Even though it was only 10:45 when Medical Terminology ended, I still decided to go home. With no other classes on Tuesdays, there was no point in staying at HACC.
I made my way out to the West parking lot, scanning the sea of cars for the White Rabbit, as Dougie's old car was affectionately known. It was every teenage boy's dream: a 1984 Volkswagen Rabbit GTi with a five-speed manual transmission.
It was also the car I had learned to drive on.
"Dougie? Are you sure about this?"
"Of course I'm sure! You're gonna be fine, Neely. We've gone over this a hundred times."
"Yeah, but this is Orrs Bridge Road we're talking about. Mom's car rolls back on that hill, and it's an automatic!"
"Neely, if you want to drive stick, you're gonna have to learn how to handle steep hills. What if you move to Pittsburgh?"
"I'm not moving to Pittsburgh, Doug."
"Whatever. You need to learn how to do this. Now start the car, and get out of this neighborhood."
Grudgingly, I do what he says. A few minutes later, we cross a small bridge over the Conodoguinet River. My heart starts to pound. The hill is next.
"What if someone's behind me?" I ask.
"You'll be fine. Stop worrying," Dougie replies.
The car begins to climb the slope. I follow the road as it turns to the left. A T-junction with a traffic light is just ahead. We slow down, coming to a stop in the left-turn lane.
"Okay. Put your e-brake on," Dougie says.
With my right hand, I pull up the emergency brake. I slowly take my foot off of the brake pedal. The car doesn't move.
"Good. Now get ready for when the light turns green."
The wait is agonizing. I can't stop checking my rearview mirror for other cars. My hands are sweaty, and I keep wiping them on my shirt.
Finally, the light turns green. In one swift motion, I let the clutch out to the friction point, press on the gas, and slowly disengage the emergency brake. The tires squeal, and the car lurches a bit as it moves forward, but it doesn't stall or drift. I complete the left turn, pull onto the nearest side street, and park the car.
"I did it!" Overwhelmed with pride and relief, I fling myself over the gearshift, wrapping my arms around my brother's neck.
Several seconds pass. I'm still embracing Dougie.
"Uh, Neely?" he asks, his words strained.
"You can let go now."
The idea of driving my brother's baby hadn't appealed to me at first, but my mother insisted that if I refused to let her sell it, there was no reason to buy another vehicle for me. So, whenever I needed transportation, I found myself back in the White Rabbit.
My trip home was rather unremarkable. Leaving the driveway open for my mother, I parked in front of our brick, ranch-style house and walked through the snow to the weathered front porch. The cold had once again numbed my fingers, and I searched through my purse with shaking hands, looking for my house key. After finding it, I slid it into the keyhole and turned the doorknob.
"Nello?" I called as I entered my house, closing the front door behind me.
There was no tinkling sound from the bell attached to the cat's collar, so I tried again.
Sighing, I dropped my messenger bag and coat onto the couch and proceeded down the hall. The door to Dougie's room was ajar, and I peeked inside. Huddled on top of the pile of hunter green sheets on Dougie's unmade bed was the black and white subject of my search, sleeping peacefully. His tail twitched back and forth, a sure sign that he was dreaming. I pushed the door open further and quietly made my way toward him.
Suddenly, his ears perked up, and his eyes shot open. He looked at me, yawned, and stood up, stretching the sleep from his legs.
"Hey there," I whispered, holding out my hand for him to sniff. Apparently in a good mood, he moved forward, rubbing his whiskered cheeks up against my hand.
"Been sleeping all day?" I asked. Never very vocal, Nello just continued to mark my fingers.
Abruptly, he turned around and lay down on the tangled sheets again. I shook my head softly and smiled. Nello had been, and would always be, Dougie's cat. In fact, he rarely left my brother's room, save for trips to eat or use his litter box and the occasional response to someone's calling his name. Dougie's bed was his favorite spot.
It was mine, too.
"Move over, Nello," I said as I flopped onto the bed stomach down. Burying my face in Dougie's pillow, I inhaled deeply. The familiar scent of Old Spice, fabric softener, and slightly sweaty boy filled my nostrils. Although it had been only hours since I'd last breathed in precious remnants of my brother, I instantly relaxed and closed my eyes, the stress of the day overpowered by pleasant memories.
"You can't be serious, Dougie!" I say, rolling my eyes.
He flashes one of his trademark lopsided grins. "You better believe it, Neels."
"Dougie-Lee!" I whine, crossing my arms and folding my bottom lip like a pouting child's.
"Neely-Marie!" he mimics in his highest girly falsetto.
"No. There is no way. I'm not going. I won't go!"
"C'mon, Neely," he begs, putting on his sad face. Dougie's hazel eyes, wide and watery, stare at me, and his lip quivers.
"No!" I close my eyes to avoid looking at the puppy-dog face before me.
"I said 'No!'"
All is quiet for a moment. I cautiously open one eye. Before I can process what I see, however, an unexpected weight is on top of me, pushing me down onto the bed. I begin to shout, but my protests turn to laughter as Dougie's strong hands find their way to my stomach, tickling me mercilessly.
"Doug…Douglas…Stop!" I manage to screech between giggles.
"Not until you promise to go!"
"Douglas Lee Atkinson…Fine! I'll go. Just get off of me!"
He stands up, another crooked grin pasted across his face.
"You are evil!" I say as I sit up, smoothing down my shirt.
His smile only widens. "Yeah, but you love me for it."
I shoot off the bed and punch him in the arm. "Jerk," I spit at him. But I can't help smiling. He's just too…Dougie-like.
Apparently, I fell asleep, because the next time I opened my eyes, I saw that the clock on Dougie's nightstand read 4:15. My mother would be home any minute. I quickly sat up, causing a disturbed Nello to jump off the bed.
"Sorry, buddy," I told him as he stared at me, his mouth half-open in annoyance. "I've gotta make the bed before Mom comes home." If she saw the messy sheets, she'd know that I had been sleeping in Dougie's bed again, a habit that she was desperately trying to rid me of.
After my brother died, my sleep became erratic, often interrupted by crying fits. Whenever I did manage to fall asleep, I had terrible nightmares about the night Dougie died. As a child, when I had bad dreams, I would go to my brother for comfort. So, when the nightmares became so intense that I would wake up screaming and drenched in sweat, I began going to Dougie again. Or, at least, to what was left of him. Just the smell of his sheets was enough to comfort me as if he was actually there, sharing his bed with me and protecting me from the monsters in my head. Eventually, I stopped sleeping in my room altogether.
My mother, however, didn't like it. At first, she only complained because I insisted that she not wash Dougie's sheets for fear that his scent would disappear. As time went on, though, her annoyance turned to concern. She told me that sleeping in my brother's bed wasn't helping me learn to cope with the situation. Reluctantly, I agreed to try sleeping in my bed again. But there were times when I just couldn't deal with the sense of loneliness and vulnerability that inevitably followed me into my own bed, especially when I felt stressed. Starting new classes at college was one of those times, and I had been sleeping in Dougie's room again for the past few nights.
No sooner had I smoothed the last wrinkle out of the green plaid comforter, I heard the front door close. I hurried out of Dougie's room, leaving the door open a crack for Nello.
"Hey, Mom," I greeted as I entered the living room.
"Hi, Honey. How was your day?"
"Okay." I knew this wasn't an acceptable answer, but I wasn't sure of what else to say.
Mom looked at me quizzically, her eyebrows furrowed with concern. She opened her mouth to speak but then closed it, apparently changing her mind.
"So…um, how was work?" I asked lamely. "Have any interesting calls?"
Her face brightened slightly, and she laughed a bit. "Nope, not today. But one of my calls went to training. Remember that lawyer who started yelling at me in Hebrew? They're using that as an example of keeping calm and continuing with the script."
I chuckled softly. My mother was a collections agent for one of the largest student loan associations in the state. She called delinquent borrowers to arrange for payments. Sometimes, people were less than accommodating, especially when they were told that the state was going to garnish their wages. Mom, however, was an expert at plowing fearlessly ahead.
"Well, that is a good example," I told her. "How anyone can simply keep talking over someone screaming foreign swear words is beyond me."
"I've had lots of practice," she replied. An awkward silence followed. Concern once again washed over my mother's features, and I became nervous.
"Uh, I think I'm going to go do a few things before dinner," I said, turning to leave.
Plastering a nonchalant look on my face, I spun back around to face Mom. "Yeah?"
She sighed, casting her eyes downward briefly before meeting mine again. "Neely, I know you've been sleeping in your brother's room again."
My shoulders slumped, and I stared guiltily at the floor.
"I thought we talked about this. Relying on the past isn't helping you. I know you miss Doug. I miss him, too. He was my son. I loved him in a way that you can never understand. But I've accepted the fact that he's gone, and I'm trying my best to move on. You need to do the same."
Tears filled my eyes, and my lips began to quiver. I stared at my mother for a long time. Finally, two words came out, just barely above a whisper: