never let go
five years ago…
The dirt beneath my feet is still fresh and soft as he stares down at me.
"What are you trying to say?"
He gives me a cold look and my mouth drops. For a moment, he looks sad. For a moment, he looks like he's going to take back what he just said. I step away from the dirt, away from the spot I'd just been kneeling. I have to force myself not to look back. Instead, I stare into his face. My eyes narrow, daring him to say it again.
He runs his hand through his soft brown hair and meets my eyes. "Al, this isn't working."
I know what he is saying. I just can't believe it. Not today. Not now.
"It's Tommy's birthday."
"I know," he says, and somehow his voice sounds empty.
The wind howls around us and through the assortment of different sized and colored gravestones. I glance back even though I told myself not to. I know I don't want to beg him. I know I'm not that kind of person, but I can't think right now. This can't be happening.
"You promised," I say.
He gives me an exasperated look. "And what?" he says slowly. "You expect me to stay with you just because of that?"
"I...you." My voice breaks off. I can't bring myself to tell him I love him, not while he has that look in his eyes.
"It'll be better this way."
"I can't believe you're doing this today. Here!" I yell, suddenly angry. "This place already hurts enough."
He takes a step toward me and I step back. "I'm sorry," he says, dropping his out reached hand. "I didn't want to do this like this."
"Oh," I say coldly. "Did you have a better idea of how you wanted to break my heart?"
He turns away from me so I can't read his expression. Fighting the tears that sting my eyes, I hold my breath. Maybe this is all a bad dream. Maybe I'll wake up and Aidan and Tommy will laugh at my ridiculousness.
"I'm sorry, Al."
When he takes his first step away from me, my heart clenches from pain and fear. I can't lose him, too. "Aidan, please don't walk away from me."
And he doesn't. He runs.
I'm trying to catch him, but he's too fast. He looks over his shoulder and laughs loudly. The setting sun catches his figure, casting shadows behind him. I reach for him but he's too far away. Slowly, he gets further and further away from me, but somehow stays just out of reach.
"Tommy!" I cry just as I'm jolted awake.
Blinking a few times, I focus on the small interior of the taxi and shake off my dream.
"That will be $15.67, Ma'am."
Handing the cab driver a twenty, I mutter a thanks and climb out. The assorted apartment buildings around me look exactly the same as last year and the year before that. I walk up the first few steps quickly and use my key to get into the building before taking the elevator to the 8th floor. It takes me a long minute before I have the courage to knock on the door.
"You're early," she says, pulling the door to small city apartment I grew up in open. Before I get through the door, she pulls me into a tight hug. Things weren't always simple between my parents and me, but we had needed each other back then. And I think I still need them now.
Putting down my small suitcase, I say, "I know. I took an earlier flight."
"You should have called, Alex. Your father would have picked you up at the airport."
"It's fine," I say. "I look a cab."
Shaking her head, she gives me a frustrated look. "You did always like to do things the hard way."
So, maybe things between us still aren't the easiest, but they are smoother. Tom was always the good child. The obedient, smart one. The one that was going to do great things. But then Tom and I were always so much different from our parents.
Thinking about Tom makes me smile and I still have a smile on my face when I see my dad sitting at the kitchen table. "Honey," my mom says. "Look who's here."
My dad just barely glances up before his eyes drop again. Smirking, I watch his eyebrows scrunch up before he looks up again. Standing up quickly, he almost drops his Ipad.
"Why didn't you call me?" he says loudly. "I would have picked you up—"
"—at the airport," I finish for him. "I know, Dad. It's fine. I took a cab."
"You were always the difficult one," he says, pulling me into a hug that almost manages to be as tight as Mom's. My hold on my father tightens at the reference of Tom. Leaning back, my father brushes my long hair out of my face. "How are you doing, Alex?"
I have to take a deep breath before answering him. "I'm fine, Dad."
"That's good, honey."
"I planned on having dinner ready for when you get here," my mom says, "but I'll just start it now. We're having steak tips and mashed potatoes."
Swallowing hard, I nod. Tom's favorite meal. It's the same routine every year, but it still drags up all the emotions I've gotten so good at keeping away. Tonight we'll have his favorite dinner, and tomorrow morning we'll head to the cemetery. We do it every year on the anniversary of his death, and every year, it's just as painful as before.
"Sounds great, Mom," I say. "I'm just going to unpack."
They both smile lightly as I leave the kitchen. I used to fight with my parents all the time about one stupid thing after the next. Curfew times, skirt lengths, grades, work, current boyfriends. We never saw eye to eye on anything. Tom always mended the fights with some simple joke or random fact. The last real fight I've had with my parents was the week after Tom's death on what would have been his 18th birthday. The same day Aidan decided to leave me.
Making my way to my old room, my eyes glide past the old pictures of my childhood. Nearly every single one is of Tom and me. Stopping, I pick up a small framed photo of Tom. My jaw tightens staring down at the picture. He has a soft, goofy smile on his face, and he's wearing a baseball cap that's too big for him. I place it down softly and turn away. Wiping away the one tear that formed, I enter my old room.
It's not the pictures that make me cry. It's actually nice to see his smiling face. But that feeling quickly turns dark when I think about how I'll never hear him laugh at one of his stupid jokes again or how he'll miss the birth of his future niece or nephew. It's these thoughts that haunt me. It's the idea of what his life could have been and what mine means without him.
Suddenly being in this house is too much. Changing into shorts and a t-shirt, I grab my phone and head back to the kitchen. My mother's busy making dinner as my father sets the table.
"How long before dinner, Mom?"
She lets out a startled gasp and my father chuckles at her. "Under an hour, dear."
"I'm going to go for a quick run then."
When both of them just stare at me, I hesitate, confused.
"Are you sure?" my dad says. He glances at his wife before shifting his weight and looking at me.
"It's kind of hot," my mom says.
"It's hotter in the south," I say. "What's wrong? If you don't want me to leave, I won't."
"No, no," my father says quickly. "It's fine. Go."
My mother's facial expression widens and her eyes flash to my father. He holds her stare and slowly she turns back to me.
"Yes, go," she says, strained.
"Go, honey," my dad says. "We got things covered here. You've been on a plane all day. You need the exercise."
"All right," I say hesitantly. "If you're sure?"
"We are," my father says, ushering me to the front door. "Go."
seven years ago…
"God, Alex, you're 18 years old," Chelsea says. "Your parents can't tell you what to do or who to date. I don't understand why they hate Aidan so much anyway."
I hold in my groan. "My dad and his dad had a falling out a few years back. It's just complicated."
"It's stupid," she says, leaning back in her desk. I glance at the clock. Calculus is going to start in five minutes and Aidan still isn't here. If he gets caught skipping again…
"It's always been like this," I say, shrugging.
"He's not even allowed in your parent's apartment, Alex," she says, turning in her seat and smirking at Sean Lesten.
"I know that," I snap. "I've tried talking to them, but they won't listen. And now, they're threatening not to pay for college unless I end it with him."
"Jesus," she breathes. "That's not right."
When Mr. Ryan walks in, I'm glad because it gives me an excuse to end the conversation with Chelsea. I know she means well, but we've been over this again and again. My parents hate Aidan and there is nothing I can do or say that will change that.
My gratitude at Mr. Ryan fades quickly when he looks at me. The expression on his face causes my stomach to squirm.
"Alex," he says. "Please go to the guidance office."
All I can think as I stand up and head to the door is what did Aidan do now. Did he get suspended? Expelled? Why would they need me? Is he hurt or…I quicken my pace.
When I turn the corner, I spot Aidan standing outside of the guidance room. When his eyes meet mine, my heart tightens and I freeze. His lips part and I can't understand the look on his face.
"Al," he says, and the sound of his voice gets me to walk toward him. He wraps his arms around me tightly. Peeking around his shoulder, I see the three guidance counselors, the principal, and the vice principal watching me. My panic reaches a critical level.
"Aidan, what's going on? What happened? Are you okay?"
"I'm fine," he says quickly. He cups my cheek gently and takes a breath. "Al, it's Tom. He started acting weird during gym class and then he fainted. He's on his way to the hospital now."
I don't realize my knees have given out until after Aidan is supporting my weight. He's whispering something in my ear, but I can't focus on him. It's suddenly hard to breathe. Aidan leans me up against a locker and takes my face between his hands. His thumb rubs my cheek gently until I meet his eyes.
"I was in the hallway when the ambulance brought him out, Al. I called your parents and told them I'd bring you to the hospital so they could go right there."
I start shaking my head and I don't even know why.
"Do you want to go?" he asks, and I meet his eyes with something close to desperation in mine. "Let's go, Al. It'll be okay." When Aidan takes my hand tightly in his, I'm finally able to take a breath.
After twenty minutes of jogging, I give up. Sweat drips down my neckline and I wipe my forehead. Taking a seat on the front steps of the apartment building, I curse, trying to wipe sweat out of my eye.
As I try to slow down my breathing, my phone rings. When I see that it's Ryan, I debate answering, but curiosity wins out.
"What do you want?" I ask.
There's a moment of silence and I know he's mad. "I want you."
"Really?" I ask. "Does Kelley know that?"
"Kelley was a mistake, Babe."
I roll my eyes. She was a mistake that happened over and over again apparently. He rumbles on with excuses, and I realize it doesn't matter what he says. I've been looking for reasons to break up for months.
"It's over, Ryan. Stop calling me." I hang up.
The sun is setting and just as it disappears behind the apartments down the street, I feel Tom. I see him running down the street, laughing with wind blowing through his hair. He's happy and alive. Dropping my eyes to study the cracks in the stone sidewalk, I run my hands through my hair and wonder if this time of year will ever become peaceful. I wonder if I can ever let him go.
I stiffen because I know that voice. I used to love that voice. But it can't be him. His parents don't live here anymore. A cool blank expression darkens my face as I stand up and meet his eyes. Maybe I shouldn't still be mad after all these years, but I am.
He ran away. He turned from me and ran when I needed him the most.
"Alex," Aidan calls from the street. I'd just started to turn, but I freeze at his voice. "Alex, wait."
Turning slowly, I stare down at Aidan who's now at the bottom step. He has one hand on the railing and one foot hesitating on the last step.
"What are you doing here, Aidan?"
"I live here."
"What?" I gasp. I try not to take the sight of him in. He's as tall as I remember, but his face is leaner and his body's more…filled out. His eyes are a deeper, cool brown that matches his hair. When he smiles, I take a step back. His smile falters and he runs a hand through his hair.
He sighs lightly. "My parents sold their about apartment to me 8 months ago."
I mentally curse my parents. They should have told me Aidan was living down the hall from us again. I could have at least tried to prepare myself.
"That's nice," I say.
When I try to turn and leave, he grabs my wrist. I flinch as if burned and he lets go. I don't miss the hurt that passes over his eyes for one quick second.
"Can we talk?" he asks, and I automatically shake my head.
"We have nothing to talk about, Aidan."
I walk away from him and the door closes with a click behind me. When he finally enters the building after me, I'm already up the first flight of stairs. He takes the steps two at a time until he's walking beside me. Using my best aversion tactic, I stare down at my phone and hope he'll go away.
"Alex." He waits a moment before trying again. "Alex…Al."
I stop in my tracks and face him. "Don't call me that, Aidan. Don't ever call me that again."
His jaw tightens and I see heat in his eyes. He's actually angry with me. He cannot be serious.
"Don't look at me like that," I say.
"You're being ridiculous."
Scoffing, I walk away, but he grabs me once again.
"Al…ex, please," he says. My skin burns under his, but I refuse to look at him. Pulling my arm free, I enter my parent's apartment without another word.
seven years ago…
"Tom, get away from the ledge," I say. I try to stand up, but Aidan tightens his hold around me. I lean back against him as Tom smirks from the edge of the roof.
"Hey, Ally," Tom says, hopping down. "Why do you never see elephants hiding in trees?"
"Tom," I groan.
"Come on!" he says, picking up an empty can and tossing it at us. It catches in the wind and bounces off the heavy metal door to the roof.
"Because they weigh a shit ton," Aidan says, shrugging.
"Nope," Tom says. His lips twitch to a smile and he tilts his head at me, waiting for an answer.
"Because they're so cute they don't have to hide," I say, smiling. Tom looks confused and Aidan smirks at me, amused. I sigh. "Well, they are."
"Why?" Aidan asks Tom, and Tom smirks as he crosses the roof to stand in front of us.
"Because they're so good at it," Tom says.
Aidan laughs loudly from behind me as I stare at my brother. He smirks and raises his eyebrows at me. I try to hold a steady, clear expression, but my brother narrows his eyes and breaks my hold. I smile and he laughs victorious.
"That was a dumb joke," I say.
"Yeah, but that's the best kind," Tom responds.
I laugh again. "Go find Mom, Tom. She has your pills."
"Ugh," he says, walking toward the door. "I hate those pills. They make me nauseous."
As I watch him go, Aidan's arms tighten around me. I turn to look into his face, and he smiles down at me. "He'll be okay, Al. He's a tough kid."
"I know," I say, "but I can't help thinking about the worst."
"He's young, and previously healthy," Aidan says. "The docs are confident he'll respond to treatment."
"They have to say that, Aidan," I say. Wrapping my hands around his, I lean back into his warm chest.
"Well, I think it's true," he says, and I stare down at his hands. I hope he's right. I can't imagine what I'd do if I ever lost my brother. I wouldn't survive without him.
"He'll be okay," I say, trying to convince myself.
"He will," Aidan says strongly.
"And if he's not?" I ask quietly.
"I'll be here no matter what, Al."
"Promise?" I say, half joking.
Aidan shifts in the chair to look at me. "I promise, Al."
I smile softly and run my hands up his arms. When we hear my dad calling me from two stories down, Aidan shifts away from me. I look back to smirk at him.
"We better go," he says.
"Scared of my dad?" I ask, smiling.
"I'm not scared of anything… obviously," Aidan says, wrapping an arm around my waist and pulling me up. "But I don't want to give him more reasons to hate me."
"He doesn't hate you."
"Both your parents hate me."
I scrunch my nose at him. "Well, yeah, but they're dumb anyway."
"Are you sure you're okay?" my mom asks.
Taking a bite of my mashed potatoes, I try to smile at my parents. I don't know how I'm supposed to respond to seeing Aidan. I don't think I've ever hated someone as much as I hated Aidan that first year after Tom died.
"Honey," my dad says, placing his hand over mine. "What did that fork ever do to you?"
Releasing my tight grip on the fork, I place it down, take a breath, and meet my parents' puzzled expressions. My mother catches on first. She leans back in her seat. When my dad sees the look on her face, he removes his hand from mine.
He meets my eyes. "We should have told you."
"Yes, you should have."
"We were going to," my mom says. When she tries to take my hand, I pull back.
My dad shifts and takes a breath. "We were afraid you wouldn't come home if you knew he was there."
"I guess," I say, standing up, "we'll never know."
"Alexandra," my mom says. "Don't be like that."
"Are you kidding me?" I say, shaking my head. "You guys knew! How could you let me run into him without a warning? I get why you didn't want to tell me before. But why didn't you tell me when I got here? Why were you so scared to tell me?"
"It's…complicated." My mom gives my dad a frantic look and he takes a deep breath.
"What's complicated about it?" I yell.
"Calm down, honey."
"Don't tell me to calm down! God! He's the last person in the world I'd want to run into especially right now." I slam my hand down on the table and my mom gasps, startled. My dad stands up quickly.
"This is part of the problem," my dad snaps. "Whenever you were around that boy, you were difficult. You argued with us about every pointless thing. He was the reason you fought with us so much. We were afraid…"
"What, Dad?" I shout. "That we'd pick things up were we left off? That I'd forgive just like that? What?"
"Yes, exactly," he says.
"Nathan," my mom scolds.
Tears well in my eyes, and I have to look away from them. They don't understand what Aidan did to me when he left. They couldn't. Aidan broke his promise. He broke my heart. That's not something easily forgiven if at all.
"I can never forgive him," I say softly.
"He makes you crazy," my dad says, and I glare at him. "You did whatever that boy wanted you to do. He's not good for you."
"Wow," I say, almost on the verge of laughing. "You never liked him, Dad, even when we were together. And now you still feel the need to put him down."
My mom's eyes flicker between us. "It's not like that—"
"Don't worry," I say, walking away. "Things between us ended a long time ago."
It's not easy thinking about Aidan because most of my memories of him include my brother. That time we went to the Beach and Tom got a hole-in-one in mini golf. Or when we went to the amusement park and they made me go on a roller coaster. After I threw up, they stopped forcing me on those stupid rides. Or when Aidan and I pooled our resources to buy three tickets to the Bruins game for Tom's 17th birthday. We never actually made it to the game though.
Clutching my chest, tears stream down my cheeks. I wish it didn't hurt to think of them. Either of them. Instead of crying alone in my room, I should be with my brother trying to get him to tell me what he wants for what would have been his…22nd birthday.
There's a soft knock on my door. When I ignore it, they leave. I lay back on my bed and stare up at the white ceiling. It hurts, but it always hurts. How is Aidan making it so much worse? I must fall asleep because I wake to my mom calling my name through my door.
"We're leaving in an hour," she says.
After showering, I pull my hair into a low side ponytail and dress in blue jeans with a black t-shirt. When I get to the kitchen, I can see my mom has already been crying. It's hard losing a brother, unbearable. I can't imagine what it's like losing a son. Wrapping my arms around her, she cries into my shoulder. My heart aches and I hold on tightly. I rub my hand in small circles on her back. She hiccups and pulls back. Touching her face, I wipe some of her tears away.
"Are you ready?" she asks. I nod.
My father enters the kitchen and his eyes are clear. Too clear. I can tell how hard he's trying to stay strong for his wife. I hug him and he holds onto me tightly, as if he's afraid he'll lose me, too. It's weird and sad, but the death of my brother, really did bring my parents and me together. Five days after my brother's death, I was ready to run away with Aidan. To leave and never look back. As my dad touches my mom's cheek gently, I'm glad I didn't.
"I'll meet you at the car," I say, and they nod. Once I'm alone, I open one of the family photo albums and find the picture I'm looking for. I'm thirteen and Tom is ten. We're both wearing matching baseball uniforms. My dad had us playing on some co-ed team run by the fire fighters in the city. I have my arm hooked around Tom's neck and he's pushing against me, laughing. My breath catches and I shove the picture into my back pocket.
Locking the apartment door behind me, I turn to see Aidan standing in the doorway of his apartment. I narrow my eyes which causes my tears to spill over. His expression changes from neutral to concerned, but I don't believe it. He has no right or reason to be concerned now. I hurry down the stairs and out the building. My parents are waiting in the street. I hop in their car and slam the door shut without looking back.
six years ago…
"You're going to get caught," Chelsea says stiffly. She doesn't try very hard to hide her disapproval. "Principal Masters said you would get a suspension if you were caught skipping again."
I hop the yellow barrier that blocks the dirt road, leading around the back of the high school. Glancing over my shoulder, I smile lightly. "Then I won't get caught, Chels."
She crosses her hands over her light pink shirt and laughs. "That's what you said last time."
Chelsea jumps when the lunch bell rings. Taking a step back, she gives me a pleading look. When I make no movement toward her, she sighs, mutters under her breath, and heads back to the cafeteria. The air is cool against my skin and I smile when I shiver, pulling my light jacket tighter around me. Finding my favorite spot by my favorite tree, I sit down against it. Being here is a lot better than Math class on any day. Being here is a lot better than a lot of places.
At the sound of crunching gravel, I look up.
"Thought I would find you here."
"Go back to class, Aidan."
He hesitates a few feet in front of me. Hands stuffed into his dark jeans with a crooked smirk on his face. Finally, he shrugs and sits down next to me.
"If Masters finds you here-"
"It won't be as bad as her finding you here."
"I'll get away with it," I say, rolling my eyes. "I always do."
"Why are you acting like this, Al?"
"Aidan, just go away."
Surprising me, Aidan takes my hand from my lap. I try to tug it back, but he doesn't let go. My jaw clenches and the same feeling I have been fighting to push down bubbles back up. When tears start to form in my eyes, I get angry. Shoving him away from me, I stand up and glare down at him.
"Just leave me alone," I snap. He grabs my arm before I get two steps from him. I pull my arm back and face him. "What? What do you want from me?"
"I don't want anything," he yells before taking a breath. "You can talk to me, Al."
Shoving past him, I groan loudly. "That's just it! I don't want to talk about it."
"It might help," he says quietly from behind me. I spin quickly and tears leak out. My heart beats rapidly and I no longer know how to get it to calm down.
"How? How would it help?" I yell. "He's going to die, Aidan. And there's nothing I can do about it."
Sinking to my knees, I wrap my arms around myself. Aidan kneels down in front of me and takes my hands in his. "Al," he says softly and I feel myself drawn to his face. He smiles but it's still sad. "Tom needs you, Al. It's not fair and it sucks, but he needs you. He won't say it because he loves you, but he needs you."
"What can I do, Aidan?" My voice is low and on the verge of breaking. I can't do this. I can't just sit by and watch my brother die.
"You can be there," he says. "You can tell him you love him and that it'll be okay. And you don't have to believe it yourself. You don't have to convince yourself that it'll be okay. You just have to do it for him." He pauses and wraps his arms around me as I wipe some of my tears away. "And I'll be here to tell you."
"Tell me what?" I cry.
He leans back and touches my cheek, wiping away a tear. "That it'll be okay."
"Why?" I ask, shaking my head. "Why would you do that? Why are you here?"
"Because," he says, brushing my hair back. "I love you."
I lose my breath for only a second. I wipe away more tears and smudge my mascara. "I love you, too, Aidan."
"I know," he says, smirking and I laugh. "You're not alone, Al. You have Chelsea, and me, and your parents."
I scoff. "My parents? We don't even talk. My house is just sucking the life out of us."
Aidan takes a breath and just before he says something we hear a noise behind us.
"Aidan," Principal Masters says as she steps into view. "And Alexandra. What am I going to do with you two?"
We stand up, and I notice how Masters' focus lingers on my puffy eyes. Aidan steps forward. "It's my fault, Mrs. Masters. Alex wasn't feeling good so I brought her out here."
"She should have gone to the nurse if that was the case," she says before sighing. "I'm still going to have to call both your parents and tell them what happened. Let's go."
Principal Masters starts walking back, and Aidan and I trail behind her. I take his hand and hold on tightly. The tightness in my chest lightens a little. It won't be okay, but maybe with Aidan I'll be able to be strong for my brother.
I never liked cemeteries, but a couple years after Tom's death, I started to find them, strangely, calming. Thinking about Tom's gravestone from hundreds of miles away isn't the same as being face to face with it. It hurts more, yes, but I also feel closer to him, like I can almost hear his voice again. Almost.
"You know Tom used to tell us that we needed to let you go. He would be laying on that hospital bed and try to parent us on how to parent you," my mom says as we walk slowly through the cemetery while my dad is at Tom's grave. It's the same routine. We pay our respects together and then each of us has a moment with him. We all found it easier to say what we wanted when we were alone.
"What?" I say, laughing lightly.
"He said we fought so much because we tried to control you," she says. "He said you needed your independence. Tom was so easy. You—"
"I'm the difficult one."
She nudges me. "You were the difficult one. You changed after Tom."
As she stares at me, I remain silent.
"If you need to talk to Aidan," she says, and my head snaps up. "I'm okay with that."
"What?" I say, shocked. "I don't want to talk to Aidan."
"It might be good for you to clear the air."
"How could we ever clear the air?" I say, voice low.
"It might do you good," she says. "You get very...unstable when he's involved."
"I don't know," she says, smirking. "Intense?"
"Just stop while you're behind," I say, shaking my head and forcing a smile. We stop when my dad walks over to us. Her gives me a hug and kisses my mom on the cheek. I smile at them as I walk over to Tom's gravestone.
The stone is smooth. The carved letters and numbers are the only ridges in the grey stone. As always, I trace my hand over his name. Tears come more quickly than last year and I drop my hand.
"I miss…" The words catch in my throat. My teeth chatter. "I miss you, Tommy."
Taking the picture of the two of us from my back pocket, I lay it against the tombstone and place a rock on its corner. "I wish you were here," I say softly. Wiping my tears away, I stand up and glance over my shoulder. My parents are gone. They're probably driving back to the apartment. They learned over the years that I like to spend more time here alone than they do. They are able to come here whenever they feel like it. This is my only time.
The breeze blows lightly against me as I walk away from the stone to sit against a large tree a little ways away. It's easy here, in this place, to think about Tommy and feel the loss of him. It's easy to cry here and have no one stare at you. I don't have to pretend that the loss of my brother has gotten easier over the years. Here, I can feel exactly how I feel.
I'm not sure how much time passes, but when I open my eyes, there's a figure standing in front of my brother's grave. Standing up quickly, I take a few steps forward. My heart nearly stops.
Aidan has one red rose in his hand and he bends over to place it next to the picture of my brother and me. I take a few more steps, trying to be as quiet as possible. I almost gasp when Aidan starts talking, but I quickly realize he isn't talking to me.
"Hey, Tom," he says. "I know it's been a while. You probably know why I stayed away."
Aidan sticks his hands in his jean pockets and takes a deep breath. He smiles lightly. "I miss you, buddy," he says, and I cover my mouth with my hand. "I saw your sister yesterday. She looks good and I heard she's doing well down south. You'd be proud of her."
I try to wipe away my tears, but they come faster than I can manage. Taking another step, I try to hold it together.
"I hope she's happy," he says quietly. The wind shifts and Aidan's nose scrunches up, like he smells something familiar. When he turns, I take a step back and a sheepish look crosses my face.
"Al?" he says, shocked. "I mean…Hi, Alex. I didn't know you were still here. I'll go."
"It's okay," I say before I can stop myself. He turns back to look at me. "I mean, you have the right to visit him. He was your friend."
I step closer to stand next to him. "You look older."
He laughs. "So do you."
"It never goes away, does it?" I ask. By his expression, I know he knows what I'm talking about.
"I don't think so," he says. "It'll always hurt to think about him, Al, but that's because you'll always love him."
A ghost of a smile touches my lips and I pull my gaze from my little brother's picture to look at Aidan's face. "Did you ever make it to San Francisco?"
"Yes," he says, looking away from me. "I used our tickets."
"Aidan," I say, fighting my instincts that tell me to run away from him and never look back. I want to ask him why. I need to know, but I can't. I just…can't.
When he looks at me, I realize in all the years after, I never once thought it was because he didn't love me. I knew he loved me. Maybe it would have been easier to believe he didn't because at least then I would have had an answer.
"Have dinner with me tonight, Al?"
I hesitate for only a moment. "No, and stop calling me Al."
six years ago…
"Tommy," I say, leaning back in my chair. "You should really get some rest."
His gaze bounces around the hospital room before landing on me. "All I do here is rest."
"I should go so you can sleep."
"No, Ally," he says, grabbing my hand. "Please stay for a little longer."
"Okay," I say, swallowing. I hate it when I see it. He's usually so good at hiding it, but sometimes for one quick second, I see how scared he is. He pretends for us. For me. I feel my tears coming and look away, forcing them back down. It isn't going to help him to see me cry.
"Do you want to hear a joke?" he asks, smiling again. The fear I'd seen replaced by warmth. His brown eyes shine even with the oxygen attached to his face.
Shifting, I hold both of his hands in mine. "Sure, Tommy."
"Will you remember me in 1 second?" he asks.
"What kind of joke is this?" I ask, trying to keep my voice neutral.
"Come on, Alex," he says. "Please. Trust me."
He tilts his head in only a way that he can, and I shake mine, laughing.
"Will you remember me in 1 second?" he asks.
"Will you remember me in 1 minute?"
"Will you remember me in 1 day?"
"Tom—" He gives me a look and I sigh. "Yes, Tom, I will."
"Will you remember me in 1 month?"
"Will you remember me in 1 year?"
I swallow, chest tightening. "Of course."
"Will you remember me in 5 years?"
"Yes, Tommy." I bite down, hard, on my cheek to stop the tears that I know are coming. Where is he going with this? Does he know something I don't? "Tommy—"
"Will you remember me in 1 decade?"
I stare him hard in the eyes. "Yes."
I give him a strange look. He laughs. "Who's there?"
His smile grows. "You said you would remember!"
It's been two days since the anniversary of my brother's death. It's been two days since I've seen Aidan, and it's been two days since I've had a full conversation with my parents. They seem to sense that something is off.
Taking a sip of my vodka tonic, I spin in my bar stool to search for Chelsea. My childhood best friend. She's the only person I stayed in contact with when I moved. We always get together when I come to Boston. She's dancing with a tall muscular guy. Her long dark brown, almost black hair sways in long wavy curls. When the guy leans in too close, she smirks, waves her finger at him, and skips over to me, laughing. Leaning against the bar counter, she takes a sip of her margarita.
My stomach is warm and my teeth feel funny, and I know that I'm already tipsy. Chelsea grabs my hand. "It is time for you to dance with me!" she exclaims.
As she pulls me from my seat, I grab my drink and follow her, laughing loudly. The club area seems to darken and the pulsing lights vibrate faster through the air. I try to blink but can't be sure if it was me or the lights, so I laugh. Chelsea puts her hands over her head and twirls to the music. I put up one hand and hold my drink secure in my other, taking a sip every now and then.
When my drink is gone, Chelsea gets me another…and another. The DJ starts playing a remix of 'Feels Too Close' and Chelsea and I start singing…well, screaming the lyrics. I'm so lost in the words that suddenly Chelsea is gone. Spinning, I spill my drink on a couple next to me. They don't seem to notice.
"Chelsea?" I call. Then I spot her. She's standing by the bar talking to a tall beautiful man. When he takes a step away from her, she grabs his wrist. At first, he looks angry. When he turns and sees me, his face relaxes.
"Alex," Aidan mouths. I turn quickly and make my way through the crowd. Stumbling, I don't get very far. I'm trying to wiggle between a couple when I'm suddenly face to face with Aidan.
"Fuck," I breathe. His eyes widen in slight amusement.
When he places his hand on my waist, my eyes narrow. "I'm not dancing with you, Aidan."
"Why not?" he asks.
"Bec-cause," I say, "I hate you."
All the features in his face tighten together. I'm ashamed of my words for a quick moment before I have to look away. Even after everything, I hate making him look like that. I hate causing him pain and it's so unfair that he could so easily hurt me. I try to take a step away, but he catches my wrist.
"Please, Al," he says. "One dance."
He moves toward me when I don't answer quick enough. His hands go to my waist, and I freeze. I shake my head and he stops moving. Glancing up, I meet his eyes. Whatever he sees in my face causes him to take a step closer to me. My heartbeat hammers against my ribs. Aidan pulls me against him and after a moment of resisting, I gave in. I place my hands on his upper arms and he leans his head against mine.
For one quick moment, it feels natural, safe…good, but then I see a flash of Tommy's grave. I see the cold look in Aidan's eyes as I comprehend that he doesn't want me anymore. I don't know what gives me the courage to ask what I have always needed to know the answer to. It probably has more to do with the alcohol in my system then my own willpower.
"Why?" I ask. "Why did you leave me like that, Aidan?"
His body tenses. His fingers at my waist, suddenly feel sharp. He shifts to look into my eyes again. His bounce back and forth across my face.
"I had to," he says.
"What do you want me to say, Al?" he growls. "That I had to get away? That I hated being with you? That I didn't love you?"
I'm surprised when I don't react to his words. I've heard all and worse in my head over the years. I wait because isn't this the moment where he's supposed to say that he never felt like that? That he has always loved me, that he did what he did because of some other reason, and now, he realizes he can't live without me? That he loves me? I wait but he just keeps staring into my eyes. He seems to be waiting for something, anything. I fight the urge to slap him when it comes.
Dropping my hands from him, I look away. He doesn't remove his hands though. When I am finally able to look at him, I find it's hard to focus on him. His swaying even though I'm pretty sure he's standing still. I touch my forehead and I think Aidan says my name or maybe Chelsea? I can't be sure.
When the floor is suddenly racing toward my face, I feel myself lifted up before I hit it. I curl my hands around my stomach. As Aidan carries me through the club, I keep my eyes closed because I can't be sure if I almost fainted because of the alcohol or because I finally let myself believe the truth about why Aidan left.
I think I fall asleep and wake up a few times on the way back to my parents' apartment. Aidan keeps his arms around me the whole time, and I feel him brush my hair out of my face, his fingers lingering on my forehead.
"I'm here, Al," he says softly, and I'm surprised at how soothing I find his voice still. I must have fallen asleep again because when I wake up I'm on the flower print couch in my parents' apartment and my father is yelling.
"Stay away from her, Aidan!" he screams.
"I just wanted to make sure she got home safely, sir."
"Just stay away," my dad says quieter but still stern.
"I have," Aidan says through gritted teeth.
"We know," my mom says. "And we appreciate it."
When the door closes with a soft thud, I pretend to be sleeping again. One of my parents places a blanket over me. Five minutes after everything is dark and quiet, I sit up. As I stare at the front door, the air suddenly feels colder. The darkness in the living room feels more sinister because I know the people in this apartment have been keeping something from me.
five years ago…
Aidan's hand in mine is the only thing that stops me from screaming. Glancing around the small flower shop, I ignore the tears streaming down my cheeks. Aidan hands me a tissue and I manage a slight smile. My parents and a few other relatives, my aunt Lucy and my uncle Ron, a couple cousins and family friends are here, too. People who care, I guess. People I wish would leave me alone.
"Which ones do you like better?" my aunt asks, showing me an arrangement of carnations. Blues and reds and some yellow. Staring at the flowers, my breathing gets harder. Aidan's hand tightens on mine and I glance at him. He smiles a breath taking smile and it hurts to see how clear his eyes are. There are dark lines under them from staying up with me every night.
"I don't care," I finally manage to say. My aunt stares blankly at me until a small understanding smile crosses her face.
"Of course you do, honey," she says. "I know it's hard, but this is a nice thing. He would have liked this."
I try not to scoff, but fail. I know she's trying to be nice. I know she's only trying to help. She lost him, too. I'm not the only one suffering. I'm not stupid. But I can't help but hate that everyone is here picking out flowers for his funeral. I hate that we have to be here.
"Tommy didn't like flowers," I say.
She nods, pats me on the shoulder, and walks over to my mother. She whispers something and my mother throws me a look. I glare at her. Aidan squeezes my hand again, and I look up at him.
"I'm sorry," I say. The corner of his mouth curls up into a small crooked smile.
"You don't have anything to be sorry for," he says softly. "You can feel any way you want."
Tears well in my eyes again, and I turn away from the crowd of my family so they can't see me. I hate letting my parents see me cry, but I can't seem to keep it together. I should be stronger for them, but it just…Aidan's fingers on my cheek make me focus on him. His deep brown eyes hold mine and I remember to breathe.
"Thanks for being here," I whisper. He leans closer and places a soft, tender kiss on my lips.
"I'll always be here, Al."
I'm standing in front of his door in my pajama shorts and a tank top with an old pair of my mom's slippers on. For twenty minutes, I debated on whether or not I should do this.
I slam my fist down on his door once. The vibration travels through my fingers and makes the chattering in my teeth worse.
When the door opens, I see Aidan in nothing but his striped boxers and rubbing his eyes. He opens his mouth to say something and then he sees me. I'm not sure exactly who he was expecting to see but it definitely wasn't me.
Instead of answering him, I step by him and into his apartment. It's different than from when his parents and he lived here. It was always too small for the three of them. There's a blanket on the couch and the TV's on some random cop show. The flickering light from the TV casts a dim glow over the room. Aidan shuts the door as I turn to face him.
"What do you want?" he asks. His voice is empty and cool. I ignore it.
"I want the truth."
"About what, Al?"
"You can't call me Al while you are lying to me," I snap. He glances at me unsure of himself. As he runs a hand through his hair, my eyes skim his body, lingering on his chest and arms. He definitely looks older.
"I'm not lying," he says.
"What did you mean when…" I hesitate, suddenly unsure of myself. Maybe I read too much into that conversation between him and my father. Maybe I thought there was something there and it was just empty. I cover my mouth with my hand and turn away from him. He sighs, like he's annoyed. When I reach for his front door, he stops me with a hand on it.
"Al," he says quietly. I glance back and the light from the TV illuminates his face.
"It doesn't have to change anything," I whisper. "I just want the truth, Aidan."
He's quiet for a long time as we stare at each other. After a while, I get the feeling that he's not going to tell me. Something's holding him back.
"I need it, Aidan. I'm stuck," I say, crossing my arms over my chest, "back on that day. Nothing makes sense. Not Tom leaving me or you running away. I just need to know. Please, Aidan."
"I ran from you," he says, staring hard at the floor, "for you."
I step away from the door and closer to him. "What do you mean?"
"God, Al," he says, turning away from me. "We were young. You had just lost your brother, and your parents hated me. They still hate me and my family. It was made clear to me that the best thing for you would be for me to leave."
"A lot of people stay together even though their families don't approve," I say, struggling for words. My fingers shake and I squeeze them against me.
"Really?" he says, facing me again. "Like who?"
"Um," I say. When he gives me a smug expression, I narrow my eyes. "Romeo and Juliet."
He laughs coldly and walks further away. "And look at how it turned out for them."
"That isn't the point," I say loudly.
"It's exactly the point, Al," he snaps. "You needed your parents and they needed you. I would have just gotten in the way. I would have ruined everything for you."
"Stop saying that, Aidan!"
He spins and his eyes are on fire. His jaw is tense and he puts his fist to his mouth like he's trying to stop himself from saying something.
"Just let it go," he says finally.
"I'll never let it go, Aidan," I say. "I needed you." His eyes flash to mine and his expression clears. Shaking his head, he steps toward me.
"You needed your family, Al."
I pause, shaking my head, but I can't say anything because I know he's right. My parents aren't perfect and I'm not the perfect daughter, but we needed each other back then. We still need each other now. I couldn't go through this week without them, and I wouldn't want them to do it without me either.
"You got everything you needed when I left," he says quietly. "You didn't need me."
"Don't you dare tell me what I need, Aidan!" I yell, and I hate that my anger threatens to spill over in the form of tears. He's seen enough of my tears for a lifetime. I turn and grab the doorknob, but I freeze. Turning back slowly, I lock my eyes on his.
"What did my mom mean?" I ask, and Aidan looks confused. "She said they appreciated you staying away…like they knew."
Aidan's lips part slightly. I hesitate a moment longer, giving him one last opportunity to tell me the truth. When he closes his mouth, it hurts. I rush from his apartment as he screams my name. I hurtle down the steps of the apartment building two at a time. Shoving agaisnt the large glass door, I hurl myself into the cold night air. I stumble down the few concrete steps. As I step into the street, I hear Aidan scream my name again. I turn in time to see light from the lampost illuminate a small red car just as it slams into my side.
five years ago…
"Don't you get it?" I yell. "I don't want to be around here anymore. I can't."
"This is his idea," my mom says coldly. "Isn't it?"
She wipes her face which is still raw and puffy. Her eyes seem to be constantly wet. I look away. I can't handle seeing her cry anymore. I just can't. My father steps up next to her. His black suit is a little tight in the front, but overall, it looks pretty good on him. My mom fidgets with her black dress before sitting down on the flower sofa in our apartment.
"You really don't think I can have an idea all by myself?" I snap. "This has nothing to do with Aidan. I want to go. Me!"
"Stop this, Alexandra," my dad yells. "You're not going anywhere."
"I'm twenty years old, Dad," I say through clenched teeth. "You can't force me to stay. You can't control me."
"Control you?" my mom says through a breath. She shakes her head and stands up, dropping the pile of tissues on her lap to the floor. "When have we controlled you? If it was up to us, you wouldn't still be seeing that boy."
"Why don't you like him?" I scream, throwing my hands up in the air. "He's never been anything but good to me."
"You got in trouble at school because of him. You skipped class and failed tests! Then there was that incident with the concert," my dad bellows. His cheeks turn red and I look away from them.
"Wow," I say. "No matter how many times I tell you that those were my ideas, you still find a way to blame him." I pause to glare at both of them. "Aidan isn't his father so leave both of us out of your stupid feud!"
"I'm done," my dad says, and my mom sighs. "You aren't to see him again."
"I'm leaving!" I yell for the thousandth time. "Aidan and I are going to San Francisco, and we're not coming back."
"You can't just run from this," my mom says, fresh tears streaming down her cheeks. "You can't run from what happened to Tommy."
My breath catches, and my eyes turn to daggers. They know not to say his name around me. "I'm not running from that," I hiss. "I'm running from you."
A strange light flickers under my lids. I feel something rubbing circles into the back of my hand. When I shift in the bed, I groan and my eyes snap open. The light in the hospital room is dim and the shades are drawn so I can't tell what time of day it is. My mom is leaning in a chair next to me with my hand in hers. Her thumb continues to rub circles on my skin while her eyes are closed.
"Mom," I say, and she flinches before standing up quickly and giving me a hug.
I hear a sob and she pulls back with tears in her eyes. "Are you all right? How do you feel? What hurts, Alexandra?"
"I'm okay, Mom. Calm down," I say, smiling. When I try to reach toward her, I realize my left arm is in a cast. I frown at it and my mom laughs.
"Oh honey, it could have been so much worse," she says. I touch my head and cringe when I feel the stitches on my forehead.
"I'm okay, Mom." She nods quickly and squeezes my hand. Her light brown hair is pulled into a high messy bun and she's still wearing her ratty pajama pants and an old t-shirt. "What happened exactly?" I ask.
Taking a deep breath, she touches my cheek. Her eyes are red and puffy with dark lines under them. The worry in her face makes me feel so much more guilty because I caused it. She's upset and scared because of me.
"You got hit by a drunk driver," she says slowly. "Though by what Aidan told us you just ran out into the street. The driver is fine."
"Aidan? Is he okay? Where is he?"
"He's fine. He's in the cafeteria with your father."
I raise my eyebrows and she laughs. "The doctors said you were bleeding pretty badly from your head. They said things could have been worse if Aidan hadn't brought you striaght to the hospital. He called us after the doctors took you away. Your father is pretty grateful."
"I'm sorry, Mom," I say. "I didn't mean to make you worry." I lean back agaisnt the hospital pillow and try to think. When I glance at my mom, she smiles and pats my hand. "You know I love you and dad, right?"
"Of course, honey. We love you, too."
I bite my lip and meet her pale green eyes. "I loved Aidan, too, Mom."
She doesn't look as shocked as I expected her to. She smiles a simple smile and leans back in her chair. "I told your father this was going to happen. He said it would be fine. I knew seeing him would bring everything back to the surface."
I touch her hand and she moves her eyes to my face. A careful expression lingers there. "I loved him, but it doesn't change anything, Mom. I just need to know what you know."
Looking away, she sighs. "Aidan wasn't the best kid. He got into trouble at school. He had that incident with the police, and then there was that situation between his father and yours." She pauses and glances at me. "We were dealing with a lot with Tommy. Constantly worrying about him and what we were going to do next. When you got in trouble at school and started failing your classes, it was just easier to blame Aidan. When you decided to put off college, we blamed him, too."
"Mom, I know all this." When I take her hand in mine, she looks at me with something close to sympathy on her face. "It wasn't just your father's idea. I wanted to do it, too."
I swallow. "Wanted to do what, Mom?"
Near the end things got worse. My brother kept his humor, but it was hard to laugh at his jokes when his cheeks were sullen and his eyes were grey. He smiled, but it wasn't the same. Aidan's hand in mine was the only thing that allowed me to laugh at Tommy's jokes. Aidan was the only reason I was able to still see the light left in Tommy's eyes. I was able to put everything out there for Tommy because I knew Aidan would be there to pick up the pieces. Only when the time came, he wasn't.
Everything I believed in came crashing down around when I finally came face to face with the realization that I would never see Tommy's smile again. My dad was holding it together for my mom, and I was holding it together the best I could because I had to. I had no other choice.
Aidan carried me through the arrangements and the funeral, but five days after Tommy's death on what would have been his 18th birthday, Aidan left me. He ran from the pain and sorrow in our lives. He ran from me. Watching him go, my grief turned to anger. I hated him and I turned to the only people I had left. My parents.
The wind is soft and cool in the cemetery. Staring down at Tommy`s gravestone, I try to picture what Tommy would look like at 22 years old. I try but I can only picture his goofy sixteen year old smile. I glance to my right and my dad has tears in his eyes. I wrap my arm through his and he smiles, but keeps his eyes on the dirt in front of us.
"He was a happy kid," my dad says.
I smile. "Very happy."
My dad looks at me. "Were you, Alex?"
"For the most part, Dad."
My dad shifts and fidgets with his fingers. He touches his nose in the way he does when he's nervous, and it reminds me of how Tommy did the same thing. "You were happy with Aidan, weren't you?"
It's my turn to fidget nervously. I watch his profile as he takes a deep breath. "For a time," I say.
"Did you love him?" he asks, and my lips part in surprise. On more than one occasion and in more than one fight, my dad told me I was too young to understand what love was. He told me I didn't love Aidan. That I couldn't at my age.
"Yes, Dad. I did."
He turns to look at me. I touch his blue colored tie before fixing it, and he smiles down at me. There's a softness in his look that makes my eyes water. "I thought it would be better, you know. I thought you would be happier if you got away from him. I didn't want to lose another child, Alex. I still don't."
"You won't, Dad," I promise, taking his hand and squeezing it. He glances at my cast and the bandages covering my wounds. I touch my forehead and his eyes linger on my stitches.
"I asked him to leave, Alex," my dad says. "I told him I'd disown you. That I wouldn't support you if he was in the picture. That I wouldn't pay for school or help you when you needed it. I told him your mother and I needed you. I beg him not to take you away from us."
"Dad, it's okay," I say, forcing a smile. "I get it. I understand."
"I couldn't lose you, too, Ally. I just couldn't."
Nodding, I tighten my hold on his hand. For a moment, I'm angry. I knew he sent Aidan away, but to hear him say it, to confirm it...but then I look at Tommy's grave. I do get it. It wasn't fair what my parents did to me, but then life isn't fair. It's not fair that my parents' son was taken from them. It's not fair that Aidan was forced to run from me. It's not fair that I have to learn how to live my life without my brother.
And it's not fair that Tommy only got seventeen years on this earth.
"Dad, I love you."
He looks at me and wraps an arm around my shoulders. Taking a deep breath, he looks back down at Tommy's grave. "I love both of you," he says, and the tears I had been keeping at bay slowly spill over and run down my cheeks. "When I thought I was going to lose you, too," he starts, shaking his head. "I...I'm sorry. It was selfish what your mother and I did. I know you're not happy, Alex. You haven't been for a while."
"I'll meet you back home," he says, stepping away. My eyes narrow until I see Aidan standing next to my mother. When my dad reaches them, he holds his hand out to Aidan. My lips part in surprise as Aidan and my father shake hands. Aidan smiles and I forget to breath. My parents glance over to me, smile, and then walk away.
Aidan hesitates, watching me. When he takes his first step toward me, my breathing increases and I realize I may not be ready to hear what he has to say.
ten years ago…
I wave at Chelsea as the faded yellow school bus drives down the street. Tightening my winter jacket, I spin, looking for Tommy. The wind is cold and bitter. Snow crunches as I walk down the street.
"Tommy!" I call. I look behind one of the parked cars along the street. "Tommy! If you hit me with a snowball, I'll-"
Laughter echoes around the street. "He already has like ten snowballs."
I freeze when I see Aidan sitting on the cement ledge around the apartment stairs. He hops down and lands in front of me. Bending over, I scoop up snow and roll it in my hands. When I try to step past him, he moves to block me. I narrow my eyes.
"Why don't you like me?" he asks. Before I answer, a small snowball hits Aidan directly in his shoulder. When I hear Tommy's laughter, I smile as Aidan and I both scan the street. I wait for movement, but I don't see where he's hiding before another snowball is launched at us. Aidan grabs my hand and pulls me behind a car.
Laughing, Aidan makes a snowball and chucks it over the car. It hits the sidewalk a couple feet from where Tommy is hiding.
"Missed me," he calls before a snowball hits the steps behind me.
"So do you hate me cause our dad's don't like each other?" Aidan asks as he makes another snowball.
"I don't hate you," I say. What I don't say is how much I like him. He smiles and my stomach churns nervously.
"Come on," he says, taking my hand. Staying in a crouched position, Aidan leads me around cars, making our way closer to Tommy. We stop two cars from Tommy's hiding place. I watch Tommy in his dark red winter coat peek over the front of the car. He smirks before he throws another snowball across the street to where Aidan and I were hiding.
"Here," Aidan says, handing me a snowball. His fingers linger on mine as I take it from him. His smile turns confused, and I realize I'm still staring at him.
"Thanks," I say, looking away.
"Ally! Aidan! Come out. Come out. Wherever you are!" Tommy laughs, and it makes me smile.
"All right," Aidan says. "Let's charge him at the same time."
I nod and Aidan takes my hand. "One," I say, and he smirks.
"Two," he says, and we stand up. He tightens his hold on my hand, mouths 'three,' and then we run. When Tommy sees us, he laughs and screams. I throw my snowball and it lands two feet to the left of Tommy. Aidan throws his and it lands in front of Tommy. Tommy reaches the front our apartment, and Aidan and I freeze. He lifts his hand and smirks down at us.
"Don't you dare!" I say just as Tommy throws two snowballs at us. Aidan steps in front of me just as I try to duck. My foot slips on a patch of ice and Aidan catches my wrist, steadying me just as one of the snowballs hits him in the back.
"I got you," Aidan says. He places his other hand on my waist to steady me further. I hear the apartment building door click shut behind Tommy.
"Thanks," I say, and I know my cheeks are red.
He tilts his head and smirks. "Anytime, Al."
My eyes narrow at the nickname, and he laughs again, running his hand through his wet hair.
"No one calls me that," I say. I almost step away, but realize I don't want him to let go of me.
"Well," he says, moving his fingers from my wrist to my hand. "Now I do."
"Al," Aidan says, walking slowly over to me. The light breeze ruffles his grey t-shirt as I take a step away from Tommy's grave. He stops next to me and I have to look away. Staring at the hard grey stone of my brother's grave isn't any easier.
"What do you think Tommy would be doing if he was here?" I ask because while it hurts to talk about him, I'm more afraid to listen to what Aidan came here to say.
My parents asked him to leave and he did, but it doesn't change anything. It doesn't mean he loves me still and it doesn't change the fact that I believe if he had loved me enough he would have fought to stay.
When it starts to rain, Aidan takes my umbrella and holds it over our heads. I can feel him staring at me, but I still can't find the strength to look at him. "I think," Aidan says, "he would be making us laugh with one of his stupid jokes."
I laugh softly before it turns into a sniffle, and Aidan takes a step closer to me. I wipe my face with my hands and finally turn to face him. He has a small beautiful smile on his face. I try to fight the urge to touch his cheek but lose. He cups my hand to his cheek and stares down at me with warm, sad eyes.
"Your parents told me that you know the truth," he says, and his breath is warm on my hand. Between that and the cool rain splashing my feet, I shiver.
"They asked you to leave," I say, and he sighs. Aidan's known me my whole life, and when his eyes flicker from mine and back, I know he knows what I'm thinking. They asked him to leave. They didn't make him. He chose to leave me.
"Al," he says quietly, and this time I shiver for completely different reasons. "I'm sorry. I really am."
"You promised, Aidan. You said you would always be there."
His eyes widen and he looks hurt for one quick second before he looks away. Tears sting at mine. I can't believe this is happening. I can't believe I can't forgive him. I bite my lip and step closer to him.
He cuts me off. "I'd do the same thing all over again, Al. I'd leave because it's what you needed." My teeth slam together and tears bleed down my face. Aidan stares at me with a look that I can't understand, that I refuse to.
"Did you love me?" I ask angrily. His face tightens and he looks away. He makes an angry sound under his breath before leaning closer to me.
"Don't you know?" he says, voice strained. "I've always loved you, Al."
"But it wasn't enough," I say, and he shakes his head roughly. Dropping the umbrella, he grabs my shoulders between both his hands.
"It was," he says, "and that's the only reason I was able to leave."
"For me?" I scoff.
I shake my head stubbornly because I can't let myself believe that him leaving was for the best. There had to be a better way. Something. Anything that let us stay together. Maybe I'm being selfish. Maybe my pain at Aidan leaving had more to do with me than him. Maybe I didn't want to face my brother's death alone. I expected Aidan to be there for me, and when he wasn't, my brother's passing become all that more painful.
"It's okay," I say, and I open my eyes that I hadn't realized I'd closed. "I forgive you," I say because I still can't thank him for leaving. It doesn't feel right. "We can all move on from this now."
Turning away from Aidan, I stare down at the wet and dirty picture of my brother and me.
"Al," he says, and I shake my head.
His mouth snaps closed. We stay still for what feels like forever. My head and heart race as I try to figure out how I feel. My breath catches when Aidan touches Tommy's headstone and then turns to me. My eyes widen in fear and I have no idea what I'm frightened of. Losing Aidan again or never seeing him again? He wraps a hand around my waist and pulls me against him. When he leans in close to me with his lips hovering above mine, I almost forget to breathe.
"I love you," he says simply. "I'll always love you."
He waits what feels like forever and no time at all for me to say something. When I don't, he pulls away, kisses me on the forehead with his lips lingering there, and then he walks away. I watch him go as wave after wave of different emotions slam into my chest. A thousand different reasons tell me to stay where I am, but one simple, stupid reason makes my feet move. Clutching my cast to my chest, I run. I run towards Aidan and scream his name. He's already down the street just opening the door to his car.
When he looks up at me, I stop in my tracks. Rain pours down on me soaking my cast and I can't make myself care. He stands with his key in the door and I shrug. "I love you, too," I yell.
Aidan doesn't think about it like I did. He leaves his key in the car door and takes one step toward me. When I take a step toward him, he smiles. Then he runs. When he reaches me, he buries his head into the crease of my neck. .
Al," he breathes.
Aidan leans back and I can't remember a time when he looked so...peaceful. I wrap my arm around his neck and pull his face to mine. He kisses me hard and my lips part. I breathe him in and everything feels a little bit better. He kisses me again more softly and I hold him against me, almost afraid to let go. When we seperate, we're both smiling. "Promise me something?"
"Anything," he whispers.
"Never run from me again," I say quietly. He touches my chin and makes me look him in the eye.
"I promise," he says. My eyes narrow but I smirk at him.
"For some reason," I say, "I believe you." Aidan releases a breath he looks like he's been holding forever. Wrapping an arm around my waist, he leads me back to my brother's resting place. The rain slows to a drizzle and I lean my head on Aidan's shoulder.
"Happy Birthday, Tommy," I whisper.
It's been five years since the death of my brother and I still feel the loss of him each and every day. It hasn't lessened over time. It hasn't gotten easier. It'll always hurt because I'll always love him. Time doesn't heal, but time does make you appreciate what you had. The memories of my brother will help me get through my life without him, and Aidan will help me get through each day. I know now that I'm strong enough to survive without Aidan, but now, I know that with him, I'll be happy.
A/N: Hi! This was my first One Shot written for A Drop of Romeo's Star Crossed Round IX, for the prompt Running! Let me know what you think :)