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I clutched her cold, clammy hand like a lifeline, telling myself that the moonlight seeping through the window was what made it look so deathly white. She looked up at me, moving only her eyes. The tired, impassive look in them made me turn away quickly.
Striking a match, I lit a lamp. The flickering orange light gave the illusion of a glowing, warm color in her face. I knew it was just a trick of the light, but it made me feel better.
"Don't leave me," I whispered, bringing my other hand to hers, hoping that the warmth of both of my hands would transfer to her. "I don't want to be alone again."
A faint smile stretched across her trembling lips. Her voice was small and high, and I could hear the enormous effort being put into getting any words out at all. "I'm not sure I could go anywhere if I wanted to."
The warm tears spilled out of my eyes, and I laughed, but there was no real humor in the laugh. It was a hollow, emotionless laugh that escaped my mouth. Grasping even harder onto her soft hand, I looked her sternly in the eyes. "Promise me. Promise you won't leave me."
Even then, I could feel her brittle fingers slipping out of my hands. I could see the light fading from her once-vivid blue eyes. Her chest rose slowly, then fell. I watched it, waiting for it to go up again, but it never did. I let her lifeless hand fall from my grasp, then stood up and put out the lamp. The moonlight reflected off of her ghostly white skin, making her seem to almost glow.
* * *
I stared at the cold piece of metal in my hand. My knuckles were white from gripping it so tightly. It was the last gift my older sister had ever given me; before that, it was the last gift my mother gave her. After the funeral, I finally brought myself to open it. Inside, I found a note in her beautiful handwriting, which she learned from my mother. I had received my father's sloppy handwriting. Now, sitting on a bed in my aunt's house, I opened it again, letting the paper unfurl in my hand.
I promise you'll never be alone. Let this locket be a reminder to you of what you've lost, but also everything you still have. I love you, and there are others who do too, they just have more difficulty showing it.
I lingered over the words for a minute. She wrote them before she promised not to leave me, yet she somehow knew exactly what to write long before, when she first became ill. I didn't know what her last sentence meant. I had no one left. Shaking my head to stop the tears from falling, I carefully rolled the note back up and shut it inside the locket. She promised she wouldn't leave me. She promised. Now here I was, in my aunt's house, which, despite the crowd of relatives who lingered after the funeral, was quite empty.
Her room was just as it had been when she died. It was untouched- with all of her favorite family photos and gifts from our parents. We both held on to all of those precious gifts. They were all we had left of our parents. In the same way, I now held onto everything that was once my sister's, as if it would bring her closer to me.
I knew she was gone, and I was very much alone, but I read her note every day, pretending she was there beside me. Then I would close my eyes, refusing to look at the empty space next to me, which so accurately reflected the feeling I had inside.
There was a soft rap on the door. I didn't bother to answer. The door swung open to reveal my Aunt Belle, a stern woman with a small frame and harsh eyes. Her hair was pulled back into a tight bun, and her hands were on her hips.
"Still sulking around in here?" she asked, glaring at me accusingly.
I shook my head, lying, "I was just going through some stuff of Amelia's."
She nodded her approval, gesturing to the pile of Amelia's things on the bed. "Good. It's about time you get rid of some of this old junk."
I dug my teeth into my tongue to keep myself from shouting at her that it wasn't junk. Although some of it was completely worthless and useless, anything that belonged to Amelia deserved the highest amount of respect.
Staying true to my word, I turned to the pile of Amelia's stuff to sort through it- although I had no intention of getting rid of anything. I planned to linger on each item, drawing as many joyful memories from each one as I possibly could.
I was enjoying wonderful memories of our beach picnics as a family as I held a large picnic basket, which she had inherited from our parents, when Aunt Belle walked in again, carrying a large trash bag and two large boxes.
"Anything that's junk- which I suspect will be a lot of it- goes in the bag. Things that might be useful to someone else can go in this box," she instructed, holding up one of the boxes. Then, holding up the other, she continued, "Anything you want to keep goes in this box. If it doesn't fit, it goes in the other box or in the bag."
I stared at the box in her hand, which now seemed so small. Then I glanced at the pile of my sister's things, which was certainly much too large to fit in one box. Aunt Belle looked at me sternly to make sure I understood that she wouldn't be making exceptions, then left the room, shutting the door behind her with a bang.
Clenching my teeth, I gave the box a kick. I couldn't stand the thought of only having this one box, which, to me, represented everything that was left of my sister- everything I had left that meant anything at all.
I clutched onto her diary, stroking its smooth leather cover. I never tried to read it, though I was sure she would have let me if I wanted to. Still, I wasn't sure if I should read it now. I wanted to. Maybe she said something about me in there. I slowly opened the diary in the middle, hoping to find something in her words that would make me feel better. A piece of paper fell from between the pages and landed softly on my leg. I lifted it gingerly, not wanting to damage anything of hers.
My mother's shining face smiled at me from the picture. She was standing with my aunt, who, though still looking rather stern and serious, had a beautiful smile on her face, which I had never witnessed. I looked down at the pages from which it had fallen and began to read.
"I found Aunt Belle crying in her room this morning. She was holding a picture, which I watched her put in her dresser drawer with the socks. After she left on her errands, I went into her room. I know I shouldn't have done it, but I took the picture. I wanted to know what it was that made her cry, because I wanted something to use against her when she was being cruel. But when I saw mother in the picture, I felt bad. Maybe I should put the picture back, but looking at it helps me when Aunt Belle is yelling. I realized for the first time that maybe she felt the same way as Nikki and I about mother's death."
I set the diary down and looked at the picture again. This must be the picture Aunt Belle had been crying over. I still couldn't imagine her being sad about anything. She certainly didn't seem to care much about what happened to Amelia. I set down the diary and sighed. Never had I felt so hopelessly alone, sitting there with my sister's stuff and my mother's picture, wishing they were with me.
For the third time that day, I opened the silver locket, with the rose engraved on the front. The note from Amelia unfurled again. She said I would never be alone, that there were others who loved me.
"Then why do I feel so empty?" I whispered, letting a single tear drop onto the paper.
I put it back in the locket before I could get it more wet and looked back at the picture of Aunt Belle and my mother. Holding it gently in my hand, I stared into my mother's face with longing.
Then the door swung open again, making me jump in alarm.
Aunt Belle looked at the empty boxes. "Aren't you supposed to be going through things?" Then she froze, seeing my wet face and picture in my hands. I tried to hide it, but it was too late.
She trotted over, snatching the picture angrily from my hands. Then she looked at it and her expression softened. I saw her lip quiver.
"Where did you get this?" she asked quietly, looking up at me.
Suddenly her eyes no longer looked piercing and mean, but tired and filled with longing, just like the eyes I saw reflected in the mirror every day. It occurred to me for the first time that Aunt Belle lost her sister, too. Of course I knew they were sisters, but I had never really thought of her as being in the same situation I was now in.
"I found it in Amelia's diary," I answered, glancing at the picture in her hand, avoiding her eyes.
"I see." She turned to leave, then stopped abruptly, turning back towards me. "Are you alright, Nikki?"
The question took me by surprise. Not once since my sister's death had she asked me this. Then I realized she had also not once seen me cry. I always hid it from her, thinking she would see it as weakness.
I was about to answer with an untruthful "Yes," but then I lost control and more tears spilled out as I shook my head.
She nodded and left the room, taking the picture with her. Maybe she didn’t care after all. Then, just minutes later, she returned with a mug of steaming hot chocolate. She stared at me silently as she handed the mug to me and I sipped it gratefully. Her eyes still had that tired, glazed over look that reminded me so much of myself.
I took another sip of hot chocolate, then whispered, "Thank you."
She came toward me, and I thought for a moment that perhaps she was going to take the hot chocolate away, then she surprised me even more by wrapping her arms around me and resting her pointy chin on my head. I felt a hot tear spill onto my hair as she slipped the photograph of her and my mother into my hand, which was hanging limp at my side. Then she let go and left me alone, taking the boxes and the bag with her.
I sat down on the bed with my hot chocolate and carefully folded up the picture, inserting it inside the locket, along with the note from Amelia. It was a tight fit, but the locket closed. I fastened the long silver chain around my neck and held the pendant to my chest, right over my heart.