Jade sat in the tall oak tree, the moonlight cascading through the foliage, breaking into tiny diamonds that filled the forest. It was silent except for the girl’s quiet humming. Her long curls fell across her face as she watched over the woods and above the dark silhouettes of trees and vines that engulfed them.
She was high up. Higher than she normally dared to venture, especially in the dark. But she couldn’t care less as she hummed and waited for him.
He came to her like the autumn breeze, softly and quietly.
Without even having to look, she knew he was sitting beside her with a soft smile on his face.
“Hey Jay”, he greeted gently, “How’s everything been?”
Her heart clenched at the sound of her nickname, one he’d given Jade after finding her perched at the top of the willow tree outside their childhood home when they were little.
“Decent. Mom’s been cookin’ non-stop for a charity function for the college. She says that it's good for the soul, and is willing to attack anyone who says otherwise.”
Her brother chuckles warmly. “Can’t argue with Mama. But I was asking about you, Jay. How have you been holding up?”
Jade shrugged. “I miss you. We both do, Ethan. I’ve wanted to tell her for so long that I can still see you, talk to you. She deserves to know.”
Jade looked over to her twin brother, taking in his slim frame, dark curls, and careful brown eyes.
“You know you can’t do that. She’s finally beginning to move on, and it ain’t right for a son to cause his parents harm. I’ve done enough harm already, especially concernin' you.”
Jade smiled wryly. “We’ve been over this, Ethan. There’s nothin’ wrong with me talkin’ to my brother.”
“When your brother died a year ago in a car crash, there is. Jay please...I can’t keep coming back here.”
Jade’s jaw clenched as she took in the slight blue hue to her brother’s tanned skin, the subtle reminder that she couldn’t simply drag him home with her.
She absentmindedly scratched at one of the dozen scars on her arm.
“There ain’t any discussion here, Ethan. You promised me.”
Ethan sighed, “I promised that I wouldn’t leave. And I won’t leave, not really. But it’s been a year, one whole year of putting your life on hold.”
Jade stubbornly shook her head. “Meeting every once in a while doesn’t put my life on hold.”
At that her brother swung off the branch, nimbly jumping onto another one below her so he was face-level.
“Really? Walking out in the middle of the night almost every day to meet a ghost and talk until the sunrise doesn’t take a toll on you? Come on, Jay. I’m dead, not blind. Rhea is your best friend, yet you haven’t reached out to her in months. You’ve got nasty circles under your eyes, and you can barely keep yourself upright. You’re not going to graduate college if you keep this up.”
Jade couldn’t help but snap, “So what? I love you, you idiot. Am I just supposed to walk away and leave you behind?”
Her twin just shrugged. “Jay...you were supposed to do that months ago.”
Tears of frustration pricked her eyes as she spit out, “No, you don’t get to do that! I swore that I wouldn’t ever leave you when we were upside down in a car in the middle of a damn highway. I told you that against all odds, I wouldn’t leave you. You promised the same, Ethan. So don’t you dare say anythin' different.”
Her tears were freely flowing now, and at the sight, her brother quieted. Jade gratefully placed her hand over his, cool underneath her touch.
Amidst the magic of nighttime wilderness, the two silently sat together in their favorite oak tree until the sun arose and painted the forest red.
For a year, Jade travelled from their meeting spot to home before four thirty in the morning with no trouble as Mom had always been a deep sleeper. So it was a surprise when Jade found her sleeping on the doorstep of their ramshackle home, holding a blanket around her slim frame. Jade gently shook her shoulder.
“Hey Mama. You alright?”
She groggily opened her eyes. “Oh, I must’ve fell asleep again.”
Jade held her hand out, helping Mom up. “What you doin’ out so early, anyway?”
The woman offered a gentle smile. “My job. Someone’s gotta make sure you come home every night. You think I haven’t noticed my own daughter sneakin’ out of the house from midnight to sunrise? Trust me, you ain’t as sly as you think.”
At Jade’s bewildered face, Mom clarified. “I’ve known for a long time now, Jade. I even followed you to that tree of yours a few times, saw you on one of the branches simply hummin’. ”
Jade flinched. “I’m sorry, it just helps with...”
“You don’t need to explain, darlin’. I figure you’re old enough to grieve the way you want to. I just hope you know that when you’re ready to talk, I’ll be here.”
Jade sighed, tension dropping from her shoulders. “Thank you.”
Mom pressed a soft kiss onto her forehead. “Just doin’ my job, sweetheart. Come inside, let’s get some food in your belly before school.”
It was a quiet morning, the birds silent amidst a fiery sunrise, when Jade finally took Mom up on her offer. She’d just come back in tears from another long fight with her brother, who’d become increasingly distant as the weeks passed by. When Jade’s mother had found her, she was curled up on the front porch, head pounding. Mom had simply taken her hand and lead her inside for breakfast. It had become a ritual the past few weeks, Jade coming home later and later, Mom finding her staring aimlessly at the sky, and then simply offering food and comfort without question. But this time, as Jade picked at her bacon and sunny-side up, she decided it was time.
“Mom, could I talk to you?”
It was an innocent question, but it had Jade’s heart racing, her adrenaline rushing as Mom calmly made her way to the table.
“Of course, Jade. If you’re ready.”
Jade took a deep breath, struggling to find the words. “This will sound crazy, but just hear me out. It started as a...feeling, like someone was there, but I didn’t believe it until I saw Ethan in front of me. Soon, I was able to talk to him, touch him as that feeling began to shift into somethin’ more powerful.”
Jade paused, because instead of the surprise, incredulity, or even relief she was expecting, there was only pity on her mother’s face.
“So when I saw you in that tree, singing...”
Jade nodded, “Yeah, I was probably singing for him. He loves to listen.”
Mom sighed heavily. “Darlin’...”
“It’s him, Mom, with the same dark hair and stupid smile. The difference is that I’m the only one who can see or touch him, and even then only for a few hours a day. Look, I know what this sounds like, especially since you can’t see him with your own eyes, but I swear it’s Ethan. You have to believe me.”
Mom nodded slowly. “I believe that you believe he’s here, Jade. But it’s not impossible for grievin’ folk to cope by hallucinatin’, especially when they’ve been through trauma. I mean, this is what? Your brother’s ghost?”
Jade’s fingers tapped nervously on the tabletop. “In a way, yes. I’m not sure when it manifested or why, but I have a capability that allows me to see and communicate with him.”
Her brows furrowing in thought, Mom questioned, “But why only him? And how can you touch him unless his physical body’s here? Jade, have you even considered that this may just be a distraction? Somethin’ to keep you from havin' to grieve?”
Jade huffed, frustrated. “No I haven’t, because he's real. My mind couldn’t have kept up such an elaborate ruse for this long. I’ve been seeing him for almost a year!”
Mom’s face turned grave. “You’ve been seein' your brother’s ghost for a year?”
She bristled at her mother’s cautious tone. “He’s your son. I know how this sounds, but why can’t you even consider that he’s still with us?”
“I want to darlin’, but I’ve seen this illness in action. My grandma had hallucinations like yours...so real it had her out wanderin’ in the dark for hours. She’d said that she could see monsters as clear as day, and because she refused help, those imaginary dangers soon brought her real harm.”
Jade sighed, rubbing at her temples. “I’m truly sorry that happened, but it’s not the same. I can touch Ethan, communicate with him. He’s real, Mom.”
Panic began to seep in, the snake of doubt slithering into her heart as Jade awaited her response.
Mom seemed to sense it, her hand coming to rest on Jade’s.
“All I ask is that next time you go visit him, keep what I’ve said in mind."
She wanted to refuse, to not let the doubt that she’d pushed back for so long surface. But she knew that before she could convince Mom to believe her, she needed to be sure herself.
Mom smiled sadly. “I loved him too, Jade. So, so much. I spent months bed-ridden, blamin' myself for what happened. If only I hadn’t let you both go out so late, or stay that long...but I soon realized that my boy wouldn’t want his family to waste their away because of regret. He’d want us to enjoy this precious life while we have it, because everythin' can change in an instant.”
Jade flinched, remembering Rhea’s party. How perfect everything had been.
A gentle breeze travelled through her hair as they’d drove with open windows, both singing terribly to the radio. They talked about the dude who’d cannonballed from the roof into the pool, and laughed about the promise of murder on Rhea’s face afterwards.
Jade was just about to crack a joke about how crazy the other seniors were before a car pulled up fast next to them. It was one of the guys who’d brought alcohol to the party, who’d tried to flirt with her at the party before her brother had intervened.
He was even more drunk than before, yelling something to her as she drove. Ethan tried to tell him to slow down, to pull over. But the dumbass kept screaming about a necklace, not paying attention to the road ahead.
“Pull over, damn it! What the hell ‘re you doin’?”, Ethan yelled back.
Jade began to slow the car in hopes of other boy doing the same. Instead he leaned in, his car brushing dangerously close to theirs. A shock of adrenaline shot through her and she instinctively pressed on the accelerator, swerving roughly to the right. Ethan’s eyes grew wide as he watched the road intersection rush towards them.
“Jay, watch out!”
She saw the truck a second too late.
Jade cursed herself for choosing such a remote place to meet Ethan. It was almost a mile away, deep in the woodlands behind her home. Patience dwindling, Jade scowled at an overgrown root that’d tripped her for the third time tonight. Jade craved her warm bed, craved sleeping for days, but she pushed forward. Her brother came first.
At least, Jade thought as she finally reached her destination, the scenery’s so damn pretty.
Their tree stood alone on the top of a small hill, vines hanging from its thick branches like adornments turned silver by the moonlight, vivid red leaves dancing in the wind. Oaks surrounded it-acting as protection from prying eyes-but stood just far away enough for a ring of light to separate their tree from the rest. The sky was like a soft black blanket embezzled with rhinestones, covering the world and allowing it to rest. Jade shook her head, amused. Was she really so tired that she thought of the sky as a blanket?
As she approached their tree, she called out to her brother. She expected him appear next to her, a soft smile on his face and a warm greeting on his tongue. Nothing happened.
“Ethan?”, she tried again.
Jade thought she saw a flicker out of the corner of her eye, but there was nothing there when she turned.
“Come on, this ain’t funny. I’m way too tired right now.”
She turned back to the tree, letting out a string of curses that would’ve made Mama wash her mouth out with soap when she came face to face with her brother.
“You scared the hell outta me, dumbass! What’s wrong with you?”
Ethan just stared at her, his normally chocolate irises as black as the sky. Jade’s annoyance quickly morphed into concern.
“Hey, is everythin’ alright?”
He still didn’t answer, his lips tightly pursed. The usual blue tint to his body was darker, contrasting with his unusually pale skin. She took in his trembling hands, his empty eyes, and deep sense of unease overcame her.
“Please talk to me, Ethan.”
Jade reached for his hand, seeking the warmth she’d always gotten from him, but her hand met nothing but air. Heart pounding, she tried again.
“No...”, she murmured as her hand passed through his like it wasn’t even there.
Her fingers trembled as she reached for his hand. A bloody gash on his forehead painted his hair red. His eyes were closed as he hung upside down, held up only by his seatbelt.
“Ethan, wake up. Wake up! Oh god, Ethan please...”
Jade looked up at her brother, who’s face had morphed from emotionless to a hundred emotions all at once. Pain, sadness...guilt? Jade's voice was nothing more than a whisper. “Ethan?”
Her heart clenched when he gave her the same look he’d given her then.
A small groan caught her attention, relief pooling in her chest as she saw her brother open his eyes. “Ethan! Come on, stay with me!”
The confusion wore off quickly, his expression turning grave as he took in the dire situation. He met her eyes, and what she saw made her relief fade as quickly as it had come. There was sadness written all over his red-stained face, but there was also acceptance. Understanding. He knew he was going to die, and he wasn’t going to fight it. The realization terrified her just enough to stay awake. “Ethan, I need you to promise that you’ll hold on. Please...”
“Don’t leave, Ethan. Don’t do this to me again.” Jade’s vision became blurry as tears started tracking down her cheeks, the realization that her brother, the one she’d loved most in the world, was gone. Had been gone for months.
The weight of that revelation brought her to her knees. Her twin knelt beside her, his lips silently forming the words...
“I’ll always be with you, Jay. I promise.”
Her heart shattered as his skin began to dissolve into luminescent blue pixels that intermingled with the fiery colors of fall and flew into the sky like dust in wind.
The last she ever saw of her brother was his smile.
He’d always been different.
He could sense things, see things, no one else did.
At first it was just a strange flicker of light or a bad feeling, but his ability became stronger over time. Soon he was able to see ghosts, even hear them if he focused hard enough.
The power somehow stayed with him after he died, becoming more of a blessing in death than it ever did in life.
As a ghost, Ethan was able to connect to the waking world through touch. He’d figured it out after the accident when he had been sitting on the curb, watching the paramedics take his body, his sister, and the drunk senior away. Jade’s silver necklace had been sitting in the wreckage; the other boy had been trying to return it after she’d dropped it at the party.
His sister’s favorite necklace had grounded him just enough to let him pick it up. He soon learned that he could touch objects or people of meaning to him. He cherished the feel of the chain across his fingers before carefully placing the gift under his sister’s bed. Ethan watched as Jade came in, dressed in her college graduation gown, a genuine smile adorning her face. She grabbed her phone from her nightstand, pausing for a moment to look straight at him. Jade didn’t move, her eyebrows furrowing for a moment. But someone called her from downstairs, and the easy smile returned as she shook her head.
All she’d seen was empty air.
He didn’t like hiding from her. But he had stayed by her side that night, hidden, because that’s what she’d needed. To scream, cry, grieve, and then move on. For a long time he’d clung to her, the person he loved most, letting her see and hold him.
But there was a reason why Ethan didn’t reach out to his mother, why he didn’t tell his sister that he was the one who could cross in between the living and the dead. He knew he’d have to say goodbye in order for them to live the lives they deserved.
Ethan glanced down at his trembling hand, watching it phase it and out of existence. His power had been dwindling for months after the night he’d let Jade go, each touch a exertion. There would inevitably be a time when his strength would fail him, when he’d fade away completely. He’d made peace with that.
But until then, Ethan would stay, watching over his family for as long as he could.
He was never one to break a promise.