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I knew the call would come eventually, but Hannah’s tears and inability to speak still stunned me into my own silence. I thought of a thousand days with my best friend Brandon, of his gleeful smile when he would win at video and board games, of the way he loved to reach out and swat my horn any time we drove by a hot woman on the street when I first got my driver’s license, of fireworks and way too many goddamn hot dogs on the Fourth of July, his favorite holiday, and him waiting with eager anticipation as I unwrapped his presents to me on my least favorite, Christmas.
And I thought too of the last couple years, of hospital visits and his mumbled speech and the way he still tried to tell me dumb jokes even when his brain slipped further and further away from us every day. I was just there two days ago, and already I was clawing at myself for not going there the day before or that morning, before my shift at the gas station.
I thought about the unfairness of my best friend, my brother in everything but blood, dying at twenty. And I could say nothing except, “I’m on…” the way, I meant to finish, but even those two words were lost to a wall of pain that slammed itself in place.
Two customers waited in line. I stared at them blankly, and the man in front waggled his bag of chips in front of my face. I didn’t think. I just reacted, slapping the bag out of his hand and sending it flying. He shouted more in surprise and maybe a little fear — I was a tall, intimidating motherfucker even if I leaned towards gaunt — and my coworker Michelle gasped, “Nick!” but I didn’t care. I knew I’d be fired for that and I shut down emotionally. I took off my employee vest and walked out of there, never to come back again.
* * *
The Cavalier’s bald tires could barely handle the ice and snow, but it wasn’t them I was worried about. It was the low cat-sick sound the sedan made every time I had to hit the gas. It could no longer do more than forty, which was usually okay because I pretty much went to work, the hospital, and home, and that was it. No gym membership, no bars, no clubs, and definitely no road trips.
I hated to stop the damn car because I had a feeling I was always minutes or hours away from it breaking down entirely, and when that happened, it would mean walking thirteen blocks through bad Evanile streets to get to a bus every day. They didn’t come to my neighborhood. Too much violence, too few people who mattered to the city. I couldn’t do another car for a few years, not until I paid off my lone semester in college and a thousand or so in credit card debt. On top of that, I owed my roommates a hundred bucks in back utilities too. Quitting my job would probably mean Jimmy, the de facto head of the house and a self-righteous prick, would probably throw me out. At the moment, I had a hard time caring.
Hannah and her mom Deana lived on the far end of the city, and would be heading back there to begin the work of saying goodbye to Brandon. I drove as fast as I dared, but it still took me the better part of a frustrating forty-five minutes before I pulled up in front of their house, the car wheezing and shuddering to a stop.
Before I even got out, there was Deana Labine. In better days, I would have sucked in my gut at the sight of her or Hannah. The two of them were among my earliest crushes. Even with the pain of the last couple years, of the constant highs of Brandon’s early victories with his surgeries and the later grimmer and grimmer news, I still held a lot of feelings for them. That was always going to be there, I supposed, even if now it came with a strange survivor’s guilt, as though Brandon’s sickness and death meant I shouldn’t be human.
Because it was human to want to stare. Even in her worst days, Deana Labine was a stunning woman. Before Brandon’s illness she carried some comfortable mom weight, complaining often about her belly bump, I think just to get a compliment out of me or whoever was listening, which it invariably did. Now she looked thin to me, though I was probably too close to her to really tell. Regardless, she had a model’s face, strong-jawed, with high cheekbones and brown eyes that made me always wonder what she was thinking, feeling, wanting.
But that day, I felt nothing but sorrow as I stepped out of the car and slammed the creaking door shut. She took a few steps towards me on legs so shaky I thought she was going to collapse. I hurried to her despite the ice and my shoddy sneakers, and grabbed her up in a hug. She was crying, but hell, I’d been crying since I left work.
“I’m sorry,” I whispered, “I’m so sorry.”
I just kept repeating that dumbly over and over. Deana didn’t try to silence me or say anything. Instead, she tightened her grip on me and hung on for what little life could be found that day. I don’t remember going inside, but there was a man with us, Brandon’s uncle Timothy, and he gently nudged me so he could shut the door behind us. Only then did Deana break away.
“Hannah?” I asked.
“Taking a few minutes to herself,” Timothy said.
“Go up. She’ll want to Sincan Escort see you,” Deana said.
“Are you sure?”
She nodded with enough force that I believed her. Whereas Deana’s soul was as still as a pond on a windless day, Hannah was far more complex a creature, or at least she used to be. She was two years older than Brandon and me, and she loved to give me shit about my obvious crush on her when she wasn’t calling us names or throwing fits about us doing anything at all. A typical teenager, then, but I bore it all because… well, she was fucking crazy hot.
Like her mom, Hannah had a face made for Instagram and maybe some adult-themed sites, a little narrower and less sharply-etched. Just as beautiful, but softer. Hannah was slimmer than her mom but there were still plenty of curves to drool over. One thing I loved about her was her hair. She kept it long and wavy. It looked like if you reached out, took a handful, and bit into it, you’d taste honey. I dreamed about that hair spread out on a bed or tugging on it as I took her from behind.
I headed upstairs to Hannah’s room. It used to be Brandon’s in high school, but once his motor functions started to go, they had to move him downstairs. I should have still thought of the room as his, considering how many nights we spent in there laughing and watching movies or playing games or just bullshitting, but it hadn’t held that magic for me in a long while. It was now firmly Hannah’s space in my head.
I knocked and got no response. “Hannah?” I asked.
I heard a muffled sniff, not from her room, but further down the hallway, from her mom’s room. I headed down that way and called her name again.
“I’m in here,” she said weakly.
“Is it okay to come in?”
I stepped inside, feeling a dash of funny guilt. I guess that was natural. Deana’s room had always been off-limits. I’d only ever been in there a few times, once to sneak a peek at her bras and panties, but getting so flustered about maybe being caught that I fled before I even opened up her closet or her drawers.
It was a beautiful room, one of the highlights of the house. The creamy walls were tinged with just a touch of green. Not quite pastel but aiming in that direction. The bed was a low-slung four-post bed, big enough for an army. There were three good-sized windows, but the shades were drawn and no lights were on.
Hannah was curled up in the bed, a digital picture frame in hand and hooked up to a laptop. But both were dark, and I had a feeling I’d caught Hannah either napping or on the verge of sleep. She smiled weakly at me, and I walked slowly to her.
“Feels like… your mom should be getting angry at me… for being… oh fuck, Hannah, I’m sorry.”
She sobbed and pushed herself upright. I swooped in on her, hugging her tight to my chest. We held each other a long time like that, much like her mother downstairs.
“He loved you so much,” she whispered when we finally pulled apart, at least a few inches. “Thank you for being… being a brother to him.”
“I wish I’d been by more often the last few weeks,” I said, more to the friend I hoped was there with us than her.
“You can’t do that,” Hannah said. “I know you were there as much as you could be.”
I wasn’t, though, and Hannah knew that. In the last months, Brandon was unable to communicate in any coherent way. He would ramble nonsense words, and towards the end, a mishmash of baby-like syllables. That wasn’t the worst, though. The worst was his silence. When all that was left of him was a body, I kind of broke. I wanted to be there in the end for Hannah and Deana, but I couldn’t take it. I knew Brandon would forgive me but I wasn’t about to forgive myself.
“What are you doing?” I asked tonelessly, and sat on the bed next to her.
“Oh. Mom’s going to finalize the f…” Her words caught and I took her hand in mine. It was not a gesture either one of us was accustomed to but she didn’t take her hand back, either. “The funeral. I figured I’d get a jump on the coffee hour. We’re going to need pictures. I could have used the computer downstairs but Mom has the best ones on here, and I wanted to be alone.”
“Do you want me to go?”
“No. What I want more than anything is a nap. I’m so tired. And I know Mom is too but I can’t… I can’t be down there with them all looking at us like… like this. I know I should be there for her, but…”
“I’ll be here. I’ll help her, where I can.”
“Thank you, Nick.”
Again, I did something reflexive, something I think in retrospect might have set a lot of ripples in motion. I brought her hand to my lips, and kissed her skin for a long moment. She let out a long sigh, and leaned her head against my shoulder.
“Beavis and Butthead,” Hannah said, and I tried to smile for her. It was her oldest nickname for Brandon and me, and not just because Brandon had brown hair and I had sandy blond. We found his mom’s old DVD set of the 90s show and we must have watched them a dozen times over one summer. We loved Etlik Escort it.
Eventually she settled back into bed. I pulled one of her mom’s throws over her and watched for a while as she browsed pictures. Eventually I realized the only reason she wasn’t sleeping was because I was in the room, so I got up and left her there, shutting the door behind me again.
* * *
More family and friends arrived while I was upstairs with Hannah, and came in ebbs and flows throughout the day. I knew a lot of the people there from Vineport as I was almost more of a fixture in Deana’s house than my own. She got me aside to ask me about Hannah, and I explained she was taking a nap and doing the best she could, under the circumstances. Deana accepted another hug from me, and I hated myself for noticing how good she smelled that day, her lotion like sherbet.
I hung around, helping where I could. The family ran out of parking room quickly in front of the house so I went to the neighbors and explained the situation. They all knew Brandon was sick, and told me yes, of course they were fine with people parking in front of their houses, given the circumstances. I shoveled their walks and driveways for the trouble and for something to do. One fifty-something neighbor that Brandon used to crush on hard tried to pay me but I shut her down gently.
Food was brought in by the boxful, so much of it that a lot of it needed to be separated out and frozen. I ran to the store with a cousin of Brandon’s to pick up freezer bags, food storage containers, coffee, tea, and pop. It was more than I could afford but I put a few things into my own cart, paper plates, napkins, that sort of thing. It would mean using my credit card which I swore to myself I wouldn’t do until it was paid off but I needed to do something for Deana and Hannah.
Back at the Labine place, Deana, Timothy, and the rest were talking to a funeral home director on speakerphone at the kitchen table. I deposited my items and helped the cousin put away all the drinks in a cooler and in the fridge. Another cousin, this time one of Deana’s, pushed me towards the food. “Eat, honey. You look so skinny these days.”
That’s what happened when your one good meal a day is whatever meat is discount priced at the grocery store, I thought but didn’t say. As far as I knew, neither Deana or Hannah was aware of how bad things had become for me since high school and I never intended to tell them. I didn’t want pity. I just wanted to survive.
I took some casserole and vegetables and an iced tea. By that point Hannah was back among us, taking a lot of hugs. When I crashed out in the living room, she joined me with a bottled water and a bag of potato chips. At that point I realized I’d been shoveling down the food and there was almost nothing left on my plate. I forced myself to slow down and finally finished.
“Is your dad coming, hon?” a family friend asked Hannah, and she tensed.
Gordon Sellars. One of the dumbest motherfuckers to walk this planet. He cheated on one of the most beautiful women in the world, inside and out, and when Deana confronted him about it, he told her things that shocked me as a kid, and that was coming from my own house, where my father and mother kept up a Cold War just a few shades short of thermonuclear. Deana might have a huge heart, but to hear Brandon tell it, she went off on him like she’d never done before or since. At the end of it, she told him to get out and that she wanted a divorce. He sneered at her and told her she didn’t have it in her to be alone. She did, and told the kids to pack up.
I didn’t see Brandon, his mom, or his sister for two weeks. They went to stay with his grandparents in Florida. We talked every day, though, or messaged each other. Instead of being sad or angry, he and Hannah seemed happy. I didn’t realize until then how bad things had been in private for them and their family, but now the dam was broken and Brandon told me a lot of stories about how his dad would get piss drunk and scream at them, or how when Deana told him to be more cautious driving, he would slam the accelerator to the floor and act like a maniac. I guess I knew with me his cheerfulness had always been artificial, but I didn’t connect the dots that he hated his own family like that.
They divorced. Despite Gordon’s best attempts to paint his wife as the devil, she got the house and the kids, and Gordon was slapped with a sizable alimony payment. Deana didn’t want or need it for long. She landed a great promotion from a receptionist to a junior executive at the regional headquarters for a chain of gift stores.
That wasn’t the end of Gordon. Oh no. He was that special kind of asshole who couldn’t just walk out of their lives. Now living in Philly, when he stopped having to pay alimony, he tried to worm his way back into his kids’ lives. Hannah thought he might be able to change and went to live with him for a while, but things went bad again. That Christmas, Deana and Brandon made an emergency run to Philly to pick Çankaya Escort up Hannah when she found their father doing cocaine at a Christmas party he was throwing. Gordon tried to deny the whole thing, and every so often since, tried to reinsert himself into his children’s lives. But to my knowledge, he only came by once to visit Brandon in the hospital in the earliest days, when Brandon was still lucid enough to hear and understand his father’s promise to come every time he ahd a chance. To experience Gordon twisting the knife one last time.
So in short? I hated the fuckin’ asshole for the lot of them.
“He’ll be here,” Hannah said bluntly.
The family friend withdrew, sensing they hit a nerve, and I gave Hannah a one-armed hug. She snickered softly, and shook her head.
“All of them liked Dad,” she said. “They never saw how awful he is. But he deserves to say goodbye too, I guess.”
I didn’t know about that but grunted something vaguely affirmative. She eventually got up to grab her laptop and work some more on the coffee hour planning, this time with my input on songs that Brandon loved and that were appropriate for the venue. It was a lot of Killers, a lot of Green Day, a lot of The Knocks. The last one got to me, because it was the last band that Brandon really got into. While I tried to stem my latest flow of tears, Hannah gave me a while, setting up another playlist, one just for us that we wouldn’t play at the coffee hour. This one was filled with Brandon’s other favorites, his love of eighties and nineties hip-hop and rap, Rob Zombie, and his bizarre taste in foreign death metal. We were laughing about that one when Deana broke free of the other proceedings, watching the two of us with a faint smile on her face before she was pulled into more funeral details.
But whatever gas Hannah had in her tank emptied fast, and the thin veneer of civility she kept up with her extended family began to fade. Before she got too caustic, she decided another nap was in order, and I followed her up a few minutes later to tape a sign on her door that said simply, “Please let her sleep.”
* * *
The Labine extended family began to clear out about then, giving Deana the house back, at least for a little while. There would be more waves of family in friends in the days to come. Brandon was well-loved, though I wondered where all these people had been when he was in the hospital, when Deana needed them the most.
That thought was needlessly cruel. I did know a lot of them showed up at one point or another, and besides, wasn’t I just as guilty of eventually abandoning Deana and Hannah to their grief?
I know why I didn’t leave. I missed my brother. Neither Deana or Hannah tried to push me towards the door and I had a feeling I was wanted there. So I stayed, ignoring the “you’re fired” call from my boss and the “you’re fucking insane and if you don’t pay us by the end of the week you’re out on your ass” call from my roommate Jimmy, who probably heard about me quitting from mutual friends. I was cooked and I knew it, but I didn’t care. Not right then. The two people I cared for most in this world now that Brandon was gone seemed to need me, and I was going to be there for them, even if it meant winding up having to ask my parents to take me in for a few months while I got my shit together.
I thought about all that while the last of the friends and family left. I was back on the couch, a throw pillow behind my head. Deana came out of the kitchen, a mug of tea in hand. She sat beside me and I hugged her. She leaned into me and shook like she was crying, but her eyes were dry. By that point, I guess her tank was empty too.
Again, I was all too aware of the soft, fruity scent of her lotion. I sniffed theatrically a few times and she looked up at me, curious. “What the heck kind of lotion did you use?” I asked.
“Do you like it?”
“I really, really, really do,” I said, and I chuckled. It was maybe the first thing approximating a genuine laugh I had in a few days, and it made her smile too. The smell, the smile, the press of her breast against me, I couldn’t help it. I hardened, and there was no hiding that from her.
Deana didn’t call attention to it, not until I tried to pull a blanket over myself. She stopped me with a hand on mine, then took a deep, shuddering breath as her fingers went to my cock. Deana looked up into my eyes, a searching question on her face.
“I need…” she whispered. “I… I…”
I shouldn’t have done what I did. Or… maybe I should have. I don’t know. It was all kinds of psychologically fucked up, but I needed too. In any case, I kissed her. I halfway expected her to slap me. Hell, maybe I hoped for it, just to feel something other than grief. But Deana froze, not doing anything, her fingers a quarter inch from my hardness.
And then her lips met mine again.
Now and forever, that was pretty much it for me. Deana twisted on the couch, one knee on the cushion, one foot on the floor. She kissed me again, her lips parting, tongue seeking mine. So many of my oldest fantasies flooded through me in that moment. It was like a thousand variations of me roared, “Yes!” all at once and I was lost. I gripped the bottom of her shirt and tugged it up and over her breasts. She wore an old blue bra underneath, nothing fancy, but I’d never in my life wanted a woman as much as I wanted Deana in that moment.
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