspect of it all, yet. I was petrified that something would happen to him. I made him promise me that he would try his hardest to stay alive. I couldn’t have him dead. I was only a little boy, and I hadn’t lived any of my life. I wanted him to be there with me. I sat there by his hospital bed and refused to leave until he promised me he’d live. He didn’t know what to say. He knew he was going to die eventually. There isn’t a cure for Cancer, so it was pretty much guaranteed. He just shook his head back and forth, then up and down. The nurses and doctors tried to get me out of the room so that he could rest, but I wouldn’t leave. I couldn’t until he promised! When he finally did, I hugged him and left. Obviously, a promise like that was broken. It was a forced promise, but it’s the same thing,” Ryan said. His eyebrows crumpled up on his forehead. They jumbled together until they were just one big mess.
“Most promises are broken,” I said.
“Is that true?”
“I don’t know. It seems like it.”
Ryan took my hand, then, and placed it to his heart. “I hate broken promises too. It’s also a fear of mine, but I never really thought of it until you brought it up. It’s scary nothing in life can ever be certain,” he said.
“That’s not true. There are plenty of things that are certain,” I said. I made a list in my head. It began with “the sun shining in the morning” and ended with “the sun going down at night.” Not much fell in between the two. I changed my mind. “Forget it, you’re right. Everything can be doubted.”
“Jade, you always get me thinking. You know that?” he said, slipping his fingers between mine. I couldn’t tell if this was a compliment or something that he didn’t really like. It was hard not to do when you played a game like the one we were in the midst of. He was telling me so much from it. He was so open to me about his life. I was very vague about my own. He must have trusted me a lot more than I trusted him, and I thought that I trusted him a lot.
I guess trust could be almost as scary as promises. It was definitely up there. Why was trusting someone so hard? I tried to think of people I trusted. There was barely anyone. I guess I trusted my Mom a little, but after what happened with my Dad, the trust in her dropped a little. If I could trust her to keep me safe from him, what could I trust her with?
“Trust is scarier than promises,” I concluded.
He shrugged. “I’d say that trust is pretty scary, but the scariest thing is believing. When you believe whatever someone else tells you, it’s easy to fall into their traps. You begin to believe that their promises will be kept and their lies will remain minimal. I think believing is scarier than both trust and promises,” he said.
“If you didn’t have the promises to believe in, there would be nothing to believe in. If your parents didn’t tell you about Santa Claus, would you believe in him? No. That’s why promises are the scariest,” I challenged.
Ryan nodded and we agreed, silently. Promises were dangerous; probably one of the most dangerous things to say to someone.
Sometimes, new people are given to you so that you can learn more about yourself. At least, that was what it seemed like when I met Ryan. I was intellectual, sure, but I never really explored my feelings and thoughts the way I did when I talked with Ryan. It was almost like that was his only goal in my life, to help me discover parts of me that I didn’t even know I had.
“What is your biggest goal in life?” he asked me, as we walked home from school once, back to Andrew and Clara’s house to help with the house.
I shifted the weight of my backpack onto my other shoulder and said, “To be a lawyer, definitely.”
The question was simple, but it confused me a lot. Being a lawyer was something in my family. My Dad was a lawyer, and his father too. My uncle was a lawyer and my cousin as well. It was basically given to me all my life. My Dad would tell me since I was a baby that I would carry the tradition. I didn’t even think twice about it. I never considered anything else. I was going to be a lawyer, and that was that.
“Everyone in my family is a lawyer,” I replied, kicking a rock over to him, which he flicked off the tip of his sneaker and into a neighbors driveway.
“Why do you want to be one?”
I thought about it again. There was nothing in me that wanted to be a lawyer. I wasn’t even interested in it. I didn’t want to be a lawyer at all. It was strange, all of these feelings piled out of me at once, stacking themselves neatly in front of Ryan and I, for all to see. Being a lawyer wasn’t even for me, and it was clear as day, all of a sudden.
“You don’t want to be one,” Ryan said, knowingly.
“Not at all,” I replied.
“What do you like?”
I looked down at myself, studying the outfit I had spent an hour putting together the night before. “I like fashion,” I said, randomly. It was weird, Ryan was like a magnet drawing out everything my subconscious has ever thought of inside. Having a job in fashion was always there, in my dreams, when I couldn’t control it and push it away. It was always something I was passionate about, but I never would have thought to actually pursue it as a career. Now, it was there, hanging over me like a sign. I didn’t want to be a lawyer, I wanted to be a fashion designer. It was that easy with Ryan.
I brought it up the night after that one at the dinner table. “I was thinking about the future, you know? I was thinking that I might want to go to college for something related to fashion,” I said, meekly. It was hard offering out new ideas to a tough crowd; especially if Paul was in it. He laughed; seriously. He laughed in my face for a good long time. He laughed until tears swelled up inside of me, but I refused to let them out. My eyes burned and the vision of him laughed swirled around in them.
“Fashion? Those people are all crazy. They don’t need brains or talent, or anything!” he said, spitting across the table. I wanted to yell at him; to tell him that being a fashion designer was way better than his crappy job as a used car salesman, but I didn’t. I kept everything shut inside me. If I was with Ryan, none of it would have happened. Ryan accepted me, which was something I didn’t feel when I was at home.
“I think it’s cool!” Maddie said, picking up a piece of the pasta on her plate with her tiny fingers and inserting it into her even smaller mouth.
Paul turned to my Mom. “I’m so worried about this generation,” he said, bluntly, then pushed away his plate and left the table. My Mom followed, like some sick puppy, wanting her owner. I couldn’t believe it. She was so vulnerable. She wouldn’t even stick up for us. She gave herself away so easily, and frankly, it scared me a lot. I knew she loved me; Maddie too. We were special to her, close to her heart. There was something about Paul, though, that she couldn’t get enough of. She wanted it every second, like a drug, and wouldn’t let anyone stop her from getting it. It was like she was blinded sometimes. She couldn’t even see how terrible he was being to us, and it was right in front of her. She was so weak, and she just let him take her and make her whatever he wanted her to be. I got up and pulled Maddie closer to me. I smoothed out her hair and pressed her against me. She didn’t say anything. She didn’t even make a funny comment, lightening to mood. She just sat there, hugging me back. We weren’t even sisters, only step-sisters, but I felt like Maddie was my own child. I couldn’t let anything get in the way of her having a normal childhood. She was too good for that.
Ryan understood everything. He was like a therapist for me. I wanted to pour out all of my feelings onto him, but I chose them sparingly. I would always set aside a story for later. I didn’t want to tell him everything at once. I loved talking to him, and I wanted to savour it. It was like when your great-grandfather gives you a dollar and tells you not to spend it all in one place. It’s hard, though, because he still thinks that milk is 25 cents a gallon, and there's not much to buy with it. You end up feeling bad when you buy a pack of M&M’s and eat them in a few minutes. I didn’t want that to happen with Ryan. I wanted him to always be there. I didn’t want to spend that dollar all in one place. We got closer, too. When I really had gotten to know him, after a month or so, I started to love him. It may sound cheesy, but I really did. It was an easy kind of love. It was the kind of love that just felt right, like slipping into a warm bubble bath or eating an ice cream cone. It was pure and basic and it made me happy. That love was something little to look forward to every day. It gave me chills just thinking about it. It was so perfect, like nothing could ruin it.
We took a walk once, around the woods in the back of my house. We kept going, just walking and walking, until we saw something beautiful. There was a pond back there. It was small, but it was shiny blue. It was so clear that you could see your reflection staring back at you when you looked in. It was surrounded with these pink flowers, each one a microscopic size. There were hundreds of them, dusting the perimeter of the pond. When you looked up, through the cracks in the trees, you could see bits of the sunset shining down. “Wow,” I said, taking it all in. His hair blew around, slightly, in the wind. I watched it dance on top of his head for seconds, minutes even. I always lost track of time when I was looking at him.
He grabbed my hand, then, and twirled me around. He placed his left hand on my waist, and started waltzing. We were literally dancing in the middle of this beautiful place and everything was just incredible. I giggled, until he pulled me into him and kissed me. I pictured a book in my head, flipping to a new chapter. Something else was starting then. I could feel it, slipping from my mind, and around into his. We kissed for a long time. I couldn’t stop. He gripped my waist with both of his hands and pressed my hips against his. We were so close. We were both connected, our minds and our bodies. It was almost like we were one person then. Everything was right.
“You know what, Jade?” Ryan said, before pulling me in again, and kissing me softly on the cheek.
“I’ve never met any girl like you. You’re perfect.”
I was floating, like the first day we were together. Except, this time, Ryan was floating with me. I could see us floating through the sky together. We were waltzing in that sunset in the sky, above the pond.
Things were so different with Ryan. It didn’t have to be a stereotyped teenager relationship. It was just easy. He made me feel needed and wanted, but still left me my independence. He wasn’t suffocating me, keeping me from talking to anyone else. When we were with each other, everything was how it was supposed to be. When we weren’t, there didn’t seem to be anything missing. I liked that, though. I wasn’t trapped, like my Mom was; where she felt so dependent on Paul that she couldn’t even think for herself. I had Ryan there, but he didn’t control me.
“What makes you the happiest?” Ryan asked me once, during our game.
“I don’t know,” I mumbled. It was a tough question. Was anyone ever truly happy? I was thinking of big things that could fulfill my happiness forever.
“What about little things?” he asked.
“Yeah. Like, when you wake up just a second or two before your alarm clock goes off, or when you find a really good album, or when you laugh so hard that no sound comes out. Don’t those make you happy?” Something about this one question really changed me, much like how I felt changed when I first met Ryan. I started noticing things I didn’t before. I’d read a good book and sit there in this blissful state. I’d fall asleep to the sound of rain, and wake up the next morning all peaceful. I never realized how happy these simple little things made me. It was so much easier to live that way. You don’t always have to be searching for something huge to take over your life and make it better. The happiest people don’t even have to be the best at everything. They just have to make the best out of everything that they had. I knew that I had dark moments in my life. I had things that happened, and I had yet to overcome a lot of them. There was issues in my past, I realized. That didn’t have to stop me from being happy, though! There were so many other things that could bring happiness to me and they didn’t have to be big. They could just be little things.
Before I met Ryan, I felt bland. I didn’t really have anything in my life that made it exciting. There was nothing that made me want to get out of bed every day. I was tired of everyone being the same way. I was tired of the same people doing the same things and not fitting in on purpose. That was how it always was, for years. I was tired of moping around because my father was gone. I was tired of trying too hard to remember the good times and block out the bad ones. I was tired of protecting my mother and my sister. I was just done with everything in my life. Then, when I met Ryan, he finally switched things up. He was something new and even though he had hundreds of possibilities, he ended up proving to me that he was someone I wanted to keep in my life.
He made me conclude that some people that come into your life really do have a purpose. He was there to help me discover myself in ways I never did. He allowed me to express myself and didn’t cage me in and give me limits. He taught me things too. He let me in on these little secrets to a better life and they always worked. Ryan was something special and I knew it from the first moment I saw the dimples on his cheeks.
“Let’s go on the roller coaster first!” I exclaimed, tucking my hands into the pockets of my jean shorts. Ryan and I were at my town’s annual carnival. They set it up beside our local firehouse every November, and everyone from the town would go. I had went every year of my life. It was a tradition that would never be skipped.
Isn’t it interesting how certain things you have memories of stick in your brain forever? Everywhere I looked at the carnival, I saw things that reminded me of times I had here through all of the years. Ryan and I passed the cotton candy stand and I thought of the year I was 6 years old and here with my parents. I refused to leave the stand until they bought me some. I crossed my arms across my chest and planted my feet on the ground, trying to look defiant. I eventually got it, I remembered, and I didn’t even like it. That was the same year my Dad started reading me his poetry, sharing with me his ideas. It felt so amazing to be let in on his little secret. He used to hunch over his notebook day after day and not even share with anyone what he was working on.
We passed by the ferris wheel next. It reminded me of when I was 8 and watched some movie where a girl was stuck at the top of a ferris wheel, and then was so scared of them afterwards. That was the year that my whole family had to drag me in there. My Mom and Dad and my cousins, who were with us that year, pinned down my wrists to the edges of the seat, and brought me up there. After the ride, after I yelled at them for the longest time, they finally got me to calm down and realize that the fear was stupid and it was just a movie. That year, when I was 8, was also when I had this huge heart-to-heart conversation with my Dad about growing up. He followed me into my first day of 3rd grade, and totally embarrassed me. I told him that I wasn’t his little girl anymore. He told me that I would always be his little girl, no matter how hard I tried not to be. Those words crept up on me a lot. It was almost like he was foreshadowing what was going to happen in the rest of the book. Come to think of it, he probably was. Everything my Dad did related to his writing.
Seeing the empty field behind the firehouse reminded me of a whole different time in my life, when I was 11. It was soon after the divorce and I got moody and opinionated. That was where all the cool kids went during the carnival. That was the first year I was allowed to go without a parent, and I thought I was so great because of it. Obviously, though, it wasn’t because my Mom thought I was old enough, but because she was too busy doing whatever it is she does with Paul. The carnival was a family event usually. Even if the kids hung out with their friends, the parents would still be there. It was for the whole town and there were plenty of activities for adults too. Paul never wanted to come, though, and my Mom followed, of course. Anyway, we all hung out in that back field. We played spin-the-bottle and all got our first kisses. We would blast music from our CD players, probably rap with really explicit lyrics. We’d yell them all out loudly, and then repeat the words later, as if cursing made us a million times more mature. We’d leave the carnival and walk through the town, along the side of the road, shoving each other into cars driving past. It was just a horrible year, now that I look back on it. We tried to grow up too fast and it just made us look ridiculous and ignorant.
We finally got the roller coaster. There was only one and it was called The Double Dragon. It consisted of two carts moving along the track at once, spinning around upside down and almost crashing into each other, missing by inches. I scooted into the front seat of the cart, and Ryan sat next to me. Two younger girls climbed into the back and he pushed down the lap bar on top of us. The familiar sound of creaking began. You know that sound? Every roller coaster has it. The cart slowly moves up the first drop. It creaks and creaks and when the creaking stops, you know you are about to fall. It reminded me of this carnival just one year before. I sat on this very same ride, a random man next to me, because I came alone. I went on every ride in the place and ate all of the same foods, but I had no one here with me. There was not one person in my school that I could understand and talk to. I didn’t really realize it, I was pretty content with my life, but there was something missing. I didn’t have that person in my life and I needed them. Ryan made all of that different. He changed to whatever shape was needed to fill the void in my heart at that moment. Almost on cue, Ryan slid his hand over mine and squeezed it. I realized that we were on the top of the first drop. We fell.
The wind smacked my cheeks and my eyes widened, stringing from the air blown directly into them. It reminded me of the time in second grade when my class went on a field trip to the aquarium and we had to take a coach bus, one of those special ones with the comfy seats and the bathrooms in the back. There were air conditioners in front of every chair and my entire class would turn them on and stare right at them with open eyes so that they would start to tear up. We found this so interesting for whatever reason and literally did it for the bus rides there and back. My Dad was a chaperone on that trip, and he was the one that told the kids that your eyes would tear up if you stared at it. I was the most popular girl that week, because everyone was so obsessed with my Dad. They talked about him for years after, actually. I remember one time, just back in 8th grade, someone brought it up. “Remember how cool that one field trip was when your Dad chaperoned?” this girl said. I doubt she even remembered what he actually did for everyone to think he was so cool.
We spun around a few turns, then got dropped off little hills. I liked how I flew off my chair slightly when we were about to ride down a drop in the track. Every time it happened, a smile would appear on my face. It was because I had met Ryan. From the moment he mentioned about the little things that made him happy, I began to recognize them everywhere. They really did make me joyful! It was something to look forward to during a boring day. I’d say to myself if I didn’t want to go somewhere that some fun little things might happen during it all. It just made every task a little more enjoyable. Ryan squeezed my palm when we finished the ride and then held it until we got out of the cart and out of the ride completely.
It was dark by then. The carnival lights created patterns on the deep blue canvas that was spread out behind them. Music rang from the carousel next to the roller coaster. Someone behind one of the game booths called out at a family with small children. I pictured my Mom and Dad here with me a long time ago. We’d look like any other family. We wouldn’t look like we were ready to be torn apart.
Divorce. Sometimes people knew it would happen to them. My Aunt Katherine told me once that she never could keep a relationship. She dated many men, but none of them lasted. She even tried marrying two of them, and like my Mom and Dad, they ended in divorce. It didn’t seem to bother her. Although, I think it might be because she knew it was coming. She was just someone who wanted to be single all the time. Long-term relationships were hard for her. Marriages were nearly impossible. Sometimes, you might think that you are perfect for a relationship, but then later find out that maybe you weren’t. My math teacher was like that. She always felt the need to vent to us daily about her personal life. It’s not like we minded it, but it did feel a little strange, knowing so much about her. Supposedly, her and her husband were together for 10 years and then realized one day that they weren’t right for each other at all. It wasn’t even like that with my parents, though. Their divorce was something unplanned, unexpected, and not prepared for. It was spontaneous and crazy and shook all of our lives up, a wave that builded up when they were facing away from the shore, then came crashing down, drowning them in the biggest puddle.
I’d never been in a relationship myself. Well, besides the one that was blossoming with Ryan. I was a little nervous when it came to boys. I didn’t want to give myself up to them like I saw my Mom doing for Paul. She basically threw up her hands and let him carry her where he wanted to take her. I couldn’t handle that. Between Dad and Paul, I had enough corrupt men in my life. I couldn’t hand another one. I didn’t even think about having a relationship. I didn’t fantasize about boys or anything. I just wanted to go about my own business and forget about love all together. When Ryan showed up, I felt really vulnerable. I let loose and let myself go. I let myself fall in love. It happened quicker than I ever imagined it would. It seemed like one day I met him and the next day we were waltzing by the pond in the woods. I didn’t admonish myself for giving myself up to him. I just let it happen and it felt right. Sometimes you need to trust yourself to make good choices and stop being so sheltered. If I knew the wrong kids of men, I could definitely find the right ones.
I grabbed Ryan by the hand as we were swallowed by a crowd. They pushed through us on their way to The Double Dragon. Big, stocky Italian men in tight, black t-shirts shoved passed us. Two little girls with pigtails linked arms and skipped. A boy with slick, greasy hair and a baseball cap trudged by next. Followed by a girl with her eyes locked on a text on the screen of her phone, accompanied by two older people who were probably her grandparents, who were bickering. There were so many different types of people in the world. They weren’t all bad. I had to learn that and accept that. I think meeting Ryan was the first step in doing so.
Ryan pulled me off to the side. “Who inspires you?” he said. I loved when he snuck the game into our everyday lives. It was so much easier than awkward introductions and late discoveries. We could be up-front and personal with each other, without worrying that we were asking for too much. I gave props to whoever made up the game. It sure did help me with Ryan.
“My Mom,” I answered quickly, then looked up into the throbbing stars above us.
I didn’t really want to answer. I knew it all have to come out at one point. I just had to let it go; like everything else. We had to be honest with each other because that was how the game went. So, that was what we did. I told him the story. I told him everything, from the first dangerous promise, to the last feud with Paul. It slipped out of my mouth like rain cascading from the sky. I wouldn’t let it stop. My words poured down on him. He grabbed my waist and held me against his chest and I kept talking. We just sat there, curled into each other, in front of the concession stand where my Dad once stood. It was the same one my Mom stood at too, and me. We all stood there as a family. Everything fell apart, and the only way to ever assemble the puzzle again was to start collecting the scattered pieces. “You know, that felt really good,” I said to him, when I was done. My face was coated with a light splash of tears, but they were the good kind. They were the kind of tears that wash away your troubles and leave you with a fresh slate. I rubbed my cheeks with the sleeve of my sweater, and smiled up at Ryan. He held me like my father would, and I let him.
Maddie’s eyes glistened with innocence as she sprinted up and down the stairs inside of Andrew and Clara’s house, next door. Ryan and I sat, cuddled together, on the couch. My head rested on his shoulder and I inhaled the heavy aroma of the cup of coffee he was drinking. Andrew sat on the other side of us, caressing the cup he was holding, as if he would never see coffee again if he put it down. I pressed my palm to the cup that Ryan was holding, letting the warmth radiate through my bones. It was getting colder, December taking over and pushing the fall weather out of the way. Snowflakes trickled from the sky and collected on the windows of the house. The coffee comforted me.
I had spent a lot of time there. Ryan rarely seemed to be at his own house, so if we weren’t at mine, we usually went to Andrew and Clara’s. I’d bring Maddie, when she had nothing else to do and we would all just hang around. It was relaxing and peaceful. I could always count on being there to distract me from any other emotions I was feeling. I wanted that for Maddie too. 4 year old’s shouldn’t be stressed and Paul did that to her, or maybe, I just imagined it.
Do you know those moments when you are just in complete bliss? Do you know those moments when you are just happy and nothing promotes it? That was what it was like there. Ryan obviously inherited his welcoming persona from his Grandpa. Everything that Andrew did made me smile. There was such a positive vibe in that house that it could almost always free your mind.
Why is it that just when everything seems perfect, it all falls apart?
A shriek floated through my ears, and Andrew sprung from the couch. Maddie ran to me, clinging to my leg as Andrew darted up the stairs.
“Clara!” Andrew screamed, as he clenched the railing and hoisted himself up each step as fast as he could with his weak legs. Ryan sat up too, putting down his coffee on the couch. It flipped over and dripped down into the cushions. The comfort of being in the house completely disappeared.
“Grandma! Grandma, are you okay?” he called, his voice booming through the narrow staircase. I followed, telling Maddie to stay downstairs.
As I turned the corner, at the top of the stairs, I saw Clara sitting up in her bed, gasping. I winced as her head flung forward and her whole body shook violently. Ryan grabbed a phone on the desk next to Clara’s bed, and Andrew cried hysterically. I picked up a glass of water from the desk and ran over to Clara to give it to her, but Andrew pushed me far back, letting the water tumble out of the glass and onto the carpet. I looked up, stunned, and met eyes with Clara. Her hands clutched tightly on her throat.
“Can you breathe?” Ryan called from the corner of the room.
Clara shook her head, her arms flailing down to the edges of her bed, where she squeezed the sheets tangled around her.
Andrew pushed me back again, abruptly. He pushed me to the wall and he remained there with me as well. He spoke inaudible words in a hushed whisper and ran a hand through his grey hair, practically yanking it out. “No,” he repeated over and over.
“Hi, my grandmother can't breathe! I need an ambulance right now. It’s bad; really bad. She has emphysema.” Ryan shouted, urgently, into the phone. Clara fell back on the bed and coughed into the air, pounding a closed fist against the wall, like it would stop the coughing.
Emphysema? I formed a mental list of all of the sicknesses I’ve ever heard of and tried to find it, but was interrupted by Maddie charging up the stairs. “Jade!” she had called, burying her face in my chest.
“Maddie! Go home! Go home to Mommy and Daddy,” I told her, pushing her toward the staircase. Andrew and Ryan didn’t even flinch when I walked away from them. The state of panic in the room was overwhelming. “Maddie, I need you to go home!”
“43 Stonebrook Avenue. Come quickly,” Ryan shouted over the noise. I felt as if a dramatic soundtrack was playing behind everything going on, or that one should have been. I grabbed Maddie’s wrist and pulled her down the first couple of stairs, but she clung onto my waist.
“Madison!” I yelled, pulling her off of me. Emphysema, emphysema, emphysema. What was it?
Clara’s coughs echoed throughout the room again, and her eyes turned a dark red color, the blood vessels in them bursting one by one. She silently pleaded for help, clasping her bony hands together and beginning to pray. She couldn’t keep her body still, coughs pumping out of her. “Please come quickly,” Ryan said again, teardrops cascading past his dimples. I needed to hold him, like he did for me.
“Maddie! You need to listen to me!” I said. undoing her arms from the tangled knot they made around myself. She threw them back around again.
“Clara. You need to listen to me,” Andrew said, running up to the foot of the bed. He knelt, slowly, keeping a fair distance from Clara’s violently kicking legs. “I love you.”
The door opened and a group of paramedics barged through, pushing Maddie and I to the side and carrying Clara out to the ambulance parked in Andrew and Clara’s driveway. Andrew rushed out of the door in a hurry, and Ryan grabbed my hand, pulling me out of the door. Maddie looked to me, and I pointed back toward my house. “Maddie! It will be okay. You need to go home!” I called. She scurried off, faster than I’ve ever seen her move before, and banged on the door ferociously. Paul snatched her inside, not even bothering to check out the scene happening next door. Neighbors filled up their driveways and moved out onto the road to get a better idea of what was going on.
“Ryan, what’s emphysema?” I asked, my eyes locked on Clara’s spasmodic body being lifted onto a cot. They inserted various needles into her arm and gave her oxygen. She gasped even more, hysterically flicking her head back and forth. One of the paramedics pinned down her shoulders. She continued to cough.
“It's a disease that destroys the lungs. You ever heard of it?"
“It’s serious. I don’t know what to do. Jade, I’m so scared.”
“Loosing someone you love is the scariest thing.” I pulled him toward me, as the ambulance sped away. I walked with Ryan to my driveway, where he rushed to get into the passenger seat of my car. We both slammed the doors shut, at the same time. The whole world was suddenly blocked off. The roar of our street outside was muffled. The snow was gone. The crowds were gone. The house was gone. All we could hear was a steady murmur of static coming from the radio.
As I backed out, I looked over at him; his eyes stoic. The blue in them was suddenly harsh and piercing. His emotions trying to hide. “I don’t want you to loose her.” I whimpered, tears finally escaping from my eyes. I barely understood what was going on, but I did understand Ryan. He had gone through one loss in his life and he wasn’t yet prepared for another.
“I’m so scared.” Ryan muttered again.
We reached the hospital, and they slid the cot that Clara was on out of the back door of the ambulance, and raced inside the hospital with her. They brought her directly into the emergency room and started giving her a number of medicines. They put her under some kind of anesthesia and she laid there, twitching in her sleep for several moments before her body became vegetated. Andrew completely broke down. He stood by the bed she was on and just cried. He didn’t make any noise, but tears were wetting his entire face. They were running off his chin and splattering down onto Clara’s hospital gown and tangled gray hair. It was the strangest, most heart-wrenching way I’ve ever seen anyone cry; like a faucet was turned on inside of him. Andrew didn’t wipe his face or blow his nose. He just let the tears fall wherever they pleased.
I sat in the corner of the room, my face huddled in a crumpled tissue. Ryan paced around the room, jittery for a little while before he ran right up to me. “The game!” he shouted, too loud for the quiet space we were contained in.
“Huh?” I replied, with confusion. I tossed the tissue into a trash can and got a new one.
“What’s your favorite color?” he said, frantically, jutting his head toward his grandmother, then forcing himself to look away.
“What’s your favorite number?”
“What’s your favorite book?”
“I can’t think about her!” he exploded. He collapsed to the floor and shattered to a million pieces. His dimples and cute smile wiped away and an absolutely terrified expression graced his face. He pounded his hands on the floor, and screamed with horror. Andrew didn’t even turn around. He didn’t even blink, just cried rainstorms of tears. It was the most awful scene I’ve ever witnessed. Clara laid motionless in that hospital bed, oblivious to them and the seven doctors buzzing around her like worker bees.
“Ryan. It’s going to be okay. Whatever happens, you’ll be okay.” I said, nodding my head as if that could bring truth to what I said.
“You promise?” he replied.
He looked up. His blue eyes widened and shuttered. A cold wind eerily creeped through the room, causing us both to shiver. “Promising something and not doing anything about it is the worst thing to do. We need to stop relying on promises to just fulfill themselves. We need to go out and fulfill them on our own. I can’t promise you anything, but I know that you are able to take the bad times in your life and use them to make you stronger. I know you can, Ryan! Sometimes it’s going to be hard, but you can,” I said, slowly and with ease. The doctors dispersed from the bed and leaped around the room, blocking us off from the scene for a minute.
Ryan stood up and placed both of his hands on my face. He pulled me closer and kissed me. It was a hard kiss. It was passionate and real, but empty and cold. It was a scared kiss; a “save-me” kiss. We cried into each other.
“Listen, Ryan.” I said, when he let go of me. “There might be times when it looks like the future won’t be good. It’s going to be difficult and frustrating, but if you keep pushing through it all, one day, you will be okay. You just have to keep going,” I cried out. “Just keep going, Ryan.” I don’t even know where the impromptu speech came from, but it sat inside me, already written, waiting to come out. It was just another one of the things Ryan helped me discover about myself. I had to get past everything that happened with my Dad, and I just didn’t know where to begin. These words of confidence were inside of me, but I just didn’t know how to get them out.
Andrew turned around and stared at me with round, wet eyes. He nodded his head, and came closer to us. “Ryan, I think you picked a good one,” Andrew said, through the tears that blinded his vision. A smile appeared on his face. Pain existed deep down in that smile, but he was able to push through it. He was able to overcome. We were all able to, if we gave it a shot.
The house stood strong and indifferent to the sadness that dwelled in it. I had woken up the next morning, expecting to see it burned to the ground or something, but it was just the same house. I think that was something I got from my Dad. It was something writers always did. They always made the environment symbolic to what was going on in it. In all reality, you never really know when someone is being devoured by horrible feelings. The sun would still shine and the calender would keep flipping, even though that person feels like the whole world just froze around them and the only two people living on our planet are them and their pain.
“Jade?” my Mom called, poking her head into the door of my room a few moments later.
“I made breakfast,” she said, beating around the bush, although she knew I was aware that Clara had died. Her condition had been in a bad state when I left the night before. I cried my entire way home, and felt refreshingly better when I entered my bed for a well-deserved rest.
“Great,” I replied, keeping my eyes on the house. “Could I have Ryan over today?” I didn’t want to go over Andrew and Clara’s house. I wasn’t ready to see how Andrew would be. He needed our comfort, but it was a little too soon. I kept having flashbacks of him, standing over her, crying. It tired me out just thinking of the whole night. I laid back on my bed in fatigue. A sea of pillows engulfed my head and I wanted to stay there forever, guarded from sadness. I had to push through it, though. I wasn’t going to fail at taking my own advice.
So, Ryan came over. Dark rings circled around his eyes and his cheeks were rosy. His flannel shirt was buttoned lazily. He had felt the same way that I had. I was bleary enough to opt for a pair sweatpants and a t-shirt from basketball camp in 6th grade. Angst rode through his body and into mine as he hugged me tightly. We both laid back on my bed, staring at the glow-in-the-dark stars I had stuck on my ceiling when I was little. Too much light came in through the window, though, leaving them a helplessly dull yellow color. They didn’t glow at all. They reminded me of Ryan himself. He usually carried himself with this special something inside of him, but after Clara passed away it was completely drained from him. I couldn’t help myself from staring, waiting for him to jump back to his normal self. He didn’t, though. He just kept really still and widened his eyes, as if he was forcing them open.
He must have noticed my staring. “I’m afraid to shut my eyes,” he mumbled, his words monotone and lifeless.
“Why?” I replied, burying my face in his chest. I could hear his heartbeat thumping through my ears. My forehead buzzed and I rubbed my temples viciously.
“I’m afraid,” he said again. He opened his mouth to say more, but couldn’t bring himself too.
“Every time I close my eyes I see her face. It isn’t the great grandmother I had all my life that I can see. It is the one that was coughing and shaking and dying right before my eyes,” he said, punching a closed fist onto the bed. I didn’t say anything. I only kissed him softly on the cheek. I felt upset for a moment, unable to comfort him. He and I both knew that there wasn’t really anything I could say. The depression he was feeling happened to all of us, because, frankly, loosing someone sucked. It was absolutely terrible and there was nothing we could do about it. I squeezed my eyes shut and tried to think of happy things. I tried to think of the little things Ryan was always preaching to me about, but all I could see now was Clara throwing her head back and forth, her eyes pleading for help. I blinked, forcing them open again. I hardly knew Clara. I only had a few, brief conversations with her. She probably lived an beautiful life, doing who-knows-what, but I only knew her when she had Emphysema. I couldn’t imagine the suffering that Andrew and Ryan were going though. I was hurting so much, and I barely knew her.
"I really can't stay. A bunch of my family members are coming over for the wake tomorrow," Ryan mumbled.
"Okay," I squeaked meekly. He kissed me softly on the cheek and walked out of the room. Everything was quiet and still. The sky dimmed and I watched one of the stars begin to light up momentarily, but then it died down again. I studied each one, remembering the night I hung them up. My Mom and Dad both helped me. We worked together as a family, using a small ladder that my Dad had. My Mom blared some Beatles song from a boom box I used to play my Kidz Bop CD’s on, and we all danced around the room, happily. I remember sticking up my first star, with the help of my Dad putting me on his shoulders. I felt so great up there. I could see everything and everything was perfect.
I couldn’t stand the memories. I got up, perched myself on the unmade, messy bed and ripped them off, one by one. It calmed me down a little bit. It was like removing a band-aid and seeing that the scar was gone. Those stars were the only thing left of the pain I was feeling. I was able to empty it from myself, and the only proof that I still had it deep down, was those pitiful stars clustered around my broken ceiling fan. I knew there would always be tracks of how horrible I felt when I lost my father inside of me, but if I brushed them off and cleaned myself up, they would hardly be noticeable. I ripped them all off, until I found one that I couldn’t reach from my bed. I stretched out my arm and opened my fist really wide, but ended up falling to the floor, where I completly broke down. I couldn’t take my eyes off the pieces that were in my hands. It felt so freeing to get them off of my wall. It made me feel like I was capable of anything and I could start my life over again.
I fell asleep there, with the stars in my hands, even though it was only midday. I was awoken later by Maddie, who pulled the stars out of my hands and laid them all out on the carpet in front of me. "I can count how many stars there are! Want to see?" she announced, proudly. I wiped my eyes and nodded. She tapped each one, lightly, and rote counted to 19; the 20th still on the ceiling.
"Good job, Maddie," I said, then got up and rolled onto my bed. I caught another glimpse of the house and shuddered. She sat on the edge of the bed and looked at me with wide eyes.
"Don't be sad," she said, upset that her effort to cheer me up didn't work. I didn't even know what to say to that. I buried my face in my pillow until she left the room. It was frightening to see her so suddenly silent; her talkative ways unable to show. I shook my head back and forth and stared at the last star for what seemed like hours. I refused to move when my Mom came to get me for dinner, and again when Maddie came in with a stack of her toys and asked me to play with her. I felt depressed and awful. It seemed like nothing could get any worse; like I was at the very bottom of a hill. I was so far from the top that I couldn't even remember what the view was like up there.
That was when the news came. That was when an earthquake practically happened in my life. That was when I changed into a person that I didn’t even know I was capable of being. “Jade, I have to tell you something,” Ryan said, the next day. He had just stopped over momentarily, before Clara's wake. He said it would be a short visit; that he just had to tell me something. I was still propped up against the headboard of my bed. He stood up, straightening his back and raising his eye brows. He was preparing himself for what he was about to say. “We are moving back to Maine," he spit out as quickly as he could. Tears poured.
‘What?” I said, breathlessly.
“We’re leaving. My Mom said that since my Grandma is gone, that we don’t need to be here to take care of her anymore,” he said, his voice colliding with his sobs. It was strange seeing a boy cry over something like this. I was used to seeing boys like Joe Daniels, who wouldn’t be caught dead showing any emotion, unless it was his “aggressive” face that he used when he played football. The girls went wild over that one. Ryan was tough and manly when he needed to be, but everyone was emotional and sensitive. Everyone had to cry once in a while, and I was glad that Ryan would.
“You’re kidding,” I screeched. I repeated it over and over, trying to get myself to believe it was true. "You're just kidding me; it's just a joke."
“It's not," he said, keeping his eyes locked on mine.
“Ryan, you can’t leave.”
“I have to.”
"I need you,” I said, for the first time. It really came clear in my mind how much I depended on him. It was so rare that you could find a person that you could just share your thoughts with. We would be with each other for hours on end and only tell each other our opinions on everything. We wouldn’t get bored of each other and we would never fight. We wouldn’t be afraid to tell each other anything and we knew that whatever we said was safe with the other person. Ryan wouldn’t taunt me for things I said and he knew that he wouldn’t receive jeers from my side of the relationship either. I could have lived forever with Ryan. It might sound cheesy and dramatic, but I knew it was true. Even if we weren’t a couple, we still needed each other. My life had gotten a million times better since he sat down next to me in science class. Sure, there were times when things got crazy, but Ryan always got me through it. I could even help him to do the same. It was unbelievable how much serendipity occurred. It was such a massive feeling that swept me up quickly and took me along for an incredible ride. I could never replace the few months that I had with Ryan. I couldn’t have it end. There were so many stories left to share, so many things left to discuss, and so many questions that weren’t yet answered.
“Ryan, I can’t be without you,” I said, breathlessly. He had to be there. He couldn’t go.
“Yes, you can. You told me yourself, that we can overcome all of our troubles if we just gave it a shot,” he replied, pushing a strand of my dark brown hair behind my ear, like those leading men in romantic movies. I smiled, wiping the tears off my face with the back of my right hand.
"Do you know how much I love you?"
“Jade, do you know how much I love you? I love you more than anyone in the whole world. I couldn’t forget you if I tried.” He breathed heavily. He couldn't possibly love me more than I loved him.
"Please come back and visit me."
“Promise?” I asked, then caught myself. “Never mind, you don’t have to.”
Ryan laughed a loud, belly laugh. He kissed me again, then wiped the tears off his face. I looked down, to the floor, to see the stars lined up neatly. I remembered Ryan’s depressed facade the day before and thought again of all of the horrible times that were going to come in my life. He wasn’t going to be there to protect me, to guide me, or to help me through any of them.
“So, I guess this is goodbye.”
“You're leaving today?"
"I'm leaving on Sunday. I probably won't be able to come over before then, though. My entire family is at my house, and we have the wake and funeral."
I cried, hysterically.
“Everything is going to be okay, Jade. You know it is. Everything turns out okay in the end. You have to keep going through the difficult times,” he said, basically reciting my speech from the day before. "I have to go," catching a glimpse of my alarm clock. "Thank you for everything, Jade. Honestly, I couldn't be more thankful for you."
“I love you," I said, crying a lot. We kissed once more, and then he was out of my door. Then, he was out of my driveway and out of my neighborhood. A few days later, he was out of my town, my state, and was miles away. I couldn’t get him out of my mind, though. The minute he left that room, I was left feeling more alone than ever. I thought back to the days when being alone was fine with me. I could sit alone for hours doing nothing. It wasn’t the same anymore. Everything I thought about, I wanted to talk about with Ryan. I wanted to be with Ryan, or at least somebody. The only other time I felt as alone as I did was right after I last saw my Dad. That was different, though. I was left with bad memories. With Ryan, they were all good; minus his leaving. It made me question how much of a good man he actually was. Ryan could have just been another lying man like my Dad. He left me feeling like Andrew must have felt; deserted and empty. I felt like I was stuck in the middle of nowhere, with nobody around to catch me if I fell or to help me back up again.
I felt a sudden craving of attention. I grabbed a light jacket from the corner of my room and walked out to my car. It was a little after midnight and the skies were pitch black. I started the car and drove aimlessly around my town until my eyes fell on exactly what I was looking for. Loud music pumped through the house, making the ground pulse. As I shut the door of my car, I felt the vibration under my feet. A guy was throwing up in the bushes out front of the house and a couple was kissing in the car parked next to mine. I felt reckless and brave for a minute. I entered the party with no restrictions in my mind. I decided not to care. My excuse was that I was young; that I was a teenager and this was how I should act. All of my ambitions were lost and I couldn’t remember a single moral I had ever obtained. I walked in the door and a college age girl handed me a beer bottle. I took a big swig of it, and wiped the creases of my mouth. For a moment I wished that I was anywhere in the world but where I was, then took another drink and I relaxed completely.
Alcohol always frightened me. Even before I experienced what I had with my Dad, it was always something I was a little wary about. We learned, as early as in elementary school, not to drink and drive, and to not drink too much. It seemed like every teenager in the universe counted down the days until they were old enough to drink, and the ones who didn’t drank anyway. I didn’t understand. Sure, it might make you feel good for a little bit, but it almost always ended badly! Yet, everyone still went out and drank again. Teenagers were especially stupid with their drinking. At least most adults knew to stop after a couple glasses of wine. Teenage parties always seemed like one, big, drunken mess. That was one of the reasons why I was so uninterested in going to them. When you drink, you loose control, and anyone could misbehave if they don’t have control over what they do.
I heard the patter of raindrops on the roof, and I opened my eyes, expecting to wake up in my room. The brown comforter tangled around my legs assured me that I wasn’t. I sat up, quickly, momentarily forgetting everything that happened the night before. I glanced to my left to see a dark blue alarm clock, on top of several trigonometry textbooks that didn’t look familiar at all. A beer bottle was on the night stand, empty. I rubbed my eyes, hoping everything would disappear, and I would wake up correctly in my room. I laid back down again, flinging my right hand back, when I felt the smoothness of skin. I jumped out of the bed, scared for a minute, when I noticed the other person in the bed; a guy that I didn’t know. A breathed heavily, noticing the bareness of his chest. I looked down at myself; clothes shed. I felt like I was in a horror movie. “How could this be happening?” I whispered. I studied the boy’s unshaven face and shaggy haircut. I didn’t even recognize him. I grabbed a random sweatshirt from the floor, and pulled it over my head. I snuck out of the room, as quickly as I could.
I saw several other teenagers, passed out on the couch out front, even on the floor. I shook my head in disbelief. I didn’t remember anything from the night before, only Ryan leaving and walking into the party. I was so against all of this, and yet I ended up here. I drank. I drank a lot. I could feel it. My head hurt, and I was a little wobbly when I walked. I steadied myself, grasping the kitchen table in this house. I felt a chill creep around my bare legs and shuttered. I heard a door slam, and I turned toward it. A girl walked out of, what must have been, a bathroom. Her hair was curly and red; framing her face. “Jade, right?” she asked, pointing her finger at me.
“Um, yeah,” I mumbled, embarrassed of my tousled appearance. I backed up behind the kitchen table.
“Don’t remember me?” she asked, laughing. I shook my head. “Alicia? We talked for, like, an hour last night?”
She ran a hand through her hair, tossing it over her shoulder. She grabbed someone’s beer from the table and took a sip. It was so awkward for me. Maybe this girl, Alicia, or whoever she was, wakes up often in the morning at someone else's house, talking to people she doesn’t know, but I didn’t. I shook my head, again. She didn’t seem to notice, taking another sip of the beer, swishing it around her mouth.
“I have to go.”
“You have to go find Ryan, or something?” Alicia said, tossing the beer back down onto the table.
“How do you know about Ryan?”
“You told me last night,” Alicia replied, nonchalantly.
“How much did I tell you?”
“Pretty much everything, before you started hooking up with Jake.”
“Jake?” I said, even though I knew it was the guy I had woken up next to. Whatever we did, I didn’t even want to know. I felt like crying, simply over the loss of innocence that encircled me.
“You were really drunk, huh?”
I blinked. This wasn’t real. This was all just a dream. I was sitting in my bed, cuddling up next to Ryan and we fell asleep. Maybe I was subconsciously worried about all of this stuff happening, and thats why I had dreams like this. They were so realistic, that it seemed real. I blinked again, and again. I tried to make this true. It wasn’t. This wasn’t a nightmare, just harsh reality. All I wanted was Ryan’s arms to run into. All I wanted was his words of wisdom. I wanted him to ask me a question like, “Why did you do this?” Whenever I answered Ryan’s questions, the right words always came to me. If Ryan had asked me a question like this, I could have probably came up with an answer. Since he wasn’t there, though, I just stood there with some redhead named Alicia, dumbfounded as to what in the world I was doing. “You know I wouldn’t want you doing something like this,” I could almost hear Ryan saying. He would kiss me on the cheek and tell me that everything was going to be fine, and I was perfect without any of this.
Ryan didn’t actually change me. It wasn’t him, physically, that changed who I was. It wasn’t the good looking boy who made me happier. It was the ideas that he planted in my head. I took those ideas and ran with them, and that was what improved my life. I didn’t need him around to do something like that. It wasn’t his fault that he had to leave. People come and go, in our lives, all the time. I couldn’t even count how many people I was really close with for a short period of time, and then never talked to again. It isn’t really the people that make a difference. It was what they had to say. Ryan was definitely something special. He was a fantastic match for me. We understood each other and could depend on one another. All of that didn’t matter. Ryan made an impact on me. He would always be etched into me, like a handprint left on my heart.
My father was the same way. He wasn’t really a bad guy, he just did bad things. Wasn’t there a difference? Didn’t we all have the capability of doing evil, especially under the influence of alcohol? He, like Ryan, told me how to appreciate small things. When he was around, my life revolved around poetry. It was the secret between my Dad and I. We were the only ones who could understand the beauty of it. That special connection was something that I honored. Not only the connection between my father and I, but between us and the writing. I knew that even on my worst days, that poetry would always be there. I didn’t read it much after he left, but I was always aware of it. The books stacked in my room would come into use one day. Maybe, the reason I loved Ryan so much was because he reminded me so much of my Dad. I spent my whole life running from him, ignoring anything that he instilled in me as a child. I should have accepted it. I could have easily lost him without loosing everything that I loved about him. I didn’t want that to happen with Ryan. I could keep everything Ryan left me with. I didn’t have to pretend I was lost without him. I didn’t have to go out partying and drinking, waiting for Ryan to come, like Superman, and rescue me. I was a levelheaded girl, and I knew what to do. Feeling vulnerable sometimes felt good, but being confident and sure of yourself felt a million times better. Just because I lost Ryan, didn’t have to mean that I lost myself.
“You okay?” Alicia asked me, perched on top of the table, taking a drink from another beer bottle.
“Yeah. I’m actually really, really okay,” I said, still thinking of the men in my life. I waved a half-hearted goodbye to Alicia, as she hearkened after me. I walked to the door and pulled it shut behind me, my knees shaking a little as I did so. It felt incredible to shut that door. I felt like I was packing away that life. I dipped into it for a little, realized how much I hated it, and could easily pack it away to save for someone else. I reached my car, and leaned back on the leather seats, which my bare legs stuck too. I shivered. The rain splattered my windows and cleared them off, washing away whatever persona I put on the night before. I was left raw and stripped. Everything became clear in my mind.
I thought of my Mom. I aspired to be like her for most of my life. She always seemed like the perfect person, everything I ever would want to be. I was thankful for her, because I knew that she could have easily have been someone I resented, like I had my father for so long. My Mom was with Paul. I didn’t like it, obviously, but she was with Paul and that was that. Each relationship that you enter, you learn things from. She had to be with someone like Paul so she could learn about that type of man. She had to be with Dad so she could learn about someone like him. I knew that one day, she would find someone perfect for her, someone who makes everything make sense. That was Ryan in my life. Maybe, that person was Paul. Maybe, Paul was actually a great guy, who had tons of good qualities, but I only saw the bad ones, because I was too doubtful of men. There was obviously something that a good person, like my mother, would see in him. I was just too blind to notice it.
Maddie was just four, and I think I put too much thought into her. She didn’t know of anything yet. She was having an amazing childhood. Between my Mom and I, there was plenty of love surrounding her. She wasn’t even affected by Paul. I always had crazy ideas that he was ruining her life, but he absolutely wasn’t. She was negligent and oblivious and happy. Paul was going to hurt her one day, because we all hurt each other at some point, even if we don’t realize it. Nobody is a perfect person. We all make mistakes and do wrong. It was going to happen at one point, and when it does, Maddie will be okay, because I’ll be there for her. Maddie was such a great kid, and I knew she’d grow up to be a person like me. She would be able to handle herself. We all taught her well enough. I stressed out too much because of her. I didn’t realize that she was absolutely fine.
I drove my car slowly, letting it emerse in the rain completely. The drops dripped down the windows, racing each other to the bottom, and I watched each one. Every time a new drop reached the bottom of the window, I felt better. It was that easy, just another little thing that brought a smile to my face.
As I passed by Andrew and Clara’s house, I stopped the car all together. I thought back to them. They were so old, yet they were both still so in love. Even thought Clara passed away, I knew that Andrew would always remember the things that they used to talk about, the places they used to go. None of that would ever leave him. It didn’t matter that she went, because the impact that she made on his life would always be there. They were a couple that we could all learn from. Love that lasts that long, really did survive the test of time. I knew that one day I’d find someone, as would Ryan, who I knew could be there forever. Maybe, it would even be Ryan himself. People could, just as easily come back into your life, as they could leave it. I knew that what I had with Ryan was a really special relationship, and I was thankful for even having it all together. I was so, incredibly thankful for the things I learned from him. Even if I never saw him ever again, I’d be alright.
I pulled into my driveway, and stared up at the window in my house. Maddie was pressed up against it, her tiny nose on the glass. When she saw me, her whole face lit up. A mile-wide smile stretched across her face. I walked up to the door of my house, but it was already opened up by Maddie, who leaped into my arms. I cradled her there, for a minute, in the pouring rain. My Mom came toward the door, her robe hung tiredly over her frail body, a worried expression on her face. “Oh, Jade. Thank god you’re here. You had me so scared. Don’t ever do that again!” she cried out, as I placed Maddie’s bare feet on our carpeted floor.
“Don’t worry. I won’t. Ever.” I said, tears coming from my eyes. Maddie tilted her head, and my Mom looked confused as well. “Isn’t it funny how, in just a few minutes, everything can finally make sense?”
My Mom shook her head, in confusion, but began to cry too, for some reason. She came closer to me and hugged me tightly. Maddie curled her arms around me as well, and we all just stood there, close as ever. I smiled, because I knew that I was swimming in an ocean that I was drowning in for years.