Cass wanted to dig her nails into her palms, but fear of crushing the delicate stems of the flowers she carried stopped her. I’d do it if they had thorns, she told herself.
She approached a small stone in the corner of the cemetery, ignoring the larger one that stood beside it. Cass’s mother thought the shade of a nearby tree lent peacefulness to the spot, but Cass shivered. This was a cold, dead place no matter the season.
She stood, head down, the flowers almost forgotten as they dangled from her hand. “Hey, Joe. I’m sorry it’s taken me a little while to get here. I miss you, buddy. So much. I even miss the way I used to trip over your shoes you left out whenever I would walk in the door and the way you always ate the last pop tart and left the empty box in the pantry.” Cass leaned forward and knocked an errant leaf from the top of the stone. “I wish I would have been home that day. I’m so sorry, Joe. So sorry.”
“None of this is your fault, Cass.” Cass started. The voice she heard was deep and familiar, but that same recognition caused her heart to clench. But it was him. How, she didn’t know, but there was no denying the dark hair, the deep brown eyes, and the sheer bulk of her older brother, Jacob. She’d looked up to him for so long, always literally, and for a time, figuratively. Things were different now.
She dropped the flowers and shuffled backwards, attempting to put some distance between the two of them. “What is this? What’s going on?” Her eyes darted between Jacob and the guard station at the cemetery; she calculated how quickly she could reach safety.
Jacob raised his hands as if to explain, but then dropped them to his sides. He shrugged. “I don’t know, Cass. I really don’t. I didn’t know you’d actually hear me when I spoke.”
Cass wiped her hands down her face.“This is crazy. This isn’t real. This can’t be real, can it?
“Probably not. I’m not sure exactly. Things have been strange since. . .since I. . .”
“Since you died.” Cass could barely hear her own whisper.
“Right. Since that.”
“Since you put Josiah in the car while you were high out of your mind.” The steel in Cass’s voice cut through her apprehension.
“Yes.” Jacob dropped his head and nodded. “Yes, I did that.”
“I don’t need a confession, Jacob. Everybody knows what happened. But why am I seeing you right now?”
“I don’t know. All I know is. . .since that night. . .I’ve been here.”
“Here? In the cemetery?”
“Yes. I don’t know why. There’s a door over there, over behind the tombstones, but I. . .I can’t go through it. It’s locked. And no one has been able to see me or hear me until you came along. Believe me, I’ve done some pretty crazy stuff to try to get people’s attention.” Jacob paused and allowed himself a small smile. “I’ve also had some time to think--clearly--for the first time in a long time.” He dropped his gaze to the ground, and his eyes came to rest on the yellow blossoms that had fallen from his sister’s hand. “It was nice of you to bring flowers.”
Cass narrowed her eyes. “They’re not for you.” She sensed the redness she had always been so cognizant of creeping up her neck.
The words moved inside her, pushing their way up, and finally erupting. “Why, Jacob? Why couldn’t you just quit? Or why didn’t you say no when mom asked you to drive Joe?”
“I know. I know it sounds so easy. But, Cass, in the middle of it, it just seems impossible. It’s no secret I drank and smoked pot in high school. Just for fun. And I always thought I’d stop. My friends did whenever they decided to. Then later it became something that helped me deal. College had turned to crap. You know I was never a very strong student, anyway. The pressure kept piling on whenever I talked to Mom. I knew I was wasting her money. So finally there was a guy in the dorm who suggested I pay a visit to his friend. He supposedly had everything I would need to take a break from the pressure. This stuff was stronger than anything I’d ever tried, and it did exactly what he said it would do. At that point, I only had the briefest thoughts about stopping, but I knew I couldn’t. Something had grabbed me, and I couldn’t shake free.”
Cass leaned forward, encouraging Jacob to continue.
“It’s all I could think about--when I could get high again. That’s it. Nothing else. No one else. I found a new dealer as soon as I left college and got back home. So that’s why I stole your money, Cass.”
“I knew you took it.”
“At that time, I thought I needed it more than you. But Mom did talk to me.”
“She said you swore you didn’t take the money.”
“It wasn’t hard to convince her. I was so messed up, I could almost convince myself I didn’t take it.”
“She always thought if she said the right thing, you’d get back on track.”
Jacob sighed. “At the end of our conversation, she clapped her hands together like we were breaking from a huddle and both of us knew the play. She had no idea how far gone I already was.”
“Clearly not. Or else she would have never asked you to take Joe somewhere in a car. I wanted her to kick you out. That’s what I told her when she said you didn’t take the money. But even now she says she would have never made you leave. That she could have never lived with herself if she did. Now I can barely stand to live with her.”
“Cass, it’s not her fault. She was just being a mom. She didn’t understand addiction. Neither did I. It’s too hard to see when you’re in the middle of it. Do you really think I would have taken Joe anywhere that day if I had been myself? If I had been clean? If I had thought for a minute. . .”
Cass interrupted, allowing Jacob to take a deep breath and steady himself. She found she was genuinely concerned. “What’s going to happen to you? Surely you won’t stay here forever.”
“I wish I knew.”
Cass allowed the words that were pushing up from her heart to break free. “What can I do?”
“You’ve done so much just sitting here talking with me. Letting me try--in what I know is a terribly inefficient way--to explain some of my behavior. Thank you for that.”
Cass considered and found it felt right. “Do you want to stay here with me. . . while I finish talking to Joe?”
“I’d love to.”
“Joe, I’m going to try to visit more now. I think I can. I wanted to tell you, your baseball team won the tournament. And they sent your trophy to us, Joe. It’s beautiful. Blue and gold. You would love it. We put it in your room. Mom and I didn’t go to the game; it just would have been too much, to not see you out there. . . Your teacher also sent an award; you know how they give out something special to each kid at the end of the year.”
Cass took a folded piece of paper out of her back pocket and placed it beside the flowers. “You won the humor award. She sent a note along with it that explained how you always tried to help kids feel better by telling them jokes, even when they lost their recess time. You are so missed, Joe. So missed.” Cass dropped to her knees. “And I’m so sorry, Joe. I’m sorry I didn’t answer the phone. I let you down, and it’s all my fault. . .”
Jacob stepped forward. “What are you talking about Cass, about answering the phone?”
Cass couldn’t answer right away. She took a moment to swallow the heat in her throat that threatened to strangle her. It was the guilt, and it was rising. Tucking it back down each morning had grown to be too much of a challenge.
She forced the words out. “I was so angry after I talked with Mom about you. She wouldn’t listen and just wanted to act like everything would pass and get back to normal. Like I said, she thought she could just have that one magical, life-changing conversation with you.”
She glanced at Jacob, who nodded. “I started spending more time at Katie’s house, so I wouldn’t have to be at home as much. I guess I wanted to punish Mom a little for being so naive, even though I know that wasn’t really fair. I was at Katie’s on the day of the accident. My phone rang, and it showed up your number. I didn’t answer.
“I don’t remember calling you.” Jacob grimaced. “But I don’t remember a whole lot from that day.”
Cass dug her nails into her palms. “You didn’t. It wasn’t you, but I didn’t find that out until much later when I finally listened to the message.” Jacob moved forward to kneel beside Cass. “It was Joe, Jake. He wanted me to come home. I’ve been so angry with you; I’ve covered up my part in all this. I was being selfish and just thinking about me. I was mad at mom; I didn’t want to be around you. So I just disappeared for a while. If I had been there, Joe would have never gone with you; I wouldn’t have let him.”
Jacob closed his eyes and sighed. “Cass, nobody would ever blame you for not answering the phone when I called. Think about it--what had I wanted the last five times I had called you before that day?”
“Money. Always money.”
“Right, so why should you have answered the phone? You thought it would be the same conversation--your drug addict brother calling to ask for money. And as far as you knew, Mom had the night planned out. She was taking Joe, and I’m sure you had plans to be there also.”
Cass felt the ball of guilt grow a tad bit smaller. “I did. Katie’s mom was going to drop us off at the school.”
“So how can you be to blame at all, Cass?” Cass looked up and sought her older brother’s eyes.
Jacob continued, “You’re not. Let that go. It was me. I deserve to be stuck here in this nowhere, where I play the events over and over again in my mind.” He placed his hand on Cass’s back, ready to move it if she flinched in the slightest. “But I want you to know, Cass, because it might help you or somebody else one day, is that I never planned to be this way. I don’t think anyone ever says, ‘Hey, I’ll think I’ll be an addict and destroy my family.’ It’s no excuse, but it snuck up on me and anything like normal life evaporated.”
Cass sat back on her heels. “Thank you, Jake. I know you always had a good heart. You just lost your way.”
Jacob worked his hands worriedly. “I don’t expect it, but if you ever have a chance, if you can maybe tell Mom. I mean, not about all of this, but just that I. . .I didn’t mean to.”
“I will, Jake. I promise. And I’m going to try my best to forgive you.”
The sound of a door opening caught both of their attention, and they looked at each other.
Cass smiled. “Go look, Jake! Maybe it’s the door you saw earlier!”
Jake ran behind the stone, appearing again after only a beat.
He ran to Cass and took her hands. “It is, Cass! It’s open!” He squeezed her hands, still unsure whether she would welcome an embrace. “I think I have to go.”
Cass nodded. “I think you do. Jake, if you happen to see Joe, tell him. . . “
Jacob crossed his heart, an old familiar gesture that brought back their childhood. “I will, Cass. You know I will.” He turned to go.
She couldn’t leave it unsaid. Their time was up. “Jake! I’ll do my best to make sure everyone remembers the good!
She saw Jake stop, turn, and wave before he continued toward the door.
Cass wiped her eyes and turned to gather the flowers she had dropped earlier. She studied them before beginning to separate the bunch into two smaller bouquets.
“I’ll see you soon, Joe.” She placed the first group of flowers on Joe’s grave.
Cass took the second group of flowers and laid it on Jacob’s grave. At the same moment, she heard a door close, and a smile crossed her lips.
“You too, Jake.”